Indeed, the U.S. has been refocusing its foreign policy and Obama has been using the term multilateralism repeatedly. Multilateralism is a prudent strategy for the U.S. and the international system at large, however it is incomplete. Multilateralism has reached its limits when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, recognition of Palestine, the six party talks on North Korea, and Kosovo’s independence – to name just a few thorny issues.
In a world of diminished U.S. involvement and unsuccessful multilateralist endeavors, an alternative vision for global engagement is necessary. Instead we are faced with a reluctant China, an unprepared India, an European Union in the midst of a financial debacle and a host of regional powers that focus on their neighborhood rather than claiming a global role. Given these realities, regional multilateralism can serve as the way out from this dead end.
Regionally, the Middle East is as explosive as ever. The Western Balkans are doubtful about their future within the European Union and may again implode. The African continent has many ongoing conflicts and even more potential ones unresolved. In Latin America at least two alternative visions for the region are competing. The Far East is actively searching ways to live with the rise of China. These and other contemporary problems can be better solved at the regional rather than the bilateral or global levels.
This context highlights the importance of regional integration and multilateralism. Regional multilateralism is building on these very ideas. Bringing these two together is necessary in today’s world. The buds of regional integration are everywhere in the making but they have not yet been clearly connected with the principles of multilateralism.
The EU serves as an example of regional integration and others are following its steps. The African Union has also stepped up its peacekeeping efforts and moved toward further economic integration. However, the quest for regional multilateralism should not be confined by a conventional understanding of geography. For instance, Russia may be a force for stability both in the Far East and Central Asia, China may have a stake in the affairs of Latin America and Africa, and different parts of what we call the Middle East may integrate with parts of Central Asia or Europe. The very prospect of Turkey joining the EU may be a sign of such developments.
Cross-regional cooperation is key to regional multilateralism. The transatlantic dialogue model between the U.S. and Europe can and should be exported. For instance, in the Far East the U.S. and the EU both cooperate with ASEAN. China and Russia have extended their ties through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This however did not prevent Russia from establishing the Eurasian Union, in a way reclaiming its sphere of influence. The Middle East, on the other hand, is in dire need of broader – albeit imaginative – regional integration.
The inability of any one power to confront global challenges will lead responsible powers into the fold of regional multilateralism. The transition will be facilitated if it builds on existing regional integration structures. This way, every state will ultimately become a stakeholder in the international system.
For that to happen, regional leaders need to operate as focal points. They need to listen, persuade and inspire insiders, while coordinating with outsiders. This process is different from the traditional spheres of influence system. It is based not on Monroe Doctrine-type of arrangements and coercion but rather on reassuring security umbrellas and mutually beneficial trade blocs.
Within this new paradigm, emerging regional leaders – such as China, Russia, India, Japan, Brazil, Turkey, and South Africa – will play a more significant role within their regions while at the same time will take part in cross regional and global issues.
Editor’s Note: Harris Mylonas is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University and Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies. Emirhan Yorulmazlar is Fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University.