Polylateralism as the way forward, a conversation with Pascal Lamy

Polylateralism as the way forward, a conversation with Pascal Lamy


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Polylateralism as the way forward, a conversation with Pascal Lamy

To define the Paris Peace Forum’s action, you put forward the concept of polylateralism. Could you come back to this neologism and explain how it seems to be relevant as a way out of contemporary chaos ? 

PASCAL LAMY — If I adopted the concept of polylateralism, it is because I intended to expand both  the inter of international and the multi of multilateral. I wanted to propose an effective method to escape the impasse of state multilateralism and what I provocatively called “diplocracy”. This method intends to widen the interstices of the inter and the multi, in order to include new actors : NGOs, businesses, cities, large academic institutions… Today’s main priorities, from Covid-19 to the ecological transition, or to the digital transformation, or even the management of the global economy, are not anymore within the scope of a classic Westphalian approach. This must be acknowledged. Polylateralism offers another perspective. 

What is the origin of this concept ?

The idea came to me while reflecting on explanations for the impotence of the contemporary Westphalian order and the chaos which stems from it. The multilateral order is based on one principle : the sovereignty of nation states. However, this notion has become a fiction. Great fictions can be useful and have been very convenient : the  principle of sovereignty contributed to the nationalisation of religious wars in the 17th century. However, from my professional vantage point, I came to realise that, as globalisation developed, sovereignty crumbled. The State progressively lost control and the fiction of sovereignty solved less problems than it actually caused. 

Why ? 

From a country-level viewpoint, one could consider that the nation state embodies an aggregation of conflicting realities, tensions and actors which are heterogeneous but interact within a framework held together by a common sense of belonging. At the international level, inter-state relationships are by no means able to coordinate all human organisations dealing with international issues. There are a certain number of businesses and a bunch of NGOs or of cities which are de facto, if not de jure, international agents. There is an increasing number of them ! If one believes that WWF or Greenpeace are not multinational organisations, in the same way as multinational companies or the United Nations, one is seriously mistaken. Such organisms are organised groups of people taking action on a global scale. When we talk with President Lee Bollinger about projects at Columbia University, the relevant scale is not Uptown or New York, or even the United States. It is the world.

Polylateralism is about including those actors who otherwise have little weight in the formal multilateral framework of nation states. Those heterogeneous actors carry an energy and a dynamic which we struggle to exploit appropriately. Thanks to its action, projects, coalitions, and multiple formats, the Paris Peace Forum was designed to offer a polylateral method, a collaborative platform for global impact, in order to make it possible for this myriad of actors to work not for peace but on peace. 

Could you come back to your criticism of state multilateralism ? Why is it inefficient ?

Building an international system based on a flawed fiction does not produce harmonious results. Our multilateral system is based on all kinds of formalisms. Jurists continue to claim that nation states are all equal. From a formal perspective, this is true : nation states are all equal. In practice, however, their relations are asymmetric. As a matter of illustration, states are all legitimate entities by definition. The government is therefore legitimate to speak on behalf of the state. Drawing from this observation, one can deduce that organisations made of legitimate nation states are themselves legitimate, through the transitivity of their legitimacy which stems from the monopoly of nation states. This is a coherent approach in an environment regimented by legal concepts, but it does not correspond to the reality of political, economic, social, and cultural global relations. 

Would you say that polylateralism offers a realistic reinterpretation of multilateralism ? A kind of realistic aggiornamento ?  

In a way, yes. But I do not embrace the notion of realism. What matches reality is not necessarily what is right. We might want something else, we can make the world a better place. This is precisely the reason why it is necessary to accept that promoting a diversity of approaches is virtuous. Sometimes, available energies reveal and express themselves through the most improbable formats. Polylateralism is truly about results-oriented coalitions which do not necessarily need to be sustained once the result is achieved. They are networked, more horizontal organisations, probably more ephemeral and less legitimate on a theoretical level.

Could you give us an example ? 

One example which truly struck me was the fight against AIDS, to mention another great pandemic. As long as the issue remained within the arena of multilateral institutions, treaties, the WHO… nothing really moved forward. Things only started to change once the association Act-Up made very unpleasant provocations (of which I was the target on occasion), when the pharmaceutical industry was torn apart over whether or not tiered pricing should be introduced, when philanthropists like Bill Gates and others said, « we step in to move faster ». This is how the Global Fund to Fight AIDS eventually emerged and how the virus gradually came under control.

