Multilateralism: Some Conceptual and Theoretical Issues

This widespread but also generic attachment to multilateralism, effective multilateralism, and/or global governance leads us to some conceptual questions. Considering its different and often overlapping meanings, multilateralism could be a legal principle and norm, a moral aspiration or belief, or a functional rationality (Newman and Thakur 2006, p. 531).

As a constitutive legal and political principle, multilateralism refers to the Westphalian order based on national sovereignty, as the particular Latin American approach often emphasized. Because of its societal nature, an international system of nation states requires a multilateral framework for the peaceful coexistence and interaction of those sovereign entities. Multilateralism could also be a political and/or moral aspiration, as it appeals to the rational imperative of a universal or, where appropriate, a regional legal order accepted as legitimate. Additionally, it could also be a functional response to growing interstate and transnational interactions, interdependences, and risks, by providing the predictability and certainty of common rules, standards, and understandings.

Multilateralism also refers to specific practices and forms of international and/or regional organization, policy coordination, and cooperation. Specifically, it refers to institutional forms of political deliberation and decision-making processes, of technical and legal mechanisms for the design, enforcement, implementation, and monitoring of standards, rules, policies, and decisions, to capabilities and resources and, above all, to the effectiveness of the multilateral institutions. Around all these elements arises the perhaps more relevant questions related to multilateralism and its role in international society: its representativeness, legitimacy, and effectiveness.

However, beyond these dimensions of the concept, mainly descriptive and/or analytical, any scholarly discussion about multilateralism—either the concept or the practices, raises ontological and epistemological issues related with the role of power, interests, and ideas in the shaping of the international system. The ontological denial of classical realism about the possibilities and scope of multilateralism in a supposedly anarchic world has been traditionally confronted by idealism and later by functionalism and neo-functionalism and other rational choice epistemologies. In the traditional reasoning or these approaches, multilateralism could provide a cost- effective way of providing, legitimizing, and implementing regional and global governance. But these theories also tried to explain how statehood, sovereignty, and the rationale of national interests performs as a structure of incentives and costs that ultimately hinder collective action and effective multilateralism. It could explain hegemonic practices and/or the widespread practice of freeriding, which discourages and limits the scope of effective multilateralism. At the heart of these debates, theories of hegemonic stability or some neo-Gramscian approaches could be seen as an attempt to overcome the limitations of the abstract models of rational choice, by returning to the study of long-term historical cycles, where global governance structures are sustained by global or regional hegemons or 'paymasters', whether benevolent or exploitative, with the capabilities and willingness to maintain the multilateral system.

Since the 1990s, academic enquiry into multilateralism has been reframed by a broader discussion about globalization and its negative effects on sovereignty, welfare, and democracy. This debate gave way to cosmopolitan and neo-Kantian approaches that feature a strong normative commitment to effective multilateralism and global governance from a cosmopolitan standpoint that claims new forms of multilevel governance, shared sovereignties, global or regional citizenships, and the re-balancing and democratization of international organizations. From this standpoint a renewed, legitimate, democratic, and effective multilateralism is both a rational and a moral imperative, related with the recognition of democracy and citizen's rights beyond the nation state, within a cosmopolitan framework of reciprocity, and an unprecedented system of international federalism, both at the regional and global level (Rodrik 2011; Archibugi and Held 2012).

However, these views have been challenged by non-Western or counterhegemonic interpretations of globalization because of their essentially Western-liberal roots or their neoliberal foundations and goals concerning capitalism on a global scale. The rejection of the liberal cosmopolitanism proposals of global governance are therefore part of a 'de-centered' and non-Western view of the international system (Arenal 2014); of 'posthegemonic' discourses and practices of regionalism (Riggirozzi and Tussie 2012); of claims of a 'cosmopolitanism' from below and from the South (De Sousa and Rodriguez-Garavito 2005), and it also contributes to the 'multipolar' projects of world order promoted by some developing and emerging countries.

This brief review of the main arguments for multilateralism and global governance also raises questions in the theoretical and epistemological realms. These approaches embody the prevailing rationalism of mainstream theories of international relations, even for normative approaches. In epistemological terms, they are based in assumptions and analytical categories such as power and/or interests, rational preferences, functional problemsolving rationales, or particular moral or political imperatives. But ultimately, epistemology becomes teleology, and global governance finds its legitimacy as a supposedly rational imperative rooted in the Western liberal or emancipatory project of modernity, which paradoxically also provided legitimacy to the nation state, national sovereignty, or national security.

The narratives described below will show how the rationality of global governance as a political or moral imperative and its Western foundations could be challenged from a reflexivist or constructivist standpoint. The analysis will posit that the supposed explanans may better be seen as an explanan- dum; that is, not as the explanation of these phenomena, but as discourses or representations guiding the social practices of political and social actors involved in certain historical contexts, that must be explained.

Therefore, views, representations, and explanations of multilateralism and global governance can be recognized as cognitive or ideational factors in interaction with the material forces and institutions that—as Cox (1996) pointed out, also constitute the international system, their structures, their actors, and their social practices and agency, by the means of shaping their identities, values, interests, fears, goals, visions, and other inter-subjective meanings. As Wendt (1999, p. 1) claimed, 'the structures of human association are determined primarily by shared ideas rather than material forces, and that the identities and interests of purposive actors are constructed by these shared ideas rather than given by nature'. This insight could be relevant for a critical exploration of the historical, political, and/or sociocultural factors explaining Latin American approaches to multilateralism, in the broader context of differences in regional/national views about global governance; about their necessity, forms, content, and legitimacy; about how debates concerning global governance are related with the prevailing social order and social conflicts in the global arena between hegemonic and counterhegemonic forces; and about how conflicting views of multilateralism are also contested blueprints for world orders (Cox 1996).

 
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