The speech this week by American Defence Secretary James Mattis on the USA’s future relationship with NATO marks the latest symptom of the gradual decline of multilateralism. “No longer can the American taxpayer carry a disproportionate share of the defence of Western values,” he warned his NATO partners. “Americans cannot care for your children’s future more than you do.”
Put in these terms, it is hard to disagree. And NATO is not the only multilateral organisation under threat.
The Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank and the IMF, made a very significant contribution to international economic stability and growth during the quarter century after the Second World War. But both proved impotent during the international financial crisis and its aftermath, and their influence is definitely on the wane.
The United Nations, also set up with high ideals in the aftermath of the Second World War, is another multilateral that is becoming increasingly irrelevant. In 1994, the UN rejected appeals for help from its own small peacekeeping force under Lt Gen Romeo Dallaire in Rwanda, leaving a million innocent people to be slaughtered. Several years after the Genocide, I worked with the Government of Rwanda in developing a national investment programme to rebuild the shattered country. I remember my sense of shock on my first day of work at the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning in Kigali when I came across a report drafted in cold technocratic language. “The development of the nation,” it read, “was adversely affected by the sudden and unexpected diminution of its human resources.”
Since then, the UN has proved utterly ineffective in preventing or resolving international conflicts across the world.
1994 was the year that the United Nations died.
Then there is the European Union. It is not dead yet, but it is looking increasingly like a dysfunctional and disintegrating re-run of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As set out in my analysis in “The Golden Guinea”, over the past generation the EU and the Euro have been causes rather than solutions of mass unemployment and social distress across southern Europe.
What has gone wrong with multilateralism? It has gradually corroded under what might be termed “Cuckoo’s Nest Syndrome” – the phenomenon by which, like the hospital in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, an institution begins to be run for benefit of those who work in it, rather than for its clients. Unless checked by market forces or robust democratic accountability, it becomes all too easy for institutional leaders to build their personal empires and lose sight of their mission to serve. This process continues until a crisis occurs when its clients – the people who are paying for it – come to realise that they are getting very poor value for money and start to withdraw their support.
So what happens now? It may be very difficult to rebuild public trust in multinational institutions seen to be failing in their mission. Without a crystal ball, it would be unwise to forecast the results of European elections in 2017. But it seems likely that they will see a continuing rise in support for Eurosceptic parties, as the disconnect between the narrative of the EU’s self-serving elite about its supposed benefits and the reality of its failure to deliver on the ground becomes ever more stark. If so, it will reinforce the trend set by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as American President in 2016. Both events marked popular rejection of multilateralism and the reassertion of national sovereignty. Both provoked predictable wailing and gnashing of teeth among the metropolitan elite. Yet it is possible that the reassertion of national sovereignty may serve to enhance the welfare of ordinary citizens.
In which case, the strange slow death of multilateralism should be the cause not of regret but of hope.
February 17th 2017