The Transformation of Multilateralism Mode 1.0 to Mode 2.0




This article presents an analysis of the multilateral system, arguing that multilateralism is going through a profound set of changes as a result of: (1) the emergence of new multilateral actors; (2) the development of new multilateral playing fields; and (3) the rise of new concepts of multilateralism. This has consequences for world politics: the world is moving from unipolarity towards a networked form of multipolarity. This article proposes to grasp these changes through the ‘Web 2.0’ metaphor, as the existing multilateral system is contrasted with the emerging ‘Mode 2.0’ of which the main characteristics are: (1) the diversification of multilateral organisations; (2) the growing importance of nonstate actors such as substate regions and supranational regional organisations; (3) the increased interlinkages between policy domains; and (4) the growing space for citizen involvement. The main upshot is that the multilateral system is moving from a closed to an open system. Both states and international organisations will have to adapt to this new reality.

Policy Implications

  •  Policy makers and scholars need to be aware that the multilateral system is undergoing radical changes that affect global policy making.
  •  These changes bring with them new potentials for an increased efficiency and legitimacy of multilateralism.
  •  Multilateral organisations, regional organisations and states will have to adapt to the new reality and join forces to further shape the ‘Mode 2.0’ of multilateralism.

1. Multilateralism as a closed system

The present system of multilateralism has its origins in the Second World War and the failure of its precursor, the League of Nations (Schlesinger, 2003). At its heart lies the world view of Franklin Roosevelt who strove for a world founded upon four essential human freedoms: the freedom of expression, the freedom of religion, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear. For this to be realised, Roosevelt dreamed of a single organisation at global level that would bring all states together in order to maintain international peace and security; develop international cooperation in solving common economic, social and cultural problems; and promote and encourage human rights and fundamental freedoms (Jolly et al., 2005).

Roosevelt first suggested the name ‘United Nations’ in 1942 and on 26 June 1945 the UN Charter was signed and this marked an important date in the history of multilateralism.

Between 1945 and 2000 many other regional and global inter-state structures have been created to help to deal with the world’s problems. Today what is called the ‘multilateral system’ consists of a myriad of agencies and institutions, but a central place is given to the UN and the so-called ‘Bretton Woods’ institutions. Of course the principles of multilateralism go back further than 1945. One can link them to the emergence of a Westphalian world order built upon sovereign states and the possibilities and necessities for those states to cooperate with each other. Westphalia developed slowly over three and a half centuries and was never consolidated into one single document. Nor was the 1648 Treaty directly responsible for the creation of what we now call the modern or liberal constitutional sovereign state. The world order based upon a state system should rather be seen as an unintended consequence of Westphalia (Valaskakis, 2001, p. 48). It is a result of putting the sovereignty principle into practice that states became what they are: territorial entities that exclude external actors from domestic authority (Krasner, 1999). This in turn opened up room for a body of international law based on treaties between sovereign states.

Multilateralism was thus created as a form of cooperation among states which institutionalises intergovernmental cooperation and replaces anarchy. The starting point for most scholars who study multilateralism is the definition by Keohane and its expansion by Ruggie. ‘I limit multilateralism to arrangements involving states’ says Keohane (1990, p. 732, emphasis in original) and that is a core characteristic of most of the academic thinking on the issue. Multilateral arrangements are institutions defined by Keohane as ‘persistent sets of rules that constrain activity, shape expectations and prescribe roles’ (Keohane, 1988, p. 384) in a purely institutional (rather than normative) manner. Ruggie, however, presents a definition that is not only institutional but also normative, including behaviour. For Ruggie, multilateralism is:

an institutional form that coordinates relations among three or more states on the basis of generalised principles of conduct … which specify appropriate conduct for a class of actions, without regard for the particularistic interests of the parties or the strategic exigencies that may exist in any specific occurrence (Ruggie, 1993, p. 11).

