Junior Ambassadors Program 2019 - Arshan Barzani

How Middle Powers Can Save Multilateralism

by Arshan Barzani

Photo: United Nations Photo Library, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The golden days of multilateralism too often appear in the rear-view mirror. Challenges like climate change, arms control, and armed conflict imperil the peoples of the earth, but great powers have no hunger to take them on. Vetoes at the United Nations Security Council render resolutions dead on arrival. Treaties are on the wane, too: in the late nineties, the U.S. Senate provided advice and consent to over two dozen treaties a year; now, the number is little over two.

Where great powers have stepped back, middle powers have forged ahead. One by one, their treasuries may have less cash and their armies fewer battalions than any permanent member of the Security Council. But together they are diplomatic spearheads, providing multilateral solutions to pressing problems. When America and other big states resisted a standing UN peacekeeping force, middle powers led by Denmark raised a brigade that deployed to Ethiopia and Eritrea. Similarly, amid great powers' opposition to eliminating anti-personnel land mines, a coalition including Canada and Belgium concluded the Mine Ban Treaty, which has shaped norms ever since.

Pioneering middle powers from around the world should form a coalition to build upon this success. The main requirement for membership would be loyalty to the liberal order and a desire for multilateral answers to the severest questions of our age. An organisation dedicated to this aim would provide a forum in which states could revive multilateralism away from the great-power competition of the UN, the economic homogeneity of the OECD, and the geographic limits of regional groups.

This setting would promote "fast-track" diplomacy, a process that avoids seeking global consensus—a lengthy process that results in watered-down solutions—in favour of more thorough take-it-or-leave-it agreements. It was through this approach that middle powers successfully raised the peacekeeping brigade, concluded the Mine Ban Treaty, and even founded the International Criminal Court.

States like Germany and India, which are given to multilateralism but denied permanent Security Council seats, could instead lead in this venue. Smaller states with specific strengths—marine protection (the Seychelles), peacekeeping (Ghana), artificial intelligence (Switzerland)—would share their expertise to achieve lasting answers. Diplomats and civil servants from member states could take part in exchanges to collaborate and spread ideas. Member states would use their joint diplomatic sway to promote the group's vision and agreements, so that they can guide norms and lobby other countries to go along.

The spotlight of today's world stage shines brightly on hosts of clubs: post-colonial associations, development groups, defence pacts, and more. Missing is a solution-focused coalition of states varied in character but united in a belief that multilateralism is the way forward. More than ever, the time for such a group is now.


Arshan Barzani is a US Army cadet and student at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the position of the US Government.