In The Media

High hopes for the Independent Commission on Multilateralism

by Daryl Copeland

February 19, 2015

Last August I attended a conference titled 1814, 1914, 2014: Lessons from the Past, Visions for the Future, organized jointly by the International Peace Institute and the Salzburg Global Seminar.

Over the course of that event, and despite whatever else may have been learned about the nature and impact of industrial-scale violence, it became clear that there is a fundamental problem. The multilateral institutions crafted in the middle of the 20th century are underperforming and largely unfit for purpose in the 21st.

Absent some sort of significant transformation, peace and prosperity will therefore remain elusive. Or worse.

Thus arose the idea of undertaking a comprehensive review of the institutions which, writ large, comprise the international system, with a view to formulating proposals for change. The UN and its specialized agencies will figure centrally, but the role of regional bodies such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Organization of American StatesShanghai Cooperation Organisation and the African Union, as well as non-traditional actors including non-governmental organizations, philanthropic foundations, and multinational business will also be evaluated.

Christened the Independent Commission on Multilateralism, or ICM, this initiative is supported by the governments of Norway, the United Arab Emirates, and—somewhat surprisingly—Canada.

It was launched in September by its chair, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, and was set to be co-chaired by the foreign ministers of Canada and Norway—although John Baird's departure from his post means this position is now unconfirmed—as well as the former president and prime minister of Timor-Leste, José Ramos-Horta. India’s former ambassador to the UN, Hardeep Singh Puri, will serve as secretary general.

However important, political and bureaucratic machinations of this sort rarely fire the public imagination; the ICM has to date flown largely below the radar. An initial round of international consultations with experts and stakeholders will be held this weekend in New York. Discussions will focus on an examination of new global challenges, the evolution of organized violence, the current multilateral architecture, and recommendations for reform. A final report will be released in 2016. 

In preparation for this ambitious project, much analytical spadework has been done by a secretariat convened by the IPI. This group has identified 15 issue areas upon which our collective future depends and which require urgent attention. For assessment purposes, the secretariat has suggested that these, and any related matters be considered under six broad headings:

1. The changing nature of conflict

2. Continued geopolitical competition

3. State‐society relations in flux

4. Dramatic socioeconomic and demographic shifts

5. Environmental pressures and rising resource demands

6. Technological innovation   

Navigation of the perilous passage which connects specific topics—inequality, terrorism, climate change, urbanization, pandemic disease, and migration, to name a few—to the institutional and process reforms required to address them represents a daunting task.

Yet even more fundamental questions remain. How best to frame and contextualize an exercise of this scope and difficulty? How to situate the proceedings to advantage on the public agenda? How to entice the uninitiated and attract the kind of attention that can be translated into influence when the recommendations are released? 

In order to avoid producing another addition to the long line of distinguished reports now gathering dust, I would advocate construction of a simple, yet compelling meta-narrative which could serve to draw a non-specialist audience into the conversation. To that end, a conceptual prequel, or segue which conveys the larger rationale and is designed to serve as an introduction to the more detailed analysis to come might look something like this:

Globalization functions as a double-edged sword. It socializes costs while privatizing benefits, differentiating while connecting, fragmenting while integrating, and homogenizing while polarizing.   

heteropolar world order is emerging. With the sources and vectors of power characterized increasingly by difference rather than similarity, instability has become the new normal.  

In this environment of chronic uncertainty, volatility, complexity and ambiguity, humanity’s over-arching goal must be to achieve security and development within and among nations. Multilateralism—made more open, responsive and effective—is the only way forward.  

As the world plunges headlong towards some still-undefined tipping point beyond which there may be no return, the stakes are high. With the fate of the planet hanging in the balance, the messaging has to be right. More preaching to the choir won’t do.

The redesign of our multilateral architecture and improving the quality of governance will be difficult, and communicating the importance of that task perhaps even more so. Yet innovative thinking in support of the reform of international institutions was once a hallmark of Canadian diplomacy and public administration. As one of only three state supporters of this enterprise, Canada has an opportunity to reclaim its place at the table and once again make a difference. 

Between governments, think tanks, universities and our diverse and well-informed public, the capacity is there. 

Carpe diem.

Former diplomat Daryl Copeland is an educator, analyst and consultant, the author of Guerrilla Diplomacy and a research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. He will be participating in this weekend’s discussions. Follow him on Twitter @GuerrillaDiplo.

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