Ikenberry states that multilateralism can emerge from the international system’s structural features, the independent influence of pre-existing multilateral institutions, domestic politics and, finally, that multilateralism can be traced to agentic sources (Ikenberry, 2009). A common feature of these and other contemporary viewpoints is the centrality of states: they are regarded as the constitutive elements of the multilateral system and it is their interrelations that determine the form and content of multilateralism. This implies, as noted by Schweller (2010, p. 149), that international politics is regarded as a closed system in at least two ways: it spans the whole world and there are huge barriers to entering the system. Indeed, the world is today almost fully carved up into sovereign states and this leaves little or no room for the creation of new states. This is a very different situation as, long after 1648 – seen as the birth of the Westphalian world order – large parts of the world’s territory did not qualify as sovereign states, which implied that there were many possibilities for the creation of new states. Hence, there has been an open international system for a long time. But over the years the whole globe became partitioned into sovereign states. Hence, it is a truism to say that the world has changed profoundly since multilateralism emerged and became institutionalised in its present form. But still it is good to be reminded of some of the key elements of those changes. First, when the UN was founded, two-thirds of its current members did not even exist as sovereign states as their people were still living under colonial rule. In 1948 there existed only 74 states in the world. Today, we are close to 200 states. Most of those states are relatively small (about half of today’s existing states have a population of less than 5 million). The more states participate in the multilateral system, the more difficult it becomes to govern it. This is reflected in the way multilateral institutions such as the UN function. Not surprisingly, then, in recent years the number of studies and reports dealing with ‘UN Reform’ has greatly increased. A substantive part of these reports deals with the bureaucratic aspects of the multilateral system in its day-to-day operation. The UN General Assembly for instance is sometimes accused of inefficiency as the sheer number of states has made it impossible to have real debates. Moreover, it has been calculated that in 2000–01 there have been 15,484 meetings in the UN system to which nearly 6,000 official reports were submitted (De Senarclens and Kazancigil, 2007, p. 27).

Secondly, when the UN was created, the world was not as ‘globalised’ as it is today. Trade barriers were high and so were transport and communications costs. Today, world exports have risen to extraordinary levels. Technological advances have created a new context for connectivity among people, industries and governments. Globalisation is the buzzword. However, the benefits and opportunities of globalisation remain highly concentrated among a small number of states. And while there have been successful efforts to craft strong rules facilitating the expansion of global markets, the social dimensions of these are far less well covered by global labour standards (Deacon et al., 2010). In other words, the multilateral system is unevenly developed. There is a relatively strong institutionalised form of economic multilateralism (cf. the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank) and political multilateralism (cf. the UN Security Council). Its functioning can be critically assessed and, although as mentioned before there are some success stories to report, there is also a track record of failures.

The present crisis of the Doha Development Round and the inability to reform the composition and functioning of the Security Council are just two examples. Finally, it should be noted that the development of multilateralism has been dominated by seeing international organisations as entities endowed with a specific task. As such, multilateral organisations are pictured as ‘extensions of states, doing those things that states cannot do on their own’ (Klabbers, 2005, p. 278). As a result, the multilateral system is very management oriented, built upon the premise that institutionalised cooperation between sovereign states will solve problems. But, at the end of the day, states remain in the driving seat. They determine how far the cooperation goes. Not surprisingly then, one of the dominant perspectives used to study global policy is the state-centric lens (Koenig-Archibugi, 2010).

2. The shift to multipolarity

Multilateral relations between states are not a game in which all players have equal rights and duties. There are also power differences between states. Thinking about multilateralism can hence not be done without referring to the world order and to the way international relations are organised in terms of power. World order, sometimes also called ‘international order’, has been defined by Bull (1999, p. 8) as ‘a pattern of activity that sustains the elementary or primary goals of the society of states, or international society’. For Bull, this included maintaining the sovereignty of states and the absence of war. Within this framework one can picture ‘poles’ (sometimes also labelled as ‘powers’) as states endowed with the resources, political will and institutional ability to project their interests at the global level.

