Monday 3 June 2013

The Big Idea: Multi-Lateralism

7-7-7 is the magic number if the West doesn't want to die
Long-time United Nations insider Kishore Mahbubani wants the UN to give smaller countries more seats on its Security Council - in three groups of seven - which protects Western interests too
By Cheong Suk-Wai, The Straits Times, 1 Jun 2013

WITH more than 94,000 people killed so far, the civil war in Syria that has been going on for 21/2 years rages on.

It was ignited by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's bloody crackdown on his own people in April 2011, after they protested against his regime's torture of students who, inspired by the Arab Spring, had put up anti-government graffiti.

That escalated into an armed uprising in December 2011, exacerbated by ethnic strife between Mr Assad's elite minority and the Sunni majority he governs.

So where is global peacekeeper the United Nations (UN) in all this?

Well and truly deadlocked, says Singaporean public policy don Kishore Mahbubani, who has been the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy here since 2004.

Meeting The Straits Times in his book-lined office at the National University of Singapore's Bukit Timah campus here last week, Professor Mahbubani says the United States, Britain and France want the UN to intervene in the horrific conflict, but cannot act because China and Russia are squarely against doing so.

These five countries are the only permanent members of the UN Security Council, its highest decision-making wing, which can block one another's proposals with what is called a veto. If just one among the five - known as P5 for short - vetoes an idea, it is back to square one for everyone.

Worse, Prof Mahbubani says, the P5 are not obliged to explain their decisions to anyone, not even the International Court of Justice. "So," he quips, "I say that the last dictators in this world may be the P5."

Of China and Russia's refusal to help save Syrians, Prof Mahbubani says: "It's important to understand that they are asking why its president Bashar Al-Assad should go because when they agreed to allow the UN to intervene in Libya in 2012, they didn't expect Nato to launch a full-blast invasion of that country.

"So they felt that they were cheated in that situation and are now very reluctant to give similar consent in Syria."

Nato is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, a Western political and military alliance to defend democracy.

The UN, which has 193 members, seems slow to learn from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which close to a million people were butchered in tribal conflict, after the US vetoed intervention.

Actually, he demurs, the UN has learnt that lesson only too well; it's just that its 68-year-old system of global governance has been stacked against non-P5 countries from the start, as he writes in his best-selling new book, The Great Convergence.

"One of the most painful and dirty secrets that I expose," he muses, "is that it has been conscious Western policy to keep the UN and multilateral institutions like it as weak as possible, so they don't constrain Western power."

The thing is, he points out, the UN cannot stumble on credibly with the weight of Syria and Rwanda on its conscience.

Prof Mahbubani's solution to arrest that is what he calls his "7-7-7" formula of opening the old boys' club that is the P5 to more members. He calls it "win-win-win" to flip the UN's current culture of "big winners and big losers" which, he notes, gives nobody an incentive to change for the better.

Currently, the council has a total of 15 members - the P5 plus 10 other countries elected by all members of the UN to serve two-year terms. But, he says, the P5 treat the 10 elected members as "observers", so every time anyone among the 10 suggests improvements, the P5 say: "Why are these tourists trying to rearrange the furniture in our club?"

Here, then, is how he proposes to make the council one that "is for the world of tomorrow, not the world of yesterday":

Grow council membership from 15 to 21 members now, with all members selected according to how much promise they have as a great power of tomorrow, how big their populations are and how healthy their GDP is;

Expand the P5 to a P7. The US, China and Russia retain their seats, but Britain and France make way for the European

Union, which gets one seat. The other three seats go to India, Nigeria and Brazil, the three biggest countries from the world's three most populous continents, that is, Asia, Africa and Latin America. All seven have veto powers but, for the first time, the privilege will come with hefty duties, chiefly to contribute more money and logistics than other UN members to keep the peace in troubled spots;

The next seven members will have no veto powers, but will definitely have a seat on the council for two years every time they are selected, from a pool of 28 candidate countries. Given how jealous countries are of those who have permanent seat status, Prof Mahbubani says this pool will most likely be made up of rivals of the P7, including Pakistan, which is India's nemesis. In this way, he says, "losers become winners too"; and

The last seven members will also be semi-permanent, not have a veto and be chosen from small and medium-sized countries.

