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Goodbye to Going It Alone

A key lesson that the next American president will take away from the experiences of the Bush administration is certain to be that multilateralism matters. Notions of American hegemony and unilateral responses make little sense when most of the serious challenges that countries face today – problems like climate change, pandemics, financial stability, and terrorism – fall outside the control of even the largest countries. All of them require multilateral cooperation.

The United Nations can play an important role in helping to legitimize and implement agreements among countries, but even its closest friends admit that its large size, rigid regional blocs, formal diplomatic procedures, and cumbersome bureaucracy often impede consensus As one sage put it, the problem for multilateral organizations is “how to get everyone into the act and still get action.”

One answer is to supplement the UN by creating informal consultative organizations at the regional and global level. For example, during the financial crises that followed the oil shocks of the 1970’s, the French government hosted the leaders of five leading economies to discuss and coordinate policies. The idea was to keep the meeting small and informal by limiting it to a number that could fit into the library of the chateau at Rambouillet.

But keeping the group small proved impossible. It was soon grew to a “G-7” of advanced industrial economies. Later, Russia was added to make it the “G-8.” More recently, the annual G-8 summit has invited five other countries to attend as observers, creating a de facto G-13.