The Japan Forum on International Relations

February 14,2023

Does the Ukraine war poses a final threat to multilateralism?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has destroyed the free and open international order based on multilateralism and the fundamental values of liberal democracies, human rights and the rule of law, which brought peace, stability and prosperity to the world following the Cold War, and it has delivered a blow that will draw a line in global history. Despite the invasion being a clear violation of international law – by encroaching on national sovereignty and territorial integrity through inhumane use of military force, and threatening with nuclear weapons – we are faced with the reality that it is not possible to halt this war using international law or international systems. In other words, multilateralism is encountering an unprecedented test.

In response to this, the G7, EU, NATO and others have been united in criticizing Russia and have been implementing high-level economic sanctions, while accepting the backlash on their own citizens (in the form of economic pain). Additionally, the United Nations (UN), which both symbolizes multilateralism and represents international public opinion, is also facing the dilemma of being unable to halt military action by a permanent member of its Security Council. The UN has nevertheless fulfilled a role to an extent, with 141 member countries having voted in favor of condemning Russia at an emergency special session of the UN General Assembly, an overwhelming majority.

On the other hand, what must be closely noted here is the reality that 40 countries opposed or abstained from this vote. The 35 countries that abstained included G20 members China, India and South Africa. The vote exposed discrepancies in countries’ stances toward Russia, and highlighted the presence of emerging and developing countries that do not agree with the current order.

That is to say, even before the tragedy of the war, the voices of forces prioritizing “each country’s individual interests” over “the world’s common interests” were making it difficult to reach multilateral consensuses. There are even grounds to call this “a stalemate of multilateralism.” This is a challenge that multilateralism has been shouldering for some time, via the withdrawals from multilateral frameworks that arose from President Trump’s policy of putting his own country first, and Brexit.

What is furthermore serious is the threat that this is exposing the current order to, as economic powerhouse China threads its way into these tremors in multilateralism and advocates “true multilateralism” while winning over emerging and developing nations, and thus accelerating “‘China’s characteristic’ multilateralism” (Kunio Takahashi) (Note 1). China has declared that it seeks to amend the international order that is seated on the UN’s international system, with “true multilateralism.” The fact is that Chinese nationals who hold important posts at international organizations are a conspicuous presence. Additionally, “‘China’s characteristic’ multilateralism” will grow with the “Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” the “Belt and Road Initiative,” the “Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)” and other China initiatives. Moreover, in order to complement the Belt and Road Initiative, which was viewed as problematic for posing a “debt trap,” China has also come out with the appealing concept of the “Global Development Initiative (GDI),” whereby it partners with the UN to implement development cooperation toward achieving the SDGs in developing countries.

These challenges by China and Russia are aggravating so-called “contested multilateralism,” and are exposing free and open multilateralism based on fundamental values to a crisis of division.

Forming a backdrop to this accelerating division is a battle for supremacy between the U.S. and China, which surrounds the standardization and connectivity of high tech resulting from the advent of a fourth industrial society. Even the deepening of mutually dependent economic relationships that followed the Cold War has become a “weapon.” Geographical space has expanded to space and cyberspace, and the sphere of security has also expanded to the economy, climate change and other areas. We are literally in a transitional phase toward a new era of multilateralism. More than anything else, what is needed is wisdom that does not create divisions in free and open multilateralism based on fundamental values. The key to that is an approach that nestles close to all the countries in the Global South, including emerging and developing countries, so that they elect to endorse multilateralism.

(This is the partial English translation of an article written by WATANABE Mayu, President of the Japan Forum on International Relations, which initially appeared on the JFIR website of the study group on “Strengthening Japan’s Overall Diplomatic Capability” as of February 1, 2023.)