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The Resilience of Multilateralism

Address at the Symposium Multilatéralisme à la Carte: the Changing Face of the International Order, Organized by the Foundation ENI Enrico Mattei and
The Embassy of Canada in Rome,
Rome, January 28, 2019

Stéphane Dion
Prime Minister Trudeau’s Special Envoy to the European Union and Europe and Ambassador of Canada to Germany

Excellencies, distinguished colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

Today, we will be discussing how the face of multilateralism has been changing in recent years. Many say that the multilateral system has been weakened, that it is even ready to collapse, leaving at best only an “à la carte” approach in its wake, with states preferring to negotiate their relationships on a case-by-case basis.

Multilateralism is cooperation among states in accordance with international standards. These standards, which are either regional or global in scope, are codified in legal documents (charters, agreements, treaties, etc.) and institutionalized through a wide range of international organizations, with the United Nations at the centre.

In the absence of a global government, multilateralism, as it has developed since the mid-twentieth century, attempts to forestall the law of the jungle among sovereign states, fostering their peaceful cooperation toward common goals, which today cover all areas of human activity: peace and security, human rights, development, trade and finance, health, the environment, fisheries, transportation and communication channels, education, science and technology, and so on.

Since 1945, the multilateral system has served humanity well, even though states have not always respected it. Today, while border tensions and unresolved conflicts certainly exist, there are no direct wars between states, and the number of civil wars has dropped significantly. There are far fewer barriers to trade, universal rights enjoy much more respect, decolonization has taken place, control of pandemics has improved considerably, education has seen spectacular growth, extreme poverty has greatly declined and the standard of living has risen sharply. This progress can be attributed to many things, but it would not have been possible had states not adopted a set of common goals, legal rules, international organizations and other collective instruments that are part and parcel of multilateralism and an international order based on recognized standards and rules.

In the future, we will have to continue making progress on all these fronts, in addition to tackling increasingly urgent issues. This includes taking action against the terrible impacts of climate change and the collapse of biodiversity, feeding what will soon be nine billion human beings without exhausting our ecosystems, ensuring that access to freshwater does not become a source of conflict, not reigniting the cold war and the nuclear arms race, protecting populations from international terrorism and cyberattacks, halting wide-scale tax avoidance, and humanely managing migration flows and eliminating their causes. Clearly, one of the conditions for achieving all of this will be multilateralism; not necessarily increasingly extensive multilateralism, but certainly one that is ever more effective. These are global issues, and they require substantial cooperation to find solutions, supported by effective multilateral organizations.  

But multilateralism is in the hot seat. People everywhere are saying that it is in decline, even in freefall. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described it as being under “immense stress,” while Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed sees it as being under siege.1 In the words of Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, “There is a real risk today that the rule of the jungle replaces the rule of law.”2

In September 2018, this debate played out at the annual UN General Assembly, with, on the one side, U.S. president Donald Trump, who intends to assert his nation’s sovereignty in the face of globalization, and, on the other side, those who—like Canada—warn against the temptation to turn inward. China and Russia both denounce the new U.S. direction and are posing as champions of multilateralism, but with goals that worry liberal democracies.3  

The United States has provided crucial leadership in developing the current multilateral system since 1945, so it is understandable that some serious concerns are being raised. Especially since, at the same time, China has continued to wield more weight in global affairs: it has, for instance, become the second largest contributor to the UN’s budget. For the first time since 1945, the second-ranked country on the lists of the largest militaryandeconomic powers is not a liberal democracy. According to International Monetary Fund figures, while China accounted for only 1.6 percent of military spending and 1.7 percent of global GNP in 1990, it accounted for 13.8 percent and 15 percent, respectively, in 2017. The IMF predicts that the Chinese economy will be more than double the size of the U.S. economy by 2050.

China is already the top exporter and the leader in industrial production. The future of multilateralism will depend heavily on China’s involvement, and this will be more likely if the other major power, the United States, itself acts in concert for an increasingly effective multilateral system. China’s leaders profess their support for multilateralism, but that has not stopped them from, for instance, asserting their military power in the South China Sea and rejecting a Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that refutes their claims on that sea. Given this authoritarian power’s swift rise, the leaders of liberal democracies must strengthen their cohesiveness instead of weakening it.

As Canada’s foreign affairs minister, Chrystia Freeland, stated last June, “The far wiser path—and the more enduring one—is to strengthen our existing alliance of liberal democracies. To hold the door open to new friends, to countries that have their own troubled past…. To reform and renew the rules-based international order that we have built together. And in so doing to require that all states, whether democratic or not, play by common rules.”4 Call me an optimist: I believe that such progress is possible despite the current challenges.

