Multilateralism: Is there a choice?

Secretary-General of the OECD

Some commentators say that the divisions over Iraq have put multilateralism in jeopardy. I have also participated in recent days in discussions as to how to heal the transatlantic rift. Relationships are said to be “frayed” or “irreparably damaged”. Really?

I am old and experienced enough to discard such passionate rhetoric, but I wonder why some politicians and commentators are attempting to convince the public of these claims by delivering the message through loudspeaker diplomacy at the highest levels.

There was a time not that long ago when bilateral or multilateral relations could be jeopardised by a political brouhaha between heads of state or even competing ministers trumpeting the views of their respective governments against those of another. One of the great benefits of globalisation is that those days are behind us, though perhaps not far enough behind to stop some of the silliness flowing from the edges of the Iraq affair, if I may call it that.

When I read of Americans pouring French wines down drains, I worry about the messages they are receiving as well as the logic of their action. Is theirs a lack of knowledge or simply a failure to assess the issues seriously? Is their objection to the policy of the French government best realised through punishing not only France’s wine growers, but their own wine merchants and distributors as well? And similarly, what of the boycott by some Europeans of Coca-Cola, perhaps not realising that it is manufactured in Europe and employs Europeans? Or the German doctor from Schleswig-Holstein reported by The Economist to have posted a notice saying he will no longer treat British or US patients, or their sympathisers?

These are but unfortunate theatrics, which attract the attention of a media always ready to bring the spectacular to a larger audience as part of their own tussle for market share. Such gestures have happened before. They will soon disappear and common sense will prevail.

By contrast, the merits of the military action in Iraq will be debated for years, decades, even longer. While it did not enjoy broad “multilateral” support, it has happened, and life must continue. Today that life is multilateral, whether one likes it or not.

When I entered public life in the 1970s, multilateralism was expressed in a fashion much different to now. It was seen as the UN, the GATT, the OECD, the World Bank, and the many other international bodies, some embryonic, some more mature.

Today I see multilateralism in a different light. It is really a combination or interface of these inter-governmental relationships with the phenomenon of globalisation. Business has globalised, culture has globalised, education has globalised; even the young have globalised, travelling the planet as my generation never had the means to do.

The fact is, whatever governments and their advisers might think, a statement by one or more political leaders on either side of a debate will neither fray nor destroy the seamless web that links Europe with North America and the rest of the world. When I meet Chinese economists, fluent in English or French, and who know the geography of Canada as well as I do, I rejoice. Those strong bonds that globalisation is bringing will assure the future of humankind. That is my hope.

Multilateralism is the heart of the OECD mandate. We intend to keep it that way at the inter-governmental level. We will succeed. But even if we were to fail in our own specific task, the real multilateralism of consequence to everyone’s daily life remains outside the corridors of political interest, and in the globalisation of markets, cultures and ideas, and the interdependence that has been created in the global village of the 21st century.

©OECD Observer No 237, May 2003

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