Readers' Views No 238, July 2003
OECD Observer

I read with interest secretary-general Donald Johnston’s recent leader (“Multilateralism: Is there a choice?”, OECD Observer No 237, May 2003, also online). His optimism is inspiring, but I wonder if it is not a bit excessive.

Meeting Chinese economists who speak English and French and know the geography of Canada well is heartening, and yes, in the past, political squabbles were often more for show, but is this conclusive evidence that multilateralism is not now in trouble?

Multilateralism is not a modern phenomenon. It was arguably greater during Roman times. More recently, at the turn of the 20th century, trade and political co-operation was strong between many parts of the globe, with British banks busy lending – and occasionally going bust in the process – in South America. It does not take much for such links to be severed. I met an American couple in France recently who felt they had endured the scorn of their compatriots by coming to Europe this year. “You will have rotten tomatoes thrown at you,” they were warned. Instead, they were welcomed with pastis and taught French boules.

Still, many Americans argue that they don’t need Europe and its old ideas, and ignore the viewpoints of other parts of the world. Multilateralism can be compared to marriage. For it to work, people need to have a vested interest in its success. America’s overwhelming military and economic power means it can get its way on almost any issue, regardless of what anyone else thinks. And this includes the multilateral agencies it helped to build. In addition, a lack of knowledge on all sides is bound to lead to uncertainty. The consequences could be a Cold War-type global politics based on fear and scepticism. It is paramount that organisations such as the OECD and the UN continue to press the case for multilateralism. Now is not the time for complacency.

—Rupert Wright, Quest Media, 34320 Gabian, France

©OECD Observer No 238, July 2003 

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