From this perspective, the world has for a long time been organised around a ‘bipolar’ frame: the deep rift between the east and west and its precarious balance built upon the mutual assured destruction principle. With the end of the cold war, it was said that the world had become ‘unipolar’ (Krauthammer, 1990) with the US as a ‘lonely superpower’. But since 2001 there have been numerous signs and developments that testify that the unipolar moment of the US has come to an end. This does not necessarily imply a weakening of the US. As noted by Zakaria (2008, p. 2), the current shift to multipolarity can be seen as largely due to ‘the rise of the rest’: the unprecedented economic growth over the past decades in countries all over the world. ‘Multipolarity’ is indeed the new catchword. Others such as Haass speak of a ‘nonpolar’ world, ‘a world dominated not by one or two several states but rather by dozens of actors possessing and exercising various kinds of power’ (Haass, 2008, p. 44), and The Economist even mentioned the birth of a ‘neopolar’ world.1 Although, given the increased interconnectivity and interdependences between the poles, one could also speak of ‘interpolarity’, as Grevi (2009) does. While it is certainly true that the position of the US has weakened in recent years, this does not mean, however, that we can now picture the world order as one where several (super)powers compete with each other for dominance. Impressed by the rapid economic growth of the BRIC countries, it is often assumed that multipolarity is already there. But such pronouncements mistake current trajectories for final outcomes (Brooks and Wohlforth, 2009, p. 55). The reality is that there is still only one state with a global predominance: the US. The other poles are (still?) more regional than global (Brazil, India, China and Russia). A crucial issue in all this is the relationship between hegemony and regional poles. Acharya has rightly pointed to the crucial role of hegemons in defining and organising regions and to the centrality of regional security in world politics. He therefore proposes to speak about ‘regiopolarity’ rather than ‘multipolarity’ (Acharya, 2009, p. 7).

Multilateralism is clearly under challenge in the 21st century and has been so since the end of the cold war. More than a reflection of the failure of the concept, this crisis is the sign of a changing international context, which has rendered anachronistic the traditional intergovernmental multilateralism of the immediate post-Second World War era. In today’s reality, states play a relatively declining role as protagonists in the security system, as threats have acquired a system-wide significance. In order to overcome this crisis, multilateral institutions, namely the UN, need to adapt to this change, reinventing themselves according to the new context. Thus, as the world is changing, so must the concept of multilateral governance. The developments of recent years have put a severe strain on many of the traditional principles and tenets of multilateralism. As already mentioned, several authors have pointed to all kinds of dysfunctions such as the complexity of the UN system with its decentralised, overlapping and incoherent array of councils and agencies or to the divides between developed and developing countries. But, as Weiss (2008) noted, the core problem is systemic and rooted in a mismatch between an organisation founded to serve and protect sovereign states and the actual presence of global problems that go beyond the interest of individual states. The emergence of truly global problems such as climate change, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and many others have indeed led to an increasing paradox of governance: ‘the policy authority for tackling global problems still belongs to the states, while the sources of the problems and potential solutions are situated at transnational, regional or global level’ (Thakur and Van Langenhove, 2006). As such, the building blocks of multilateralism, the states, seem to be less and less capable of dealing with the challenges of globalisation. But because the multilateral world order is so dependent on the input of states, multilateralism itself is not functioning well. The drama according to Weiss (2008) is that the UN would never have emerged at all if it was not configured as an instrument of state interests.

In sum, there seem to be sufficient reasons to claim that ‘the values and institutions of multilateralism as currently constituted… are arguably under serious challenge’ (Newman and Thakur, 2006, p. 531, emphasis in original). But, as suggested by the same authors, the fundamental principle of multilateralism is not in crisis. What is needed is an update of the organisational issues in order to be in tune with today’s reality.

