Tagged: multilateralism

Mathis Lohaus

Keohane’s Counter-Multilateralism


Yesterday, Bob Keohane gave a lecture at the Berlin Social Science Research Center (WZB). He presented a new paper co-authored with Julia Morse, who is a PhD candidate at Princeton. (Keohane, in case you somehow don’t know, is famous for his work on neoliberal institutionalism / the cooperation paradigm.)

Instead of summarizing the talk step-by-step, I’ll be a bit lazy and point you to the WZB’s announcement of the event:

“Counter-multilateralism” is an apt phrase to describe a pervasive contemporary phenomenon: the strategic use of multilateral institutions to challenge the rules, practices, or missions of multilateral institutions. States and non-state actors, intergovernmental organizations or non-governmental organizations form coalitions that respond to dissatisfaction by combining threats of exit, voice, and the creation of alternative institutions.

Keohane and Morse essentially claim two things:

  1. International politics is mainly about “cooperation in a crowded institutional space” (instead of, say, anarchy). That means that for any given problem, there will probably be a high degree of existing institutionalization, i.e. international regimes and/or organizations in place.
  2. When actors are dissatisfied with the status quo (and can’t change it from within), they will try to form a coalition in order to establish another institution that better suits their interests (instead of trying to act unilaterally).

In reference to the late Albert Hirschman, Keohane argued that actors will try to amplify their potential voice by “using multilateralism against itself”. This act of “counter-multilateralism” (“C-M”) can take one of two forms: Regime shifting (the coalition pushes issue X from institution A to institution B) or competitive regime creation (the coalition creates institution C to take over from A).

Keohane then gave a number of examples of successful and failed attempts for both types. Together with the remarks by the WZB’s Sonia Alonso (who was the first discussant), these cases did a good job of illustrating the many faces of counter-multilateralism and that Keohane’s framework offers a useful typology.

Nonetheless, the talk fell a bit short compared to the claims in the abstract:

[These coalitions’] intention is not merely to choose different venues for collective action (“forum-shopping”) but to change the practices or restrict the authority of the status quo institutions. (…) What are the condition that tend to generate counter-multilateralism? What does counter-multilateralism mean for Global Governance?

First, it’s not entirely clear to me how counter-multilateralism differs from forum-shopping and just general bargaining strategies. What’s the value added by using the concept? Also, there are some analytical problems. If the coalition’s demands are met before they really pursue the exit option, how will we know C-M when we see it? And in case it really comes to either regime shifting or competitive creation, what happens next?

Second, the conditions under which Keohane predicts C-M aren’t exactly precise: Actors need to be dissatisfied with the status quo (but just how much?), perceive C-M as a viable option (based on what?), and in order to succeed they should be powerful (how powerful?). Overall, C-M will become more common (to what effect?), as global politics are highly institutionalized while power is very dispersed (really?) and acting unilaterally is just not what states do anymore (really?)…

Don’t get me wrong: I think this is a great framework to think about the dynamics of international institutions. It’s just that – from what we’ve heard yesterday – Keohane seems to offer “just” a typology, but neither testable hypotheses nor precise indicators. I’m looking forward to the paper(s) on this idea.