Rising multipolarity was once thought to lead to multilateralism. The more numerous the great powers, the less room for unilateralism—so the story went. Yet, even though unilateralism has receded, multilateralism has not improved its bite. The United Nations (UN) is as toothless as always, the World Trade Organization (WTO) remains unable to reach an agreement, and a global environmental regime is nonexistent.
Multipolarity was also thought to foster regionalism. Emerging powers were expected to gain dominance over their regions, which would become the building blocks of global governance. Yet the pooling of sovereignty has not reached farther than Europe, and even there it is endangered. Also, inter-regionalism fell short of expectations, as states keep negotiating mostly on an individual basis.
Multipolarity has not led to effective multilateralism because the expansion or diffusion of power globally made consensus unreachable. And it has not fostered effective regionalism because extra-regional powers offer secondary states alternative policy options to their regional masters. So, multipolarity has increased the costs of global coordination while, at the same time, it has diminished the insulating effects of geography. As a consequence, two unexpected phenomena have taken root: minilateralism and cross-regionalism.
As defined by Moisés Naím, minilateralism is “a smarter, more targeted approach [than multilateralism]: We should bring to the table the smallest possible number of countries needed to have the largest possible impact on solving a particular problem.” It contributes to solve the coordination dilemmas raised when each country has a vote—and sometimes even a veto.
Minilateralism is not new though. The Concert of Europe, or Congress System, represented the balance of power that existed in Europe from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the outbreak of World War I. Concerts of powers and great power clubs have existed in other times and places, including Latin America—when Argentina and Brazil decided their neighbors’ very existence through war or diplomacy.
In contemporary times, minilateralism is economic rather than political, and its scope is global rather than regional. Its origins can be traced back to 1973, when the embryo of the G7 was seeded. Russia was added to the group from 1998 to 2014, which then became known as the G8. In the 2000s, five developing countries were invited to the side-room (the so-called O5): Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and South Africa. This collection was superseded by the G20, an assembly of 19 of the world’s largest national economies plus the European Union. The G20 was established in 1999 but started to meet at the heads of government level in 2008, in the wake of the world financial crisis.
G-proliferation is one of the two faces of global minilateralism; the other is acronym-mania. BRICS, IBSA and BASIC are just a few examples of clubs that bring together a handful of (usually developing) countries seeking to improve coordination around a given policy area. Minilateralism emerges whenever there is a perception that multilateralism is biased, ineffective or even meaningless. Qualitative futility (in policy outcomes) and quantitative inflation (in summitry) has induced “summit fatigue.” Overcrowded meetings of heads of states might continue, but results are being pursued increasingly in smaller gatherings.
In fact, the proliferation of different poles has increased the power differentials in global power. The larger the gap between great powers and secondary powers, the more likely it is that the former will try to conduct business among themselves without the hindrance of too many smaller states. As a result, international governance is increasingly a “G-world,” while international participation by emerging powers tends to converge around acronyms. Remarkably, both the G-groups and the alphabet-soup groups (BRICS, etc.) have tended to cluster around issues rather than regions.
Here is where the second casualty of multipolarity enters: regionalism.
Regional governance once seemed the best way to counter or manage globalization. In Latin America, regionalism has deep historical roots. Over the years it has taken a number of forms, from hemispheric political coordination to subregional trade agreements to physical integration. However, the only integration processes that gained traction were the Central American Common Market, the Andean Community, and the Common Market of the South (Mercosur).
Although self-praising rhetoric remains high among leaders over their multilateral ventures, accomplishments fall way short of stated goals. Indeed, most regional organizations are stagnating or moving backward. Latin American regionalism may have “reached a peak beyond which it will be unable to progress… Yet, the exhaustion of comprehensive integration projects does not mean that regional cooperation will not take place; the difference is that the pooling or delegation of sovereignty is no longer an option” (Malamud and Gardini, 2012).
What Latin American states share is a neighborhood, not a house.