3. Web 2.0 as a metaphor for a renewed multilateralism

Multilateralism is thus both a normative concept (it is an ideal to promote) and a practice (it refers to a set of existing practices and institutions). At both levels it is subject to change and one can develop ideas on how an updated global multilateral governance system might look. One such vision could be called ‘Multilateralism 2.0’. This is a metaphor as it refers to a jargon used in the ICT world. As with all metaphors, it has its limitations. But metaphors in science can also serve the purpose of viewing things from new perspectives (Harré, 1976). There is a long tradition within international relations of using metaphors such as ‘balance of power’ or ‘concert of nations’ (for an overview, see Little, 2007). And as mentioned by Fry and O’Hagan (2000, p. 10), ‘metaphors that are deployed to understand world politics should also be seen as contributing to the constitution of world politics’. The core of the metaphor advanced here is an implicit reference to what is now called ‘Web 2.0’, a concept currently used to describe the second phase in the development of the World Wide Web. It describes the change from a ‘web’ consisting of individual websites to a full platform of interactive web applications to the end users on the World Wide Web. The Multilateralism 2.0 metaphor tries to grasp how the ideals and practices of multilateralism are currently undergoing a similar transformation. It is partially a descriptive metaphor as it tries to capture what is going on. But it is also a normative metaphor that points to what is possible and desirable.

From Multilateralism Mode 1.0 to Multilateralism Mode 2.0

Using ‘Web 2.0’ as a metaphor in thinking about governance is, however, not totally new. Even more, ‘Web 2.0’ practices are today influencing practices of governance as they are increasingly finding their way into public governance. ‘Government 2.0’ is a concept that attempts to capture the integration of the social networking and interactive advantages of Web 2.0 approaches into the practice of governments. As noted by Potter (2008, p. 121), ‘Web 2.0 has the potential to change fundamentally how foreign ministries manage knowledge and communicate’. Eggers (2005) wrote that there is a need for governments to move away from industrial approaches and into the information age. In other words, move away from the bureaucratic ideal to the networked organisations. But this implies more than just adopting Web 2.0 tools. It is also about recognising that conventional governments are unable to address society’s challenges alone. For Eggers (2005), the shift to Government 2.0 implies that the days of government – be it national or local – acting as singular actors are over. The new paradigm is one of collaboration between governments at different levels (including subnational governments) and between governments with all other relevant actors in society. The shift from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 also offers new opportunities for online public diplomacy in terms of advocacy and policy developments between governments and citizens across the globe to address cross-national policy challenges (Potter, 2008, p. 125). This in turn has consequences for how multilateralism is organised.

Ikenberry (2009) was the first to propose for international relations a somehow similar metaphor in an article on ‘liberal internationalism’ and America. He identifies three major versions or models of liberal international order: versions 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0. The first is associated with Woodrow Wilson’s ideas of an international order organised around a global collective security body in which sovereign states act together to uphold a system of territorial peace. The second is the more Rooseveltian idea of the US taking the lead in the post-1945 reconstruction and constructing the American-led liberal hegemonic order. The third is seen by Ikenberry as a post-hegemonic liberal internationalism that ‘has only partially appeared and whose full shape and logic is still uncertain’ (Ikenberry, 2009, p. 73). But he sees the 3.0 liberal order as one where ‘authority would move toward universal institutions’ (Ikenberry, 2009, p. 81) and as one where there is a further erosion of norms of Westphalian sovereignty as well as the continuing rise of the notion of ‘responsibility to protect’. In my view, Ikenberry overemphasises the differences between the varieties of liberal internationalism he describes. I would rather speak of versions 1.0, 1.1 and 1.2, as they all have the centrality of states in common. And he also underestimates the current changes and change drivers that are affecting multilateralism as an institutional practice.

A related concept to Multilateralism 2.0 is ‘new multilateralism’. This concept has been proposed by Björn Hettne in the context of a United Nations University Project (cf. Cox, 1997) in order to emphasise the importance of a participative civil society in building up multilateralism from below. Others, such as Solingen (1995), have used the concept to emphasise the entanglement of domestic and systemic levels. But these authors do not stress the multivariate network of actors that I see as essential for Mode 2.0 multilateralism.

The essence of introducing the ‘Web 2.0’ metaphor in international relations lies indeed in stressing the emergence of network thinking and practices in international relations and in the transformation of multilateralism from a closed to an open system. In Multilateralism 1.0 the principal agents in the inter-state space of international relations are states. National governments are the ‘star players’. Intergovernmental organisations are dependent agents whose degrees of freedom only go as far as the states allow them. The primacy of sovereignty is the ultimate principle of international relations. In Multilateralism 2.0, there are players other than sovereign states that play a role and some of these players challenge the notion of sovereignty and that makes the system much more open. The trend towards multipolarity is more than just a redistribution of power at the global level. It is also about a change in who the players are and how the playing field is organised. There are signs that Multilateralism 2.0 is partially already there. But of course there are also strong forces to continue with Multilateralism 1.0. As such it is not even certain that a fully fledged multilateral system version 2.0 will ever appear.

Multilateralism 2.0 in a renewed multipolar world order

A first characteristic of Multilateralism 2.0 is the diversification of multilateral organisations. In recent years there has been a dramatic rise of all kinds of international organisations and regimes. According to Schiavone (2001), the number of intergovernmental organisations has grown from 37 to well over 400 in the period between 1990 and 2000 (see also Higgott, 2006). While mostly operating on an intergovernmental basis, some of them have acquired considerable autonomy in the exercise of their competences or even have a ‘legal personality’ just as states (Ip, 2010). And increasingly these organisations look more to networks than to formal (bureaucratic) organisations. In line with a ‘transnationalisation of policies’ (Stone, 2004) one can state that Multilateralism 2.0 implies the rise of transnational policy networks (Djelic and Quach, 2003; Stone, 2008).

Secondly, there is a growing importance of nonstate actors at the regional rather than global level. States have by now created a large number of global and regional institutions that have themselves become players in the international order. Some of these new players, although not states, do resemble states. An institution such as the EU illustrates this trend (one can point for instance to its presence as observer in the UN, its coordination strategy at the International Monetary Fund, its membership at the G8, etc.). Other regional organisations are – although not to the same extent as the EU – following suit. As a result, one can say that we are currently witnessing a transition from a world of states to a world of states (including the BRICS as new global powers) and regions (Van Langenhove, 2007, 2008). This trend is further reinforced by the phenomenon of devolution whereby national powers are in some states transferred to subnational regions. Some of these subnational regional entities even have growing ambitions to be present on the international stage as well. It is a fascinating phenomenon: both supranational and subnational governance entities are created by states and can therefore be regarded as ‘dependent agencies’ of those states. However, once created, these entities begin to have a life of their own and are not always totally controllable by their founding fathers. The sub- and supra-entities have a tendency to behave ‘as if’ they were states. All of this challenges sovereignty as both the supranational and subnational regions to some extent indeed possess statehood properties. Again, the EU is illustrative as it is the only international organisation that gives citizenship to the citizens of its member states (Hoeksma, 2009). Together these factors have weakened the Westphalian relation between state and sovereignty. In Europe, Flanders has perhaps more autonomy in Belgium than Luxembourg in the EU. Yet, Luxembourg is considered to be a sovereign state, while Flanders is not. In classical multilateralism the principal agents in the inter-state space of international relations are states. National governments are the ‘star players’. Intergovernmental organisations are only dependent agents whose degrees of freedom only go as far as the states allow them. The primacy of sovereignty is the ultimate principle of international relations. In Multilateralism 2.0, there are players other than sovereign states and some of these players now challenge the notion of sovereignty. It is symptomatic of this trend that the Harvard Business Review chose as one of its ‘breakthrough ideas’ for 2010 the concept of ‘independent diplomacy’ (Ross, 2010). In that article the question was raised: why pretend that only nation states shape international affairs?

