Challenges for International Organizations and Multilateralism

Lakshman Kadirgamar Memorial Oration 2013(November 13, 2013)

Francis Gurry - Director General

I am deeply honoured to have been asked to deliver the 2013 Lakshman Kadirgamar Memorial Oration. I first met Lakshman in 1984 in Sydney, when he interviewed me for a position at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) where he was, at the time, the Director of the Bureau for Asia and the Pacific. I worked for Lakshman for three years, from 1985 until he returned to Sri Lanka in 1988, and had the opportunity to travel with him on a number of occasions to his beloved Asia, to which he was so profoundly attached and which he incarnated in so many ways. 

It was a deeply enriching experience to work with Lakshman Kadirgamar. Of the many things that he taught me, there is one that always stands out for me because it was something that could be acquired only from a person of culture and experience, as opposed to a book. It might be called the principle of timing. Instinctively, whenever a decision needed to be taken, Lakshman would ask: “Is the timing right?” I am often called to remember this teaching, either because I have failed to respect it and find that, upon reflection, my predicament is a consequence of my lack of sensitivity to timing, or because I have paid attention to timing and am able to see how that attention has been rewarded by an enhanced understanding of a particular situation. It has always seemed to me to be a lesson from the depths of Asian experience and wisdom. I know that one encounters it in other cultures. The Book of Ecclesiastes, for example, reminds us that “To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven”2, and Shakespeare had Brutus say that “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune”3. For Lakshman, timing was an instinctive reference point that placed a decision in a larger social and cultural context than our penchant for quantitative and computed analysis allows. It was a non-egocentric view of things, one that saw events as part of a larger continuum.

This broader appreciation of connection also inspired Lakshman’s attachment to international cooperation and to international organizations. He served two United Nations agencies, having worked for the International Labour Organization (ILO) before joining WIPO. As it was international organizations that brought me into contact with Lakshman Kadirgamar, it is their condition and the state of their brand of universal multilateralism4 in the contemporary world that I would like to explore this evening. I should say at the outset that this is a vast subject. My exploration will necessarily be a very selective one.

There are many signs that times are not very propitious for action or coordination through international organizations and universal multilateralism. Both international organizations and multilateralism are facing enormous challenges.

In the first place, we see that the capacity to agree internationally is very limited. In consequence, successful multilateral rule making is now a rare occurrence. In 2012, for example, a grand total of four new multilateral treaties were concluded.5 If I am not mistaken, 2013 is likely to produce a similarly poor harvest of only around three new multilateral treaties6, with a successful Bali Ministerial Conference for the World Trade Organization providing a possible fourth. In contrast, the complexity of the contemporary world has legislative authorities busy in all other instances. Nationally, legislative agendas are so full that it is challenge to succeed in having a subject figure on the agenda. Bilaterally, an indeterminate, but large, number of free trade agreements are under negotiation or are being concluded, as are several high-profile plurilateral trade agreements. Likewise, many regional organizations are actively pursuing normative agendas.

The absence of need or a shortage of appropriate subject matter for multilateral attention would seem to be an unlikely explanation for the lack of multilateral outcomes. Globalization, population growth, urbanization, technology and interconnection have produced a regrettably long list of suitable problems, many of which seem inherently to lie beyond the power of any one State to resolve because they involve the movement of persons, arms, pollution, diseases, capital, products or ideas across multiple borders. Indeed, the enumeration of potentially suitable subjects would suggest that the size of the capacity for multilateral policy response is varying in inverse proportion to the size of the problems.

