TWQ: Prix Fixe and a la Carte: Avoiding False Multilateral Choices - Fall 2009
October 1, 2009
Tremendous forces are eroding the institutional foundations of world politics. Economic power is moving to developing countries (particularly in Asia), transnational security threats from nuclear proliferation to climate change are emerging, and influential malevolent as well as benign non-state actors compete with sovereign states for global influence. Despite these tectonic changes, the superstructure of global cooperation has barely moved. The world thus makes do with creaky institutions that reflect a world that no longer exists—with growing risks to global stability and prosperity.
As president, Obama has taken symbolic and practical steps to return the United States to multilateral engagement. He has embraced the international rule of law, shuttering the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret prisons and pledging to close the terrorist detention facility in Guantánamo Bay; proposed changes to strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime; engineered U.S. entry into the UN Human Rights Council; reinvigorated U.S. leadership on climate change; endorsed new regulations and governance structures for global finance; called for UN Security Council reform; and signaled his intent to seek ratification of long-languishing treaties such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). These shifts have energized those who hope Obama will spearhead fundamental global institutional reform.
Yet, the prospects that the United States will lead a sweeping campaign to transform outdated global bodies such as the UN Security Council and international financial institutions (IFIs), or at least pursue a tidy “grand bargain” between a declining West and the rising Rest, are modest at best. At least five major obstacles will impede such a massive overhaul of the world’s bedrock institutions. Instead of trying to remake international order, the Obama administration should adopt a pragmatic approach to international cooperation, by selectively applying two apparently contradictory, but fundamentally complementary, forms of multilateralism: choosing from the “prix fixe” menu of formal organizations, and ordering up an "a` la carte" coalition of like-minded nations.