This article aims to discuss what multilateralism should or should not be, and on the importance of multilateralism for humanity.
When we discuss multilateralism, we need to go back to historical global and regional events and ask: why was the UN created in the first place? Why was ASEAN created? Why does ASEAN have 10 members?
If we don’t constraint ourselves to any ideological thought or geopolitical self-censorship, we can come to a simple yet common answer for everyone. Multilateral institutions were created because we want peace, harmony, development, freedom from miseries and poverty, and bright future for our next generations. Principles and purposes of all multilateral organisations always share these common goals for humanity, leaving no one behind.
We human being, after two consecutive destructive World Wars, decided to sit down and devise mechanism through which we can manage instabilities, irregularities, risks of mistrust, and mitigate or eliminate all kinds of miseries that human being can think of.
Despite having common ideals, gaps of approaches are inevitable.
Some societies are striving for perfection. Some societies are struggling yet for their most basic needs. When these societies interact with one another, they are divided by power gaps, ideologies – for instance during the Cold War, and the ways each state pursue their governance and development path. And these realities create struggles among states, and within multilateralism.
When we have multilateralism to remind us of what humanity needs, we also have multilateralism being used to leverage struggles between states based on geopolitical and ideological divides.
The latter is not the multilateralism that we want.
From Cambodian experiences, multilateralism should not give the seat at the UN to the genocidal Pol Pot regime that had killed more than two millions people. Multilateralism should not impose 12 years of diplomatic and economic embargo on Cambodian survivors from the Pol Pot regime. Multilateralism should not be the engines to propel, enlarge, and prolong proxy wars, and support particular sides in political or territorial conflicts. Multilateralism should not impose economic sanctions when people are suffering from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Multilateralism should put peace and stability above all else and should not be characterised by the imposition of external ideological or geopolitical wills upon others.
With wars, democracy, communism, socialism, human rights mean nothing. With wars, there is no dream for humanity because people can only dream whether they can survive for another day. By all moral and humanity justification, it is not absolutely alright to kill others for their being communist or democrat, and to argue that one should be safe and protected for being democrat or communist. This is not called humanity. This is not the multilateralism for the sake of humanity.
The “rule of multilateralism” should prevail over the “rule by multilateralism”. Multilateralism in the form of extraterritorial, extrajudicial and unilateral punitive measures based on geopolitical and protectionist agenda, and double standards, is not the multilateralism that we all want.
Multilateralism should not seek to classify states on the status of their development for the mere purposes of punishments, sanctions and alliance-making.
When perfectionist requirements are being imposed upon imperfect development of states, poor countries know that they will never get there to make the grade, for example when they want to access the rich countries’ markets. This is nothing but multilateral protectionism. Such approach will only create vicious cycle of mistrust, and it does not create localised sustainable solution in developing countries, because the latter need capacity to deliver the most basic needs of the people and they practically have no resources and human capacity to dwell on perfectionist demands from the developed countries’ standards.
Such interaction only creates walls of lasting division between “the can” and “the cannot”.
Multilateralism should not be reduced to the voice of the few, who claim to represent all interests.
When ASEAN was created with five countries, people questioned whether it would last owing to its diversity of political systems and development status. Later on, even if SEATO was defunct, ASEAN has evolved proudly for over 50 years even to include all the 10 countries. When ASEAN has 10 members, people question again whether unity will last. But ASEAN’s multilateralism has proved that it can march together in “unity in diversity” based on the “ASEAN Way”. The increasingly integrated ASEAN Community has become the “centre of growth” that attracts every region to create partnership with ASEAN. One-man show has no place in multilateralism, and does not accommodate “unity in diversity” that has supported ASEAN for the last five decades. Therefore, it is important that multilateralism should be based on humility and consensus-building approach like what ASEAN has done thus far.
When asking about multilateralism, we need to go back to where we came from: to the root ideals, principles and objectives that bind us together in the first place. We have to look beyond the divide. We have to look at humanity.
Multilateralism for humanity should be the common goals for nations and institutions to strive for.
Sim Vireak is a strategic adviser to the Asian Vision Institute (AVI) based in Phnom Penh