Every era of history is defined by its signature challenge. For the first half of the 20th century, it was what to do about German and Japanese militarism; for the second half, it was the struggle against the Soviet Union.
But today and for the foreseeable future, the principal threat to world order is not from some aggressive great power. Instead, we must contend with a host of global phenomena: the spread of nuclear materials and weapons, terrorism, pandemic disease, climate change and economic protectionism.
No country, not even the US, can face these challenges alone. The world is simply too large and too complex to control. By their nature, these challenges are best met by collective effort. Decisions to opt out of global arrangements (or an inability to opt in, as we see in the case of governments too weak to combat terrorists who set up shop on their territory) can have repercussions far beyond a country's borders.
But to acknowledge that we are all multilateralists now (or at least need to be) is only to start the conversation. Multilateralism is not one thing but many. The issue takes on a new urgency in the aftermath of the recent Copenhagen conference, which brought together representatives of 193 governments in an unsuccessful effort to reach a formal, binding and comprehensive accord. Whatever its consequences for climate change, Copenhagen is but the most recent reminder that classic multilateralism is increasingly difficult to achieve.
This same reality also helps to account for the world's inability to agree to a new global trade accord. Launched in Qatar nearly a decade ago, the Doha round of negotiations has stalled. There are simply too many participants, too many contentious issues and too many domestic political concerns to discuss.
This problem also explains the near-total irrelevance of the United Nations General Assembly. "One man, one vote" may provide a sound basis for domestic politics, but on a global scale democracy (or, more precisely, democratic multilateralism) is a prescription for doing nothing. It is not simply the large number of participants but the fact that it makes little sense to give countries with minuscule populations and economies equal standing with, say, China or the US.
The UN's founders predicted as much when they created the Security Council. The idea was to establish an elite body to tackle the world's most important issues. The problem is that the composition of the Security Council reflects what the world looked like after the second world war. That world is now more than 60 years old. Missing from the ranks of permanent members are India, Japan, Germany, Brazil and representatives of a more integrated Europe.
It was this weakness (along with the inability to agree on the make-up of a reformed Security Council) that in part led to the creation of the Group of Seven and the trilateral process in the 1970s. Japan and the European Commission gained a seat at this important table. Yet over the decades, the G7 also proved inadequate, as it left out such critical countries as China and India. Hence the emergence of the Group of 20 in the midst of the global financial crisis and the Major Economies Forum as concerns over climate change mounted.
It is too soon to judge the impact of these latest versions of elite multilateralism. In the meantime, we are seeing the emergence of multiple innovations. One is regionalism. The proliferation of bilateral and regional trade pacts (most recently in Asia) is in part a reaction to the failure to conclude a global trade accord. Such arrangements are inferior - they do not, for example, normally deal with subsidies, much less cover all products and services. They can also have the perverse effect of retarding trade by discriminating against non-members. But some trade expansion is preferable to none.
A second alternative is functional multilateralism - coalitions of the willing and relevant. A global accord on climate will prove elusive for some time to come. But that need not translate into international inaction. A useful step would be to conclude a global pact to discourage the cutting down and burning of forests, something that accounts for a fifth of the world's carbon output. Copenhagen made some limited progress here, but more needs to be done to assist such countries as Brazil and Indonesia.
Yet another alternative might be described as informal multilateralism. In many cases it will prove impossible to negotiate international accords that will be approved by national parliaments. Instead, governments would sign up to implementing, as best they can, a series of measures consistent with agreed-upon international norms. We are most likely to see this in the financial realm, where setting standards for the capital requirements of banks, accounting systems and credit ratings would facilitate global economic growth.
None of this - not elitism or regionalism or functionalism or informalism - is a panacea. Such collective action is invariably less inclusive, less comprehensive and less predictable than formal global accords. It can suffer from a lack of legitimacy. But it is doable and desirable, and can lead to or complement classic multilateralism. Multilateralism in the 21st century is, like the century itself, likely to be more fluid and, at times, messy than what we are used to.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.