Multilateralism at its dead end? The forthcoming geopolitical chessboard and the necessity for the revival of diplomacy

International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES)[1] from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses developments in the Middle East, Balkans and also around the world. Martin Kreutner is spiritus rector and Dean Emeritus of the International Anti-Corruption Academy (IACA) as well as former Executive Secretary of its Assembly of Parties. In his comprehensive analysis entitled “Multilateralism at its dead end? The forthcoming geopolitical chessboard and the necessity for the revival of diplomacy[2]” he is analysing the global crisis of multilateralism.

● Martin Kreutner

Multilateralism at its dead end?

The forthcoming geopolitical chessboard

and the necessity for the revival of diplomacy


Foreseeable crises 

It was around ten years back, when more and more experts started sharing and discussing the argument that we are heading towards a global crisis of international cooperation, of dialogue, of collective action and responsibility, of confidence and trust; a global crisis of multilateralism. Sadly enough, this analysis and assessment has been confirmed by now. There is almost universal consensus that we are in a period of high geopolitical tensions, multiple insecurities, in a shift, often reversal of former global paradigms, and a perceived paralysis of previous conflict prevention and conflict resolution mechanisms. German Chancellor Scholz, in his ear-catching speech of 27 February 2022, called it a Zeitenwende, a turning point in history triggered by a war in Europe - war, a grossly illegal means of politics, which was - expressis verbis - presumed “unthinkable” in Europe. A large number of Western political leaders and media commentators echoed that assessment and the “unthinkability of war” in Europe.

The contention of a factual Zeitenwende will matter-of-factly go unchallenged. The assumed exclusivity of a pax aeterna in Europe, however, might rather mirror a certain degree of self-deception, complacency, and hubris than serious engagement with long-standing geopolitical contingencies and global realities - the more so from non-European or non-Western perspectives. It is hard to imagine that families in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Mali, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, or former Yugoslavia - to name just a few - would subscribe to the notion of “war unthinkable” and to the exclusive nature of current consequences.

Various Zeitenwenden

The present international architecture is the result of a number of Zeitenwenden. Modern story usually sets the starting point at the Order of Westphalia (1648), enshrining already such central postulates as state sovereignty, legal equality of states, non-intervention, and inter-state diplomacy. Further marking points in time were the publishing of Emmanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” (1795) as an idealistic philosophical piece for conflict prevention; the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) establishing the post-Napoleonic architecture; and US president Woodrow Wilson’s address to Congress in 1918, presenting his famed 14 points, intended as guidelines for shaping the post-World War I order. What was supposed to serve as a building block for a durable peace order ultimately saw a period later labelled by Henry Kissinger as the "Thirty Years War of the 20th century". 

The conferences of Moscow, Tehran (both 1943), Yalta, and Potsdam (both 1945) led, as one of their main outcomes at the end of the WWII, to the founding of the United Nations (organization) by 24 October 1945. The overall result(s) of these events are broadly acknowledged as “point zero” of the present international order, its multilateral international system, and their underlying norms and principles.

In the European arena, the Helsinki process, a series of events that followed the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) in 1972, a process that was initiated by Soviet leaders in the era of détente, culminated in the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975. Seeking to reduce tension between the Soviet Union and Western bloc(s), the Helsinki process-initiated discussions on human rights and fundamental freedoms. It was also called to enhance economic, scientific, and humanitarian cooperation between East and West and was later - by the Charta of Paris 1990 and the Budapest Summit of 1994 - “upgraded” into the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and the dissolution of the former Soviet Union in December of 1991 not only allowed for the aforementioned fostering of regional (CSCE/OSCE) cooperation and brought a final end to the global Cold War (rather than of history per se, as some had, enthusiastically yet prematurely, proclaimed) but also saw the de facto transformation of international relations towards a unipolar world.

Poor(er) countries affected the most

February 2022, the said latest Zeitenwende. A Head of Mission at the United Nations in New York recently described the current situation at that important international forum as follows: there is the Western bloc, the “other bloc”, and the countries of the Southern hemisphere, the latter of which - once again - find themselves in the role of presumably mere bystanders.