Geographic proximity has been eroded by a new phase of economic globalization. Its key feature is the expansion and densification of global value added chains. Today, more than 60 percent of trade is conducted between branches of the same corporation, or between corporations that operate mostly across open economies irrespective of location. This fact, together with regional power asymmetries and the rise of extra-regional attractors in a multipolar world, impairs further region building and even tears regional orders apart. As a result, global governance is more likely to be pursued through issue-area negotiations across regions among changing sets of powers (minilateralism) rather than through multilateralism or regionalism. This scenario is consistent with the “decentred globalist world” envisioned by Barry Buzan.
The phenomenon of cross-regionalism can also be seen as a variety of minilateralism. This cross-regionalism refers to “interregional relations where two or more regions are dispersed, have weak actorship, and neither negotiates as a regional organisation” (Baert et al 2014). It is less encompassing than multilateralism and less institutionalized than regionalism, and it is only loosely defined by geography. In fact, “regions” here are frequently defined by sea basins rather than landmasses—as in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Tovias (2008) argues that, by engaging in cross-regional strategies, states “strive to escape their initial uncomfortable status of so-called ‘spoke’ by signing agreements with more than one ‘hub.’”
The emerging scenario can be labeled as “centrifugal multipolarity,” the existence of extra-regional poles that pull regions apart. States are no longer confined to their regional neighborhood or to the regional hegemon. Although weak countries might be sucked into a foreign power’s sphere of influence by sheer gravity, most states are freer than before to pick alternative leaders from a menu of global powers, as Garzón posited in 2015.
Multipolarity broadens the autonomy of both small states and middle powers, as has been shown to be the case of Brazil. However, as Brazil loosens itself from Washington’s grip, so do other South American states from Brasilia’s. In spite of the region’s structural unipolarity, more and more South American countries have opted to align with overseas powers instead of with the regional hegemon, Brazil. Colombia’s security ties with the U.S., Argentina’s extra-NATO ally status and the signature of the TPP agreement by Chile, Mexico and Peru are cases in point.
When a region lacks a center of gravity—a large power that commands or induces collective order by acting as a hub—extra-regional attractors acting across competing oceans will be detrimental to regional interdependence and, ultimately, regional governance. Geo-economic nodes—i.e. geographic cores of economic networks—are less frequent than is usually claimed, as Draper and Scholvin (2012) and Scholvin and Malamud (2014) have shown. As a result, regions become porous or open to external influence, and cross-regional negotiations have mushroomed. Although these agreements can be called multilateral in a broad sense, they typically include few members—and frequently are just bilateral associations.
In Latin America, the outcome is a patchwork of segmented and overlapping organizations. Some of these blocs are even oriented outwards, as the name of the Pacific Alliance suggest. This is not a cohesive bloc: intra-regional trade is negligible and joint foreign action is not required. For example, Colombia does not participate in the TPP. The organization’s goals are about signaling rather than governance.
Multipolarity and multilateralism are not interchangeable terms. The former refers to structure, the latter to strategy and institutions. While multipolarity is emerging as the dominant structure in the political and economic arenas, multilateralism is declining as the preferred strategy of large and secondary powers alike. And so is regionalism: as multipolarity consolidates and contiguous landmasses experience reduced levels of interdependence, demands for regional governance will continue to decrease.
Since multilateralism has proven ever more ineffective, minilateralism may continue to progress as global issues are dealt with by selected groups of powers, irrespective of geography. Likewise, different blends of coastal or trans-oceanic regionalism will take priority over traditional border-sharing regionalism: the larger the gap between great powers and secondary powers, the more likely it is that the latter will try to conduct business with faraway partners rather than with neighboring powers.
The times of globalization and contiguity may not be over, but do show signs of fatigue. From now on, they might not only develop at a slower pace but even reverse course. And when it comes to regionalism, Latin America may no longer be a laggard but a pioneer.
Andres Malamud is senior research fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon. You can follow him on Twitter: @andresmalamud.