The size and number of issues calling for attention and the paucity of outcomes seems to have spawned a rich array of plurilateral groupings of States, groupings that are multilateral in the sense of involving more than two States, but not universally multilateral like the United Nations and its specialized agencies. The G20 is a salient example of this development, but there are many others, particularly in the area of trade, which seems to be the next most prominent source of transnational groupings after religion. A non-exhaustive list of trade groupings between States would include a growing list of abbreviations and acronyms, notably the Andean Community7, APEC8, CARICOM9, EFTA10, MERCOSUR11, NAFTA12, OPEC13, Pacific Alliance14, SADC15 and UEMOA16. This listing does not include ASEAN or the EU, which, in a sense, started as trade groupings and expanded their cooperation into other areas. The feature that all these groupings share in common is that they were not formed to pursue their objectives within the ambit of operations of international organizations, but were established to pursue their objectives outside of, although not necessarily inconsistently with, the operations of universal multilateral organizations. Many, if not most, of these organizations or groupings have a normative function. To some extent, they may be considered to be special interest groups, but many of them may also be considered to be coalitions of the impatient, eager to advance where the universal multilateral organizations are unable to do so.

 

Outside of the normative area, competition to the classical international organizations can also be seen in the operational, development and humanitarian areas. Far from being spaces occupied bidimensionally by the classical international organizations, on the one hand, and by States pursuing bilateral agendas, on the other hand, these areas are now populated by a rich variety of actors of varying public and private compositions. Health is the area where this proliferation is the most obvious. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been joined in the international arena by a multiplicity of other actors, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, UNAIDS, the GAVI Alliance, PATH, the Clinton Foundation, the Global Health Innovative Technology Fund (GHIT) and a host of other public-private partnerships.

These developments suggest that there is an evolution underway in the manner in which international cooperation and action is undertaken. The classical international organizations face competition from two sources - from non-universal multilateralism and from hybrid organizations. Why is this occurring? There are many possible explanations, but I would like to highlight four contributing factors – the pace of technological change, geopolitical shifts, the changing definition of the public function and the digital environment.

The speed of technological change poses a severe challenge for organizations whose procedures and processes are built upon the slow accumulation of historical experience. One can see technological change in a long-term or a short-term perspective. In the long term, we see that the gap between radical technological changes that produce fundamental transformations of human societies is narrowing. It took humanity five million years to progress from the point where it began walking on two feet, thus freeing its hands for purposes other than locomotion, to the development of the first stone tools, then 1.8 million years to the mastery of fire, 700,000 years to the agrarian revolution, only 12,000 years to the industrial revolution and a mere 140 years to the information revolution. In the short term, we see that the last 30 years have produced fundamental change in our way of communicating, with widespread penetration of the Internet and mobile telephony throughout the world, as well as the beginnings of profound changes in the life sciences, with genetic engineering followed by nanotechnology, synthetic biology and regenerative medicine.

In either the long-term or the short-term perspective, we can observe that history is accelerating. In contrast, universal multilateral processes are inherently slow. They require lengthy process in order to enable all nations, with varying degrees of development and major information and knowledge asymmetries, to be comfortable with the perception and analysis of problems and the democratic development of responses. The contrast between the speed of technological change and the consequent social transformations, on the one hand, and the pace of multilateral responses is stark. It constitutes a major incentive for those States that are “ready” to tackle a perceived problem to proceed to do so without waiting for the multilateral ritual to unfold.

The acceleration of history is evident also in the speed with which geopolitical shift is occurring. There are many measures of this shift – in demographics, where Europe and North America’s share of world population is estimated to decline to 12% by 205017; in economic production, where the share of global production of Europe and North America was 68% in 1950 and is estimated to decline to 30% by 205018; and in technological production, where Asia now produces 45% of science, technology and engineering graduates and 38% of all international patent applications, in contrast to 31% for the 38 countries that are party to the European Patent Convention or 27% for the United States of America.

Geopolitical change, and the speed with which it is occurring, presents a challenge of adaptation for the international organizations. There is a growing disjunction between economic reality and political architecture. The political architecture of the multilateral system, whether in terms of the institutionalized distribution of power, definitions of political groupings, or location on the scale of development, is based on the economic reality of the world at the end of Second World War and the decades that followed it until the 1990s. Change is working its way through the system, but it has not yet found its full institutional expression. A lack of correspondence between economic reality and political architecture is a fertile breeding ground for lack of trust, that fragile commodity upon which the possibility of a shared view of a problem and its solution and, thus, agreement rests.