Even though this observation may prima vista sound simplistic, it holds a strikingly clear relevance that is not to be ignored. It is especially the least developed and the developing countries that suffer foremost from, inter alia, skyrocketing energy, grain, and food prices, soaring inflation, interrupted supply chains, the collapse of transnational trade and global markets, and an increasingly unmanageable spider's web of sanctions and power-politically motivated regulatory transgressions - in fact, unilateral coercive measures which only recently the UN Human Rights Council stressed as being “contrary to international law, international humanitarian law, international human rights law, the Charter [of the United Nations] and the norms and principles governing peaceful relations among States” (A/HRC/52/L.18) - as well as likewise interruptions of the international financial and (central) banking system. What is more, accompanied by a proliferating bellicose general rhetoric from various sides, the latter states feel an ever-increasing pressure to join one of the first two political camps as – what they apparently perceive as déjà-vu - vassal allies.

Principles and dicta being replaced

On a similar note, they also witness, with varying degrees of consternation and alarm, that former dicta such as globalization and `trust through trade´ now seem to have been replaced by the opposite, by `decoupling´ and `reshoring´; they see new arms race of sheer proportions; they no longer perceive Europe as an independent, mediating stakeholder, but rather, from that external perspective, they observe the concepts of membership to the European Union vs. membership to NATO becoming increasingly blurred. Within Europe, they witness a shift in the centre of gravity away from Berlin and Paris towards the more Eastern member states (MS), in particular towards Warsaw (and the Baltic states) as well as a Brussel ad-hoc-oscillating in between and beyond; last but by far not least, they feel puzzled and perplexed by authentic and public `garden-jungle´ metaphors of high-level diplomatic representatives. 

But the times are no longer those of “point zero”. While India was still a British colony back then, today it is not only the most populous country in the world (along with China), but also the most populous democracy. To illustrate such developments and changes, we may recall what Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said as recently as June 2022 on the occasion of the Globsec Conference in Budapest: “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe‘s problems are the world‘s problems, but the world‘s problems are not Europe‘s problems“; and on the question which of the two camps (“axes”) India intends to join: “This is exactly where I disagree. This is the construct you’re trying to impose on me. And I don’t accept it. I don’t think it is necessary for me to join this axis or not, and if I’m not joining this, I must be with the other one. I don’t accept that. I am one fifth of the world’s population, I am today the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world. [So,] I think I’m entitled to have my own side, I’m entitled to weigh my own interests, make my own choices, […] and my choices will be a balance of my values and my interests.” Such statements, I guess, would come with similar wording these days and pro futuro from many countries, e.g., Brazil, South Africa, Egypt, and Indonesia, to name just a few.

All dimensions – but one

In parallel, the global community is ever more stunned and increasingly upset by the fact that this conflict in Europe is being fought and dealt with on all dimensions – but one. While the military dimension (weapons, escalation, etc.), the economic one (unilateral coercive measures such as unprecedented sanctions packages, etc.), the information sphere (censorship, propaganda, banning of media, etc.), and the cyber component (cyber-war, etc.) are significantly gaining dangerous momentum; while in many debates a simple and exclusive dichotomy of victory vs. defeat prevails, one dimension stays persistently (too) silent: multilateral diplomacy and international conflict resolution.

Undoubtedly, the cornerstone of peace and collective security is the general prohibition of the threat or use of force. In line with the UN Charter, force is only permitted in the case of self-defence or after authorization by the UN Security Council (UNSC). As history has shown, however, this prohibition only works in selected cases, not the least because there is a gap of sanctioning possibilities in many instances. Neither the United States nor China or the Russian Federation have ratified the Rome-Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC); some even openly oppose the Court’s legality and authority and have adopted national laws criminalizing any cooperation with the ICC.

