Junior Ambassadors Program 2019 - Laura Ulatowski

A Strengthened Normative Agenda for Reviving Multilateralism

By Laura Ulatowski

Photo: MSC / Kuhlmann

"Today's paradox is that, despite greater connectivity, societies are becoming more fragmented… In the end, it comes down to values." – Antonio Guterres, 2016

Growing Differentiations

Multilateralism is in danger with potentially dire consequences. Today’s security environment is characterised by a myriad of challenges. Russian revisionism in Eastern Europe, the rise of China and its geopolitical consequences, war in the Middle East that has led to one of the greatest refugee catastrophes, and terrorism threats across the globe. And the list goes on. However, this essay seeks to argue that the sustainability of the current system hinges not so much on the external environment that surrounds it but rather on the will of the people that live within it. The ideational normative sphere has become the Achilles’ heel of multilateralism. The willingness of certain political key actors to revise fundamental basic values can do considerable damage. Values and normative frameworks that lie at the foundation of multilateralism as the core pillars of that order have come under fire. More and more countries increasingly place their own narrowly defined self-interest above the common good.

Invigorate Normative Frameworks

As such, it is argued that a revitalised multilateral agenda must be built on the back of a strong, inclusive normative framework. In international relations, it is not only deeds that matter; words also do. There has been a major reconfiguration of power among states, resulting in a fundamental challenge to the existing rules by which the international system plays. Multilateralism, as the predominant form of cooperation since the middle of the 20th century, has frequently been stymied by changes at the sub-systemic level of domestic politics that aim at challenging the current world order. This far-reaching threat calls, yet again, for heightened cooperation among those that have been constructing that order in the first place. We need to be ever more determined to stand together to defend a rules-based global order as today’s complex international challenges require a multilateral response based on a shared understanding and common values.

Toward a new multilateralism: Some practical recommendations

  • Strengthen the normative agenda: Being able to adapt to changes will require strengthening the norms that will guide these processes.
  • Increase collective action: Collective action presupposes shared understanding of a set of norms that will provide the framework for an allocation of responsibility between member states.
  • Use multilateralism selectively: In certain circumstances multilateral approaches may lead to a stalemate, thus multilateralism will be much stronger if it is used selectively and strategically.
  • Direct civil society participation: There is growing dissatisfaction that multilateral institutions exclude the wider public they are meant to serve.
  • Regional institutions: Regional cooperation can be seen as an essential component in promoting order and stability within a broader global system which requires their full integration into the existing global normative framework.
  • Monitoring and accountability: Review and accountability mechanisms need to be strengthened to make norms matter.
  • Accommodate non-state actors: Large corporations and international NGOs are well-informed actors in specific fields and should therefore be integrated into multilateral negotiation processes.
  • Accommodate 'emerging powers': New global powers might be more interested in playing a part in the 'club', instead of attempting to disrupt existing norms and institutions, if those multilateral structures were seen as being sensitive to their needs and interests.
  • Acknowledge greater civic duties: A greater sense of international civic duty will be needed for people of every member state of multilateral organisations.
  • Revise decision-making processes: International organisations that are rendered paralysed through their rules of procedure need to revise their decision-making, as otherwise their procedural legitimacy will contribute to the erosion of their performance legitimacy.



Laura Ulatwoski is a graduate of the University of Leipzig and the University of St. Andrews. She holds a Master's degree in Middle Eastern, Caucasus and Central Asian Security Studies.