A third contributing factor to the challenges faced by the classical international organizations is a blurring of the distinction between public and private that has occurred in many parts of the world over the past two decades. While it is difficult to generalize about this across a diverse world, a wave of privatization swept much of the world in the 1990s, reducing the public function and enlarging the private function. At the same time, changing notions of corporate social responsibility, as well as the rapid accumulation of fortunes from the IT revolution, saw private individuals and enterprises become more active in public policy challenges on a scale and with an organizational effort that had previously only been seen in public organizations. Again, the field of health springs to mind and, with it, the examples of child vaccination, the elimination of polio or the alleviation of neglected tropical diseases. The entry of private individuals, organizations and foundations into fields traditionally managed by public organizations has increased the competition for voluntary funding on which so many of the international organizations have come to rely in addition to their regular budgets in order to prosecute their programs - competition, it might be added, from actors who are necessarily more agile and adaptable than the international organizations.

A final factor that may be mentioned is the new digital environment. This environment has a multiplicity of implications and consequences for international organizations. Let me name just three.

In the first place, it has empowered a range of actors, usually non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to participate in policy discussions by putting them on an equal information footing with States and by linking them throughout the world. The Internet has busted the State’s monopoly on information, one of the bases on which it could claim the authority to make policy, and has facilitated the creation of networks of all conceivable varieties - social, political, economic, cultural, scientific and technological. It has, in short, created a shift in access to information and knowledge and in the capacity to use knowledge for all sorts of purposes. The number of NGOs with a presence in Geneva, for example, is now 250 (compared to 35 intergovernmental organizations). At WIPO, in 1970, there were 35 NGOs accredited to the WIPO Assemblies as observers. There are now 307.

Secondly, the Internet and social media have changed the way in which we communicate as a species. One may legitimately ask whether anyone under the age of 30 reads the documents that issue from international secretariats. Soon it will be under 40, and then 50 and so on. Can international organizations capture the imagination of the public without engaging in a radical change of communication methods, and will member States allow secretariats to do so? And yet we have seen the power of social media to engage public action in so many examples in the recent past. But where would the mantra of member-State-driven find itself in the twittersphere?

Thirdly, the digital environment is also producing the phenomenon of big data, meaning the vast amount of data that is being generated from all the electronic devices, connections and terminals that we increasingly use to transact our daily social and economic existence, together with the new techniques that have been developed to process and to analyse those data. Up until now, big data has mainly been used by the commercial sector to find better ways to sell things. But its real value “lies in our ability to extract insights and make better decisions”19 and, as such, it has enormous potential in social, economic, development and humanitarian policy. But it involves an entirely different methodology from the classical multilateral processes of identifying problems and developing solutions through discussion in meetings held at six-monthly intervals to enable national consultations with interested parties between meetings.
What results from this brief review of some of the salient agents of change affecting international organizations is a picture of great complexity. International cooperation now takes place in a world of multiple speeds and layers (national, bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral), multiple dimensions (public, private and a range of mixtures of both) and multiple power balances (economic, financial, political, people, information, idea, diplomatic and military). The one-dimensional world of a single balance of political power seems to be becoming a thing of the past. It was suggested in the New York Times, for example, that “there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”20

This complexity is not necessarily a bad thing. It may be considered to be an evolution of the international community from a rather simple one in which there was only bilateral action or international cooperation through the UN and its agencies to a more mature state that mirrors the complexity of the globalized, interconnected world. But, just as the globalized, interconnected world has heightened our vulnerability to disease, financial crashes and economic crises, so the multispeed, multi-dimensional and multi-powered international community has a number of inherent risks compared to the more simplified international community that it leaves behind. Let me enumerate some of the main ones, more by way of questions than by analysis.

A first risk is one of incoherence. Who is the keeper of coherence in the complex world of multiple instances making rules and undertaking programs of action? Ideally, one might imagine a world of Russian dolls, in which one set of rules fits neatly into the next, with the universal multilateral perhaps the biggest doll, in the sense of the most general, and each other layer being smaller, in the sense of more detailed, until you reach the national doll.