If one compares the board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS to the UN Security Council, one will realise the difference between the international, the multilateral, and the polylateral. Of course, if I had been told, when I was studying at ENA (École nationale d’administration), that Act-up, the pharmaceutical industry, and Bill Gates were the relevant actors to fight a pandemic, I would have said : “Hey, this cannot be right, who are these intruders threatening sovereignty ?” 

Is polylateralism partly contradictory to multilateralism ? 

In one word, yes. Polylateralism is meant to transcend the limits of diplomacy. The monopoly of international relations remains assigned to nation states, who themselves entrust its practice to diplomats. This circuit generates a tremendously inefficient system to organise the contemporary world. We of course need to be careful not to engage in  some sort of religious war against diplomats, against their sociology, against their habits, against the fact that, as I have often said — including publicly — I know quite a few of them who have been fired for saying “yes”, but I do not know any of them who has been fired for saying “no.” This is the most visible problem with the Westphalian system and the way it is managed.

Do you consider that your experience and background on globalisation have influenced this notion ? 

Yes, of course, it is a long story. This intuition came to me progressively. I advantageously started in business school and at the Inspection générale des finances (IGF) in France, meaning that I was rapidly interested in results, in what systems produce, their effects rather than their design, however pure or perfect they may be from the point of view of conceptual aesthetics. 

Early on, I also came to realize how inefficient the international system was. At a very young age, I had the great privilege to participate in the preparation of the G7 as sherpa. This grouping was already a failed attempt to tackle those inefficiencies. Similarly, the G20 is in a sort of deadlock today. 

Such attempts sought to surpass the diplomatic system by establishing contacts at the highest level, without traditional intermediaries. For a while, Heads of State and Government wanted to get rid of formal attributes bestowed upon them, in which they felt trapped. But this was an existential threat to the Westphalian system, which eventually regained control on this direct channel of informal discussion between top leaders.

Yet, to a large extent, your direct experience of international affairs has not been gained through polylateral institutions.

Indeed, none of the institutions I have had the honour to work for — i.e., the French Republic, the European Union, and the WTO — are examples of polylateralism. They are national, inter-national or supra-national structures. The WTO is an inter-national organisation, because businessses who trade have no say in setting the rules of international trade, at least not directly. This is actually quite normal because, for the moment, there is only one polylateral organisation : the International Labor Organization (ILO). The ILO emerged from the Treaty of Versailles, when Léon Bourgeois and other solidarists understood that peace was a matter of conflict prevention and that gathering states, capitalists, and workers around the same table was the way to deal with the origins of World War I. It was a very interesting idea, early polylateralismin a way. But too early as it remains the only international organisation of this sort, the efficiency of which is still debated today. 

To better grasp your definition, it would be interesting to approach the question of actors from a scalar perspective. Indeed, if we take the example of the ILO, we notice that it does not include cities or regions… Yet, isn’t it the aim of polylateralism to open up the international space to heterogeneous legitimacies ?

Absolutely ! The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which encompasses a group of cities taking climate actions around the world, is a striking example in this regard. This organisation has played an important role in the success of the Paris climate Conference in 2015 which, itself, stemmed from the failure of the Copenhagen Conference and its diplomatic approach. There are non-state entities whose international influence is far greater than many nation states. There are cities and regions which could almost be granted international status. However, they do not possess the sovereignty features of nation states and should not be embodied with such features because it would create seriously detrimental conflicting dynamics with higher entities. 

However, it remains true that cities like New York and Paris are international geopolitical and geoeconomic actors today. It is at the scale of such structures that the relationship between legitimacy and power is strongest. Mayors have more legitimacy than other representatives because they experience field work reality : legitimacy is inversely proportional to distance. Large cities are powerful because they are responsible for the management of very extensive networks which, in the modern world, are the source of genuine sovereignty. The key to power and legitimacy is increasingly linked to the effective management of such networks. Whether it be transportation networks, energy, or information, whether it relates to education or the supply of rare natural resources.

