Minilateralism, effective multilateralism and the global nuclear order

How can minilateralism better complement effective multilateral institutions, particularly in the global nuclear order where multilateral stagnation and deadlock have become such pressing challenges? In the wake of the 2023 report by the High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism, this new article by Megan Dee argues that minilateral groupings can complement effective multilateralism, but only when they are willing and able to proactively integrate their activities within established wider membership multilateral institutions, and when they, in turn, are perceived as legitimate.

According to the 2023 report of the High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism [HLAB] global nuclear weapons governance is associated with ‘deadlock in multilateral processes’ and ‘stagnation’ in the pursuit of denuclearization. Interestingly, the HLAB report particularly highlights that for multilateralism to be effective it must be flexible, ‘allowing sub-groupings of states to explore, innovate, and implement new approaches to global problems for broader deliberation and adoption’. In short, minilateralism, or the “bringing together of the smallest possible number of countries needed to have the largest possible impact on solving a particular problem”, is called for.

Yet both the concept of minilateralism, and how complementary it actually is to effective multilateral institutions remains under studied and uncertain. While considered an efficient, and pragmatic solution to overcoming transnational problems, minilateralism has also raised pressing questions – and concerns – over its exclusivity, lack of transparency, equity, and accountability.

Important to highlight is that minilateralism is above all a relational concept – we can only ever really understand minilateralism as it relates to established wider membership multilateral institutions and their efforts to tackle transnational problems. Minilateralism may be pursued by groups of states exclusively inside established multilateral institutions, being integrated into the deliberative and negotiation processes of that institution, or exclusively outside of those institutions, operating as separate deliberative and decision-making forums which then essentially bypass multilateralism institutions. Minilateralism is also a fluid praxis. Groups of states may shift their positioning and activities away from an established multilateral institution (inside-outside) or toward it (outside-inside). Which type of minilateralism groups of states will then pursue is largely conditional on how they continue to perceive the effectiveness and legitimacy of established wider membership multilateral institutions, and the extent to which they will seek to uphold or bypass those institutions as a primary focal point for tackling transnational problems.

Minilateralism in the global nuclear order

Within the global nuclear order, most outside minilateral groupings – such as the NSG, PSI, GICNT etc – are initiated and led by nuclear weapon states apart from multilateral institutions. Members are then either hand-picked by the US or other nuclear weapon states, or are states willing to endorse the rules and principles already established by them. Such groupings then face a legitimacy deficit when they do seek to advance their solutions and ideas within wider membership multilateral institutions, however, because they are perceived as US-dominated, exclusive and untransparent.

Inside minilateral groupings – such as the VG10, NAC, NPDI or Stockholm Initiative – by contrast tend to be pursued predominantly by non-nuclear-weapon states. These groups seek out cross-regional members and proactively integrate and publicize their activities within the negotiation and deliberation processes of wider membership multilateral institutions such as the NPT. They therefore face fewer legitimacy challenges when they do present minilateral ideas or solutions because they are already embedded within established multilateral processes.

Lessons can also be drawn from those outside-inside minilateral groupings – such as the Zangger Committee or Quad Nuclear Disarmament Verification Partnership – who, while operating as outside groupings, do also seek to integrate their activities within NPT review cycles, highlighting their willingness to proactively engage in multilateral deliberation and negotiation processes.

Meanwhile, examples of inside-outside groupings, such as the G16/Humanitarian Initiative, and the CEND Initiative, highlight how groups of states may originally be conceived and function inside of multilateral institutions, but then shift their activities outside of those institutions when they become dissatisfied due to the perceived effectiveness or legitimacy deficit within that institution. In both cases the result has been the formation of new forums and a new regime -in the form of the TPNW – and an increasingly contested multilateralism within the global nuclear order.

Complementary – not contradictory – minilateralism

What is clear is the minilateralism is only going to become more important and utilized as states seek to deliver a world without nuclear weapons amidst the inefficiencies and challenges of multilateral efforts. Minilateralism can only truly complement, rather than contradict, effective multilateralism, however, when groups are willing and able to contribute to the negotiation and deliberative processes of wider membership multilateral institutions. The US particularly has shown that it can ‘go it alone’ by establishing outside minilateral forums, but such efforts invariably meet with resistance when trying to integrate back into multilateral institutions due to their perceived lack of transparency and legitimacy. As inside, and some outside-inside, minilateral groupings, have shown, minilateral groups can ensure their discussions and proposals are open for broader deliberation by proactively – and regularly – submitting working papers, making formal statements, submitting reports, and hosting side-events inside multilateral institutions like the NPT.

While minilateralism may demand exclusivity for the sake of more efficient decision-making, groups must also remain mindful of their perceived representativeness. While it is important that minilateral groupings remain closed to allow for states to move beyond entrenched positions and actively and creatively advance proposals to address problems, they must also remain transparent. At a minimum minilateral groupings should publicize their meeting dates and locations and provide regular reporting on their deliberations, and outputs so that non-participating governments and civil society are not left in the dark. Some transparency of process may be facilitated through dedicated group websites, following the example of the NSG, IPNDV, Quad and Zangger Committee. Multilateral institutions might also look to establish group sections on their websites, including a group filter in their public calendar of events.  In so doing, minilateralism can serve to uphold and promote the continued relevance, legitimacy and significance of multilateral institutions and their wider membership.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *