Research Themes

Challenge to Multilateralism


Since the end of the Cold War, multilateralism – the practice of co-ordinating national policies in groups of three or more states based on a set of generalised principles of conduct – has become a norm of diplomatic practice and a key feature of international relations. However, this “principled multilateralism” as defined by John Ruggie runs up against three fundamental difficulties. First, the egalitarian conceptualisation of multilateralism clashes with state realities and disparities (size, population, prosperity, military capacity, etc). The acceptance of multilateralism, and the willingness of internalising and observing multilateral rules, therefore varies from states to states; and multilateralism often fails to provide a sufficient check against parochial national interest particularly for some “insurmountable states”. Second, some domains (e.g. trade) are inherently more amenable to multilateralism than others (e.g. defence), but many multilateral organisations are charged with managing a multitude of policy areas due either to deepening integration or broadening mandates. This increases the odds of a deadlock on one issue paralysing the whole institution and slowing down cooperation on other fronts. Third, the proliferation of non-state actors and their increasingly active participation in international affairs mean that the traditional multilateralism, designed primarily for the purpose of governing inter-governmental and interstate relations, is approaching its limits.

Against this backdrop, the CMM network will stimulate policy debate and academic research on the following three sub-themes related to challenges to multilateralism in Europe and Southeast Asia:

1. Regionalism – EU and ASEAN
Regionalism is in the DNA of Europe and Southeast Asia. The European Union (EU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are two of the more prominent regional organisations, and until recently, had been seen as relatively successful in their respective models of regionalism. However, with the recent trends in nationalism and populism, and the changing geostrategic picture, both the EU and ASEAN appear to be functioning at a sub-optimal level. Questions have been raised about their effectiveness and concerns over the trajectory of their developments.

The CMM network will then look into various obstacles that stand in the way for the EU and ASEAN to deliver effective regionalism. For example, how to tackle the EU’s democratic and reputational deficit? Is reforming the long-standing “ASEAN Way” a prerequisite for Southeast Asia to achieve higher levels of regional integration? If not, how to fine-tune the coalition-of-the-willing to advance regionalism?

However, strengthening regional institutions shall not come at the expense of other important stakeholders and domestic constituencies, such as individuals and non-governmental organisations. The CMM will also organise research activities to gain a better understanding of how broad-based, inclusive regionalism can serve to alleviate socio-economic divergence and political isolation within national borders.

2. EU’s and ASEAN’s “Record” in Multilateralism
Under this research strand, we will explore the EU’s and ASEAN’s engagement in various multilateral forums, taking into account the fact that both regional entities occasionally find it difficult to speak with one voice. Deepening research into this area can provide case studies for comparison to share best practices and encourage mutual policy learning. Research on how both regional organisations can collaborate to strengthen multilateralism and global governance also fall within the purview of the CMM network.

Multilateral frameworks that are of interest to us include the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), Asian Regional Forum (ARF), World Trade Organisation (WTO), G20, East Asia Summit (EAS), North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

3. Geopolitics and Geo-economics
Lastly, the CMM network will address how the EU and ASEAN respond to challenges and opportunities emanating from new and emerging geopolitical and geo-economic dynamics. In this regard, the rise of China deserves special attention. How to formulate coordinated or joint responses vis-a-vis China if Beijing resorts to the “divide-and-conquer” strategy? How can the EU and ASEAN synchronise their respective infrastructure development policies and regional integration schemes with China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative?

(Image credit: Mason Vank’s Maps from Wikimedia Commons)