He does not, however, think that the P5's veto powers should go. "By giving the great powers the veto, you're giving them a stake in the UN, and so reason to help solve global problems."

But why would the West want to share power with those over whom they have long lorded? Simple, he says. If it doesn't open its club to all, it might soon not have a club at all.

"So I'm not appealing to Western idealism or altruism; I'm just appealing to Western self-interest."

The 64-year-old married father of three and former President's Scholar was a diplomat for 33 years and is well-versed in the workings of the UN, having been Singapore's UN envoy twice and presiding over the council in January 2001 and again in May 2002.

He says he provokes the West "deliberately" because their pundits "like to look down and lecture the rest of the world".

He rues: "They assume that they are full of moral virtue and the rest of the world is full of moral vice."

He collects double standards

Prof Kishore Mahbubani on:


"I sometimes say my hobby is collecting Western double standards - and I have a world-class collection of them."


"The best way they show it is by ignoring my views."


"Because I'm a bit more worried about Singapore now than I used to be. I used to focus on the rest of the world's problems because Singapore had the capacity to solve all its problems simply, clearly and rationally."


"Just go to any neighbouring country and try out their public services. You'll realise just how far ahead Singapore is, when it's not easy to develop a Public Service. It's not perfect, but it's amazing."


"Real, candid dialogue between the parties in opposing camps. Can't they figure out what the middle ground is, on which we all agree?"

THE BIG IDEA IN HISTORY: Multilateralism

FOR much of the 20th century, the world was bipolar in global affairs. Two powers dominated - the United States which stood for freedom and the Soviet Union representing authoritarian control - while the rest of the world fell into either camp.

When communism in the West came crashing down after 1989, countries scrambled to forge new ties with one another.

Multilateralism began to bud, as it helps protect the interests of many in a tangled world.

Multilateralism is about having three or more players work together towards a common goal, be it ending conflict or sustaining life.

The first multilateral body, called the League of Nations, was mooted by US president Woodrow Wilson in 1918 to prevent another world war.

But the US refused to sign up to it because the League would not give it a veto over smaller countries.

Multilateralism's greatest challenge remains the same: persuade big powers to stop trying to block smaller ones from having a say in global decision-making.

THE BIG IDEA IN ACTION: Too many cooks - good or bad?

MULTILATERALISM is akin to having many cooks make a soup - but won't they spoil it?

Associate Professor Tan See Seng, 47, who heads the Centre for Multilateralism Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies here, says the answer to that boils down to two schools of thought - Big M or Small M.

Big M is big multilateralism, in which having more people represented in a group, such as the United Nations, is more important than running that group efficiently and arriving at effective decisions.

So, for example, after regional grouping Asean expanded from six to 10 members in the 1990s, welcoming Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (CLMV) into the fold, Prof Tan argues that CLMV began to bog down Asean decision-making, such as when CLMV opposed the setting up of a human rights commission in 2007.

So the other school, Small M or small multilateralism, would prefer fewer players in decision-making, for greater efficacy. An example of this would be the Group of 20 (G-20), a club of the biggest rich countries which tackle global economic and financial concerns.

Prof Tan notes that Singapore has tried for many years to have a fixed seat at the G-20 table, but is still a guest at best.

So, he adds, Singapore has made the most of its presence by getting the views of smaller powers to the G-20 so that the latter "listens to voices on its periphery".

Prof Tan says that, in the long term, Big M might be better: "Big M might seem like too many cooks crowding the kitchen, but once everyone in it agrees, Big M players can move cooperation forward more impactfully than Small M, which is a very elitist concept."

No comments:

Post a Comment