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July 06, 2009

How Much Of Moises Naim's Minilateralism Could We Really Have?
Posted by David Shorr

The question of how the nations of the world will mount collective responses to urgent problems -- or even whether they will -- is a critical issue, and Foreign Policy Editor Moises Naim gave his own proposal in the recently published issue. Like any good entrepreneurial public intellectual, he even branded it with a catchy name. For Naim, "minilateralism" would, for a given international challenge, bring together the top tier of countries with leverage over that problem. The result would be a profusion of 'G' groupings with rotating casts of members. Clearly intergovernmental cooperation in the 21st Century will be spread across many forums and arrangements, with varying degrees of permanence or legal formality. I have my doubts, though, about Naim's notion of numerous parallel tracks, particularly at a practical level.

Setting those aside, for the moment, Naim basically has the right big-picture diagnosis. The dearth of landmark international agreements in the last 10-15 years is stark indeed, given the seriousness of the problems we confront. It's also true that negotiating among the entire world community of 192 nations is, in most cases, neither necessary nor workable (any of us who lived through Kofi Annan's valiant 2004-05 UN reform push knows that from hard experience). Naim is right too in looking toward pivotal countries for policy leadership. Of all the responses to Naim from Foreign Policy bloggers, I like the two posts from David Rothkopf, who coined a neat term of his own: "coalitions of the influential."

Where the argument loses me is the proposed proliferation of G groupings. Like Naim, I view 'the Gs' -- and by extension their paradigm of informal yet regular series of consultations -- as a hopeful and under-tapped locus of international cooperation and action. As I argue in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed today, the true comparative advantage of the Gs stems from the summit meetings around which they revolve. So where I diverge from Naim is the question of how many different Gs we can really have. In practical terms, I'm not sure what volume of diplomatic activity will be possible. And given the potential constraints, I want to husband our high-level attention and action in one place and apply it to problems from economic growth to non-proliferation as need and opportunity arises. If, on the other hand, we see heightened concern and political push from leaders and a new plenitude of diplomacy, then I'll be a staunch proponent of minilateralism. It's an issue on which I'd be happy to be wrong.


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