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Foreign Policy

Competing Views of Multilateralism

May 28, 2021
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

Since Joe Biden entered the White House, the diplomacy of the United States has returned to multilateralism from the unilateral stumbles of Donald Trump. Considering China’s high-profile emphasis on the importance of multilateralism, its relations with the U.S. should have seen increasing cooperation on that track. But that has not been the case, in part because of the two governments’ divergent understandings of what multilateralism means.

Chinese and Russian foreign ministers issued their Joint Statement on Certain Issues in Present-Day Global Governance on March 23, pledging to adhere to “the multilateralist principle of openness, equity and non-ideology.” Beijing believes the U.S. is forming small coteries, rather than practicing real multilateralism, and only inclusiveness can guarantee fairness and justice.

The Biden administration is pushing a multilateralism based on shared ideals, paths, like-mindedness, alliances and partnerships. To the United States, only homogeneous countries can ensure the quality and efficiency of multilateralism. The difference in the Chinese and U.S. understandings of multilateralism goes beyond a mere diplomatic practice; it also raises significant theoretical issues.

First, facing great change with the collective rise of emerging economies, the knowledge of multilateralism that originated in the West has appeared increasingly inadequate to explain current realities. The corresponding theories need updating. The postwar successes of the U.S. in multilateralism, from the IMF to GATT to the G7, have all involved multilateral cooperation between homogeneous countries. Although the U.S. led the founding of the United Nations, it has obviously relied more on such multilateral security frameworks as NATO, which features homogeneous countries. Therefore current theories on the efficacy of multilateralism are based on the premise of cooperation by homogeneous countries. During the Cold War, a rapidly rising Japan was once criticized as a heterogeneous country. After its economic bubble burst, Japan was seen as having been assimilated under the G7 framework. Since the beginning of the 21st century, however, the swift rise of such emerging countries as China and India has posed significant challenges for the capacity of homogeneous countries to assimilate multilateralism, which is one reason we hear constant complaints about the international order having been compromised.

Second, the problem with the present cognitive framework of multilateralism based on homogeneous nations lies in its simplistic approach of classifying countries into status quo and revisionist categories. This perception proceeds from the idea that the potential conflicts in international relations derive from the contradiction that dominant nations want to preserve the existing international order, while rising nations want to revise and change it. From the perspective of dominant nations, the solution to the contradiction is to find ways to make rising nations homogeneous, reducing their heterogeneousness to make them more like the dominant nations. In this way, multilateral cooperation would have better quality and efficiency, the present international order would be more stable and the world would achieve peace and prosperity.

The trouble is that differences are universal in a diverse world, and the pursuit of absolute homogeneity may easily lead to conflicts. There were plenty of historical examples of rising nations being taken as heretics. Britain considered a rising Germany as a heterogeneous country in the 19th century. The post-Meiji Restoration Japan was a primary victim of “yellow peril” theories in the beginning of the 20th century. The preset black-or-white cognitive framework of multilateralism that divides countries into order-preserving and revisionist categories is evidently out of sync with today’s collective rise of a great number of emerging economies.

Third, the process of homogenization of actors in multilateral cooperation is one of two-way tolerance and mutual adaptation. Of course the cooperation of homogeneous countries can raise the efficiency of multilateralism, because diversity and differences make it difficult to reach consensuses. From this perspective, some degree of homogeneity is an inevitable outcome if mankind wants to achieve peace, prosperity and co-existence.

If the aforementioned pursuit of complete homogeneity in internal governance structure and systems of values is unrealistic, there is another idea to realize multilateral cooperation: forcing rising countries to adapt to the existing international order by means of institutions. The cognitive premise is the belief that countries have to be rational actors in order to survive in an international system without a world government. Therefore, as long as powerful rules and institutions make them feel there is no alternative, they will choose to obey and adapt because the cost will be higher otherwise.

It is precisely because of such logic that the U.S. has often emphasized in policy statements regarding China and Russia that it must fight against behavior that undermines the rules-based international order.

The contradictions between the perceptions of fairness and efficiency, as well as of homogeneity and heterogeneity, always exist. The only way out is when dominant and rising countries influence each other, compromise with each other and consult with each other.

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