April 29, 2021

The Case for Microlateralism

By Richard Fontaine and Jared Cohen

In sharp contrast with former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America first” agenda, President Joe Biden and his administration have conspicuously embraced multilateralism. The new team spent its first weeks in office reversing some of the more controversial manifestations of its predecessor’s approach—rejoining the Paris climate accord, halting the United States’ withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO), reengaging with the UN Human Rights Council, and conditionally recommitting to the Iran nuclear deal—and Biden and his deputies rarely miss an opportunity to talk up the importance of alliances and international cooperation.

This is all generally to the good. From Washington’s perspective, working with other countries to resolve common challenges often means greater legitimacy and lower costs compared with going it alone. But not all multilateralism is created equal. In an era of renewed great-power competition, venues such as the UN Security Council and the G-20 are frequently deadlocked, even when their members share broad interests. Chinese influence has undermined the effectiveness of key international organizations, such as the WHO, and multilateral trade agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, lack domestic political support.

A focus on niche, time-bound multilateral efforts—including those led by small countries—is likely to have a disproportionately positive effect.

The lack of effective mechanisms for coordinating international action has clearly frustrated the new administration and generated a clutch of proposals for new configurations: a T-12 that would unite “techno-democracies,” for example; a D-10 that would bring together leading democratic powers; a “Quad-plus” that would include South Korea or Southeast Asian nations in dialogues with the United States, Japan, India, and Australia; a climate summit that would galvanize global action; and a new pandemic-fighting coalition.

Washington should pay special attention, however, to the potential for small countries to take a multilateral lead. Often better equipped to pilot new programs, and better positioned to play honest broker on thorny issues, small countries are sometimes well positioned to lead multilateral efforts with more powerful nations. This combination of small-country leadership and large-state participation—call it “microlateralism”—should emerge as a key instrument in the United States’ collective-action toolkit.

Read the full article from Foreign Affairs.

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