What is more, the privileged status of those states - along with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council (Permanent-5) - as nuclear powers are enshrined in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). A nuclear power that has a veto right in the Security Council and does not submit to any international court cannot be held legally accountable in praxi. This brings us, nolens volens, to the legal `concept of prerogative (power)´ which can be understood as the power to act at one's own discretion without legal authorization and, if decided so, also against general norms - and not to be sanctioned in the process (© M. Kumm et al.). When today there is growing debate on a shift from a unipolar to a multipolar world order, it is essentially also about a presumed pursuit by the Russian Federation and China - ostensibly in executing reciprocity - to exercise prerogative power themselves. While the members of the UN Security Council, in particular the Permanent-5, are called by the UN Charter and the entire UN constituency to act as de facto custodians of that very Treaty, it is historically evident that (most of) the Permanent-5 are among the most frequent and severe violators of the Charter.

The way forward & responsibilities

All this is hardly a good starting point for a revival of multilateralism and (cooperative) diplomacy. So, what would be ways to get there? First, the principle of equality of nations needs to be reinstated and, conversely, concepts of national exceptionalism, cultural supremacy, natural hegemony, and unilateral full spectrum dominance be abandoned once and for all. So are all undertakings that may cause, rightly or wrongly, impressions of applying different or double standards, or of moral hypocrisy.

Second, with the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is a globally accepted basic acquis, a common denominator and solid foundation of global order (in parts, on the level of customary international law). It is therefore difficult to understand why its judicial instruments (i.e., the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, resp.) should not be applicable to all UN Member States (and beyond), and be it, ultimately, via a plausible debate over the applicability of customary international law.

Third, UN Security Council reform, whose history dates back (at least) thirty years, needs to be enhanced and carried in particular by the non-Permant-5 Member States. Such reform shall, inter alia, focus on significantly increasing the political costs of exercising the veto card. Liechtenstein's recent initiative of April 2022 indicates a promising avenue thereto.

Ultimately, the international institutions and, in particular, the UN Secretariat, cannot be spared the question of what they actively contribute to conflict prevention and conflict resolution. The UN Charter does not contain a prohibition but rather an imminent, implied invitation for the UN Secretary-General to proactively engage in conflict prevention and conflict resolution. As a consequence, subsequent rhetoric and lamentation that the world is in big trouble would not suffice for the fulfilment of Charters and job descriptions. Former UN Secretary-General Sithu U Thant was most instrumental in resolving the Cuba crisis in 1962. Historians will determine to what extent this also applies to today's international organizations and their organs in today’s crises.

It is very unlikely that renewed transnational trust and a new international order will be implemented peacefully from scratch. This makes it all the more important to breathe new life into the existing mechanisms and, in parallel, allow for conflict resolution by enhanced diplomacy, fully recognizing that it may require the “powerful drilling through hard boards”. Europe, and Austria as a well reputed host country, could play a vital role therein, provided there are willingness to engage and a revived “Viennese spirit” in omnilateral discourse and transnational debate. By the end of the day, alternatives to comprehensive and vivid multilateralism are rare if we do not want to end up in Thomas Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes again.

About the author:

Martin Kreutner is spiritus rector and Dean Emeritus of the International Anti-Corruption Academy (IACA) as well as former Executive Secretary of its Assembly of Parties. He advises, inter alia, the UN, the Council of Europe, the EU, the OSCE, the World Bank; and was President of the CoE/EU network European Partners Against Corruption (EPAC/EACN). In total, he spent five years with different international UN field missions. He holds a law degree (University of Innsbruck, AUT) and a Master’s degree in Policing and Public Order Studies (University of Leicester, UK), and contributes to LEXXTON (SUI) as of counsel for (corporate) diplomacy, compliance, and international affairs. Mr. Kreutner was recognized twice by Ethisphere (USA) as one of 100 Most Influential People in Business Ethics for his efforts to improve human welfare through his work with the UN and other global organizations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect IFIMES official position.

Ljubljana/Vienna, 25 April 2023

[1] IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has Special Consultative status at ECOSOC/UN, New York, since 2018. and it’s publisher of the international scientific journal “European Perspectives”.

[2] A shorter version of this opinion piece was first published as Le Monde Commentary by the Vienna-based quarterly Cercle Diplomatique 01-2023