Thirdly, next to the increased relations between ‘vertical’ levels of governance, there is a growing interconnectivity between policy domains horizontally. Finance cannot be divorced from trade, security, climate, etc. A distinctive characteristic of Multilateralism 2.0 is thus that the boundaries between policy domains (and the organisations dealing with them) are becoming more and more permeable. Instead of clear separated areas of policy concern treated within separate institutions, there are now communities of different actors and layers which form together a global agora of multiple publics and plural institutions (Stone, 2008).

Finally, the involvement of citizens is in Multilateralism 1.0 largely limited to democratic representation at the state level. The supranational governance layer does not foresee direct involvement of civil society or of any other nongovernmental actors. In Multilateralism 2.0 there is increased room for nongovernmental actors at all levels. This is perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of Multilateralism 2.0 but also the most difficult one to organise. This is related to the state-centric and institutional focus of classical multilateral organisations. In such a closed system there is hardly any room for open debate, let alone for the involvement of citizens. But as Klabbers (2005) argued, there is evidence that an alternative is emerging, that of multilateral institutions functioning not so much as an organisation but rather as an agora, that is ‘a public realm in which institutional issues can be debated and perhaps, be decided’ (Klabbers, 2005, p. 382).

Organising multilateralism in a state-centric way has only been possible through the postulate of all states being treated as equal. This means that irrespective of the differences in territorial size, the size of their populations, their military power or economic strength, all states have the same legal personality. Or, in other words, the Westphalian principle of sovereign equality implies the principle of one state, one vote. This postulate does not of course correspond with reality. In Multilateralism 2.0 this can be balanced by a more flexible system that compares actors along certain dimensions (such as economic power) regardless of the type of actors they are. In other words, one can for instance compare large states with regions or small states with subnational regions. As such, one can picture Multilateralism 2.0 as an ad hoc order in which no single institution or organisation is the centre, no one framework ideal. This is what Haass called ‘à la carte multilateralism’. Or as Zakaria (2008, p. 242) noted, ‘the UN might work for one problem, NATO for another, the OAS for a third’. This allows not only a more flexible form of multilateralism, but it could perhaps also lead to a more just system with a more equal balance of powers.

The Multilateralism 1.0 world order is often pictured as a stratified space of layers of governance from local to global. Advocates of the principle of subsidiarity argue that all governance should be done at the lowest level possible. Others stress that cooperation between the different layers is needed to promote ‘multilevel’ governance. But recent reality is much more complex than a single bottom-up hierarchical line of governance. First of all, there is no single ‘top’ level in Multilateralism 2.0. The UN and Bretton Woods institutions together with new forums such as the G20 stand for a plurality of top levels.

Secondly, at the regional level there is no perfect match between a regional territory and a regional organisation. On the contrary, one can identify in most cases many different regional organisations that cover more or less the same territory. Thirdly, there is not a fixed set of poles but there are diverse and shifting poles at the level of continents, regions or states. Fourthly, as the multilateral theatre is no longer uniquely the playground for states, this opens the possibility for an increased civil society participation in global governance. And, finally, states are not necessarily the lowest level and in some cases subnational entities can have their own direct relations with the regional or global level without passing through the state level. The result is a complex web of relations between four types of actor with statehood properties (global institutions, regional organisations, states and subnational regional entities) together with nonstate actors such as nongovernmental organisations or transnational policy networks.

The transformation from Multilateralism 1.0 to Multilateralism 2.0 is currently happening and all actors (old and new) involved will have to further shape it and adapt to it. In the past, subsidiarity has been a powerful normative principle in trying to organise relations between the different levels of governance. The complexity of Multilateralism 2.0, however, calls for a new normative ideal to be used as guidance for good governance. Such a principle could be that of mutuality. According to this principle, ‘it should be the obligation of each level of government as it participates in joint decision-making to foster the legitimacy and capacity of the other’ (Landy and Teles, 2001, p. 414). Applied to Multilateralism 2.0, this would mean that rather than asking the question of whether this or that policy item is a regional, federal, European or global issue, the question to ask is ‘what conditions are necessary to enable a certain level of government to contribute to managing the issue and how can the other levels foster those conditions?’ In other words, governance at different levels should not be seen as competing activity. Instead, the different levels should act towards mutual strengthening.

