For sustainable peace, nations must uphold the principles of multilateral diplomacy
The two world wars fought in the last century highlighted the necessity of multilateral diplomacy and international cooperation. While it takes two countries to adhere to the codes of bilateral diplomacy, the multilateral form requires three or more. The 20th century saw the establishment of a number of international organizations, including the UN, the Arab League, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Their common objective was to strengthen efforts for global peace and security and increase cooperation to achieve prosperity. The UN, which stood at the apex of international organizations, was tasked with the paramount objective of resolving conflicts around the globe.
The advent of the First World War resulted in a number of secret understandings and alliances between European nations. There was an urgent need for transparent diplomatic relations in order to preserve international peace. Former US President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points — highlighted during his 1918 address for peace negotiations in order to end the war — included his famous call for “open covenants of peace openly arrived at,” which required all international alliances and interventions for peace to be preceded by thorough discussions and a broad consensus.
However, this pristine principle of transparency and consensus was later violated by the very powers that had introduced it. The 2003 intervention in Iraq was pushed by the US and the UK despite opposition by France, Russia and China over the fake allegations that the country housed weapons of mass destruction and that its leader, Saddam Hussein, had contacts with militant group Al-Qaeda.
For eons, trade between nations has been an instrument of peace and prosperity. Economic diplomacy is today an even more vital part of any nation’s foreign policy objectives. In the wake of the Second World War, institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were established to promote development and help nations deal with their balance of payment issues. The General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) was signed by several nations in 1947, with a permanent body, namely the World Trade Organization (WTO), established in 1995 with its headquarters in Geneva.
The WTO is responsible for setting the rules for international trade, promoting commerce by eliminating tariff and non-tariff barriers, and resolving trade disputes. US President Donald Trump’s unilateral decisions to increase trade barriers with China, Mexico and the EU will, therefore, have a negative impact on international trade.
Nations are now averse to ceding sovereignty, even if partially, in order to achieve a higher goal of multilateral cooperation and integration.
Additionally, the Paris Agreement on climate change was signed in 2015 and ratified by the UN in 2016. The US administration headed by former President Barack Obama was part of this process. A key objective of this agreement is to stop global temperatures from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius beyond pre-industrial levels. This necessitated basic modifications in energy production, which included lower use of coal and the gradual phasing out of oil-energized vehicles. In 2017, Trump said that his government would withdraw from the agreement, fulfilling one of his campaign pledges. The announcement proved to be a major setback for the agreement, which was signed by 184 countries.
That aside, nationalism is on the rise globally, too — a phenomenon that is evident from the increasing number of people voting for xenophobic parties in Europe. Barriers for all kinds of immigration are increasing as well. Nations are now averse to ceding sovereignty, even if partially, in order to achieve a higher goal of multilateral cooperation and integration. This was crystal clear when a majority of UK citizens voted to walk out of the EU in 2016. In the recent anti-government demonstrations in France, mobs chanted that they “want Trump.” They could be possible representatives of the xenophobic, ultra-right lot that holds refugees responsible for the country’s economic woes. When nations start looking inwards, multilateral diplomacy recedes.
It is ironic that multilateral diplomacy and multi-pronged global cooperation are the need of the hour. Climate change does not recognize borders and can only be tackled effectively by taking collective, international action. Similarly, cross-border water management — in order to avoid the menace of floods — requires international cooperation. A devastating earthquake in one country may necessitate relief efforts by neighboring nations as well. Global economic recession needs a global response, too, as it cannot be tackled by one nation alone.
A major reason for international disillusionment with multilateral diplomacy is due to the UN’s failure to resolve the old and very important issues in Palestine and Kashmir. In fact, the latter has now turned into a nuclear flashpoint. These two problems have been on the UN’s agenda for seven decades now. A general assessment is that, apart from the deployment of international peacekeeping troops, the UN has very little to show in its defense in terms of trying to end the conflicts. I would, however, hasten to add that the UN’s achievements in the fields of economic development and humanitarian assistance, particularly for refugees, are tangible. Moreover, despite limited success, it has tried to resolve conflicts in Syria and Yemen, too.
In a globalized world that is laced with lethal weapons, prospects of international peace and prosperity, as well as those of destruction, exist side-by-side. We have to opt for peace and prosperity as the only rational choice. To achieve that goal, multilateral diplomacy must be promoted again with full vigor.
• Javed Hafeez is a former Pakistani diplomat with much experience of the Middle East. He writes weekly columns in Pakistani and Gulf newspapers and appears regularly on satellite TV channels as a defense and political analyst. Twitter: @hafiz_javed