A second risk is exclusion. The great advantages of the system of universal multilateralism are inclusiveness and legitimacy. Those advantages are costly in terms of process, which often leads to the frustration that drives the resort to other instances. So there is a balance to be achieved between process expense, on the one hand, and efficiency, on the other hand, with inclusiveness, legitimacy and effectiveness the consequences of the choice. Democracy is not necessarily adopted for its efficiency. The risk of exclusion is related to the risk of unequal strength. Arguably, the weakest are most protected in the multilateral environment.

A third risk is the lack of appropriate governance and accountability frameworks for the new world of multiple powers and instances. However imperfect they may be, there are governance and accountability frameworks that have been developed for the classical international organizations. What frameworks apply to NGOs, public-private partnerships or even the participation of classical international organizations in public-private partnerships? This is relatively undeveloped territory. I certainly do not want to denigrate some of the magnificent work being done by some of the newer forms of organizations active on the international stage, so please understand the example that I am about to give as one offered for the sake of illustration. If a foundation decides to tackle a certain health challenge or to eliminate a certain disease, who takes this decision? Why is one health challenge or disease considered more important, more appropriate or more urgent than another? What are the economic and social consequences of the choice on different parts of the world? What are the collateral effects of shifting resources into a particular area? And so on. I ask

these questions, as I said, not by way of criticism, but by way of illustration. Once a private organization enters a field of pubic action, I am not sure that the answer to these questions can simply be “it is our resources and we shall do what we want with them”.

The world of classical international organizations and universal multilateralism offers some assurances against certain of the risks of the new international community. But I think that it is insufficient to rely upon these assurances to react against or to oppose evolution. Rather, we should look to see how we might be able to preserve the advantages of universal multilateralism, while at the same time adapting to the new circumstances of a fast-changing world. For that, the international organizations will need to acquire, especially, speed and agility, the characteristics needed for survival in the new world. This is the challenge that lies before them.

  1. The views expressed in this paper are personal and do not represent the views of the Member States of WIPO.
  2. Ecclesiastes 3, King James Version
  3. Julius Caesar, Act 4, scene 3, 218-219
  4. Strictly, multilateralism is “the practice of co-ordinating national policies in groups of three or more states” (Robert O. Keohane, “Multilateralism: An Agenda for Research” (1990) International Journal 45; see John Gerard Ruggie (1992) “Multilateralism: The Anatomy of an Institution”46 International Organization 561-598). In this presentation, however, I shall be using the term “multilateralism” in the sense of the universal multilateralism associated with the United Nations and international organizations whose membership is potentially open to all states and in contrast to plurilateralism, regionalism and bilateralism.
  5. Protocol to the Cape Town Convention on International Interests in Mobile Equipment on Matters Specific to Space Assets, concluded on March 9, 2012; Food Assistance Convention, concluded on April 25, 2012; Beijing Treaty on Audiovisual Performances, concluded on June 26, 2012; and Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, concluded on November 12, 2012.
  6. The Minamata Convention on Mercury, concluded on January 19, 2013; Arms Trade Treaty, concluded on April 2, 2103; and Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired or otherwise Print Disabled, concluded on June 27, 2013.
  7. Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
  8. Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, which comprises 21 Pacific Rim member economies.
  9. The Caribbean Community, an association of 15 States and dependencies.
  10. European Free Trade Association, comprising four States – Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.
  11. Mercado Común del Sur, an agreement among five States – Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela, with Bolivia in the process of accession.
  12. North America Free Trade Agreement, covering Canada, Mexico and the United States of America.
  13. Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, an organization with 12 member countries – Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela.
  14. Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Peru.
  15. Southern African Development Community, with 15 member States.
  16. West African Economic and Monetary Union, which comprises eight member States - Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo.
  17. See Jack A. Goldstone, “The New Population Bomb” (2010) Foreign Affairs.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Dr. Michael Rappa, http://analytics.ncsu.edu/?p=4770
  20. Patrick E. Tyler, “Threats and Responses : News Analysis ; A New Power in the Streets” New York Times February 17, 2003