But whatever the efficient principles used to organise multilateral relations, the main problem remains the legitimacy of global governance. Or as Lamy (2010) recently put it, ‘global governance is a challenge for democracy’. The trend towards Multilateralism 2.0 has the potential to increase the level of participation of civil society in global governance.


The main difference between the two modes of multilateralism described above is their degree of openness. Whereas the classical mode of multilateralism is a closed system, the emerging 2.0 is much more open to the extent that there are a constantly changing number of actors of different types. These actors form, through their interactions, different overlapping networks. On top of this, the actors themselves become much more an agora than an organisation. For Schweller (2010), the closed system of multilateralism is – metaphorically – subject to the second law of thermodynamics. Hence, the entropy increases and the system moves towards more disorder. The ongoing shift from unipolarity to multipolarity is seen as the manifestation of that trend (see also Haass, 2008, p. 52). But entropy is only a useful concept to understand a closed system. If, as argued above, multilateralism is evolving towards a more open system, then multipolarity brings with it the promise of new (temporary) balances in the world order.

But world orders do not change overnight. It took three and a half centuries to develop the Westphalian system into how it looks today. And, equally important, it never became consolidated into one single document. Furthermore, Multilateralism 1.0 and the related idea of a liberal international order is a still relatively young child of Westphalia. Meanwhile, globalisation now challenges that Westphalian world order.

However, neither states nor multilateral organisations are passively undergoing the forces of globalisation and the many technological changes that are altering the face of the world. They are changing themselves and they are stimulating changes in governance by inventing or introducing new practices and norms. Some multilateral organisations have moved away from the old-fashioned organisational forms, as for instance holding a General Assembly meeting lasting for weeks. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is an exemplar for this trend and could become a model for other international organisations as it is based upon relatively flexible peer-reviewed bottom-up approaches and the involvement of networks of experts and civil servants (Schäfer, 2006).

The problem is that there does not yet seem to be an overall normative policy framework to guide actions. Of course, one cannot hope that one single set of ideas could ever be a ‘solution’ to all current problems. Working towards such an ideology would certainly be counterproductive and perhaps even dangerous. But it cannot be denied that normative concepts and clear visions of where to go are an important element of any strategy change process. It is not without reason that in organisational reform so much emphasis is placed on the development of organisation visions and mission statements as the basis of strategic planning processes. This was also the case when multilateralism was originally shaped.

In sum, the signs are there that multilateralism is moving from a 1.0 mode to a 2.0 mode. But, as mentioned above, states have been the architects of Multilateralism 1.0 and they crafted a form of multilateralism that is in tune with state interests. The big challenge today is whether nonstate actors will have the power and degree of liberty to be involved in crafting Multilateralism 2.0. Regional organisations could be in a position to contribute to such a new regionalised world order. Bull (1977, p. 261) already imagined such a ‘more regionalised world system’. More recently, Katzenstein (2005, p. 1) stated that ‘ours is a world of regions’. And Slaughter (2004) described a ‘disaggregated world order’ where the model is in many ways the EU, which has indeed the ambition to be involved in such an operation. By embracing the principle of ‘effective multilateralism’, the EU has clearly indicated that it is willing to contribute to reforming multilateralism. But the paradox might be that its own member states with their own 1.0 forms of diplomacy are perhaps not ready yet for such a move.


  • The views expressed in this article are personal and do not reflect the views of the UN. The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013) under grant agreement no. 225722 (EU-GRASP Project).

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     Quoted in Acharya, 2009. See also Scholte (2008) for an overview of labels that try to capture the complexity of contemporary governance. Koenig-Archibugi (2010) speaks of a polycentric perspective.

Author Information

Luk Van Langenhove, Director of the Comparative Regional Integration Studies Institute of the United Nations University (UNU-CRIS) in Bruges and Representative of the Rector at UNESCO in Paris.