This idea is nonetheless subject to criticism : is polylateralism at risk of becoming a kind of realpolitik which would legitimize strength ? If Paris and New York sit together but do not interact with, let’s say, the little town of Aosta, this can be problematic in many ways.

We are indeed departing from the fiction of equality between nation states. Anybody who is familiar with conventional politics would raise the question : “What is the legitimacy of a coalition between Bill Gates, Ms. Hidalgo, and the head of Greenpeace, Danone or Unilever ? Where do those people draw their legitimacy from ?” It may sound like a very good question, but it forces us to think too formally. I would instead suggest to look at the reality of such interactions. If the goal is to improve life and the world in general, isn’t legitimacy to be found in results rather than in the format which is supposed to give those results, especially when this format gives little to no results ?

In that regard, why do you think multilateralism has not been able to deal with the Covid-19 crisis and how do you think polylateralism could have been more effective in the fight against the pandemic ? 

I was recently listening to Monique Eloit, the head of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), and it was captivating. The OIE is among the few truly efficient international organizations. Why ? Because it is based on the meat trade. Assuming that a cow catches the foot-and-mouth disease in an Argentinian province, the province would be immediately dismissed ; no one would buy meat coming from this specific area anymore and Argentinian authorities would draw the consequences. The reason why this procedure is efficient is that failure to comply leads to immediate blacklisting from the meat trade. That being said, such animals are farmed. Let us be careful, this type of solution does not exist for what appears to be the most dangerous source of contamination : wild animals. 

From an international standpoint, epizootics are founded upon another monopoly : the horizontal trust which veterinarians vest in one another beyond national borders. Vets respect each other more than they might respect agriculture ministers. The World Organization for Animal Health thereby de facto becomes the international organization of veterinarians in which action is taken on the basis of mutual trust.    

Is the World Organization for Animal Health legitimate and efficient thanks to this expertise ?   

It works because qualified vets trust each other and make decisions collectively. Of course, this is a tragedy for a small farmer of the French hinterland who must slaughter his chickens or ducks. But it is part of the rulebook of market capitalism and meat trade. There is no ideological rationale. In a society which consumes considerable amounts of meat — probably excessive amounts — meat producers will be in a difficult position if consumers stop buying their products. There is a kind of automatic cooperation engraved in the infrastructure of the economy. I often wish that such a necessity would also impose itself about dealing with humans in need of rescue.

Has the Covid-19 crisis been polylateral so far ? 

In the beginning, I claimed that the Covid-19 crisis perfectly illustrated what a lack of international cooperation looks like. I have been proven partly wrong. In the health sector, doctors, researchers, and epidemiologists seem to have work significantly more at the international level this year than they did in previous years. Florence Gaub, the director of the EUISS, provided figures which I find very interesting : the number of Chinese-American co-publications about Covid-19 in medical journals has doubled this year. Laboratories engage with one another, some announcing their intention to share the intellectual property of vaccines. There is definitely something going on which could probably be called  polylateralism but the prevalent narrative in the media remains framed around inter-state competition.  

Could the polylateral method thwart or at least impact the rivalry between the US and China ? 

It is hard to say, because China is hardly in favor of anything poly at all. NGOs do not really exist there, because they need some freedom of speech to develop and criticize, which is not available in China. Moreover, companies are also largely state-controlled or -owned. The rivalry between the US and China is a genuine geopolitical rivalry. Unless China relaxes its system, I can hardly imagine Chinese and American NGOs getting together to seek solutions solely for efficiency purposes, without taking the state level into account. A limit, indeed, to polylateralism.

Are you not afraid that polylateralism is a concept which responds exclusively to a European crisis and European needs ?

Of course, polylateralism does not work well within undermined liberal systems. But it works pretty effectively in areas where political systems are weak, in some parts of Africa for instance. If one considers the example of the European Green Deal, it is true that China’s 2060 carbon neutrality objective definitely has something to do with the fact that the EU, an institution, first committed to achieve carbon-neutrality by 2050. However, NGOs, the C40, the European Climate Foundation or business coalitions such as B4IG have also played a significant role which should be better acknowledged..

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Pascal Lamy, Gilles Gressani, Polylateralism as the way forward, a conversation with Pascal Lamy, Dec 2020,

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