The New ‘Informal’ Multilateral Era

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Global challenges are likely to be resolved through coordinated national policies rather than formal international treaties, says Richard N. Haas in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman. Haas is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Gwertzman is consulting editor for CFR.org. For the full interview, please visit the council's Web site. A few excerpts:

    On Thursday, there's a special Security Council meeting in which President Obama will be in the chair to discuss nuclear nonproliferation. What is the meeting's goal?

    The only real subject on the nonproliferation agenda in the short run is Iran. The larger nuclear agenda will be what the United States and Russia can negotiate bilaterally. So it's not at all obvious to me that what happens this week in New York is central. I would actually say the same about several other issues.

    Like what?

    Climate change. There is simply no consensus either within the United States or within the world about what to do about global climate change. At a time of economic recession and limited growth, governments and countries will not do things in the name of long-term environmental gain that will simply increase short-term economic pain. It's highly unlikely that the U.S. Senate will pass anything that looks like a cap-and-trade bill along the lines of what passed the House. And even if the United States reached such a position, I don't believe there's any chance that the developing countries would sign on to meaningful ceilings.

    So this Copenhagen conference in December is likely to be a bust.

    People had better start thinking overtime about plan B because plan A, which you might call Kyoto 2.0, is not in the cards. Can I just make a larger point?

    Sure.

    In this era of international relations, we may need to start thinking less about formal international treaties and agreements and much more about what you might describe as coordinated national policies. So countries would agree, say in the environmental area, to certain types of common regulatory policies, to do certain things about coal plant construction and operation, to do certain things, say, about mileage requirements for automobiles, and that might be the most you can hope for.

    These countries would sign up to a set of principles or guidelines but it wouldn't be a formal international agreement. So again it's much more an agreement to coordinate or make parallel national moves rather than anything more formal.

    So in sum what did we learn this week?

    What we've learned is that on some of the toughest issues facing the United States and the world, there is not the requisite consensus either within the United States or between the United States and others to really move ahead. As a result, we are in an era of multilateralism that will not simply be selective or a la carte in terms of who signs on to what but also is likely to become much more informal. We're probably in an era in which formal international treaties and conventions and the like are much more the exception than the rule.

    Do you think President Obama took on too many issues?

    He would have been better served by not having so crowded and so ambitious an agenda. I would not, for example, have put health care so high up. But there has been progress on the economy. We no longer feel that we are on the precipice as we were earlier. The overall judgment is that the president and those around him inherited a very tough situation. And in some ways, in trying to do so much, they may have inadvertently made a tough situation tougher than it needed to be.

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