Multilateralism has faced other problems. Indeed, there has never been a golden age in which practising multilateralism has not faced challenges. The end of the Cold War sparked hope that the difficulties were behind us and that multilateralism would henceforth be unimpeded. But states have always been inclined to follow the international rules that benefit them while ignoring or bending those they do not like. In a world fundamentally governed by state sovereignty, multilateralism will continue to be a system that cannot be taken for granted, one that requires constant attention.

It is a safe bet that multilateralism, the UN, the WTO, NATO and the European Union will survive today’s pressures like they have overcome past challenges.

In the United States itself, many political forces support these institutions. President Trump may well withdraw from certain aspects of the UN, but he will remain a member, if only because the United States is too fond of its permanent veto on the Security Council. He may threaten to withdraw from NATO, but that has not stopped his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, from describing the organization as “indispensable.”5 He may well refuse to appoint arbitration judges to the WTO, but he will still need that institution to enforce the enhanced intellectual property protections he is trying to obtain in his trade tug-of-war with China.

Nearly 9 out of 10 Americans (88 percent) want their country to continue playing an active role in the United Nations.6 Eighty-three percent want their country to continue working with its allies.7 Two thirds of Americans prefer a foreign policy that draws them closer to Europe rather than a more independent policy.8

Many states subscribe to multilateralism. No country other than the United States has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement. No other European country is following the United Kingdom in its bitter attempt to exit the European Union.

Although the European Union is facing numerous challenges, including the migration issue, its image is the most positive it has been since 2009, surpassing that of national governments and parliaments, according to Eurobarometer. This is especially true in Hungary and Poland.9

Canada is on the front line in supporting multilateralism, but not just to defend it, to improve it as well. No system, no matter how useful, is above criticism. Canada is vying for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council for 2021–2022 and plans to make promoting multilateralism one of the major objectives of its potential mandate.  

This, among other things, is why Canada is keenly interested in Secretary-General Guterres’s UN reform project and is re-engaging in UN peace operations to help make them more effective, safer for the populations being protected, and more open to diversity, especially the role of women. During its G7 presidency in 2018, Canada was able to engage contributors from all over the world to support women and girls living in conflict zones and fragile states. Canada is pushing for the negotiation of a fissile material cut-off treaty. It is stepping up to defend the World Trade Organization, but there again, it is interested in reforming that institution. Canada is negotiating trade agreements, but it is taking an innovative approach that leaves more room for the objectives of workers’ rights advocacy, food security, women’s empowerment and environmental protection.

In conclusion, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of multilateralism’s death are greatly exaggerated. The UN has just adopted the GlobalCompact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, and negotiations for peace in Yemen are being held under its auspices.

With committed, unwavering support, like that of Canada, I believe we can predict, with relative certainty, that multilateralism will weather the current storm and continue to be a key asset for humanity in its quest for a world that is more prosperous, fair, peaceful and respectful of our planet.


1 UN Affairs, “Multilateralism more vital than ever, as World War centenary looms: Security
Council,” UN News, November 9, 2018,; Simon Carswell, “UN is ‘under siege’ in Trump era, deputy leader claims,” The Irish Times, September 7, 2018,

2 Speech by High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini at the Harvard Kennedy

School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, December 3, 2018,

3 Ariana King, “China is ‘champion of multilateralism,’ foreign minister says,” Nikkei Asian Review,
September 29, 2018,

4 “Address by Minister Freeland when receiving Foreign Policy’s Diplomat of the Year Award,” remarks
by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Canada, Chrystia Freeland, Washington, United States, June 13, 2018,

5  “Restoring the Role of the Nation-State in the Liberal International Order,” remarks by Secretary of
State Michael Pompeo to the German Marshall Fund, Brussels, Belgium, December 4, 2018,

6 “Trump Voters and Millennials Agree on the Importance of the UN, New Poll Finds,” Better 
World Campaign, October 19, 2017,

7 Ibid.

8 Jacob Poushter and Alexandra Castillo, “Americans and Germans are worlds apart in views of
their countries’ relationship,” Pew Research Center, November 26, 2018,

9 “Autumn 2018 Standard Eurobarometer: Positive image of the EU prevails ahead of the European
elections,” European Commission, Brussels, December 21, 2018, Also Zsolt Boda et al., “Societal change and trust in institutions,” Eurofound, December 12, 2018,

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