Defeating the Deadlock: Towards a New Consensus for Multilateral Action

Climate change, new technologies, migration, global inequalities – many of the current global challenges require collective responses. At the same time, the multilateral order is under fire. Great power politics and nationalism are on the rise while support for international organizations is shrinking. In this session speakers searched for fresh ideas on how to reinvigorate multilateral action. Among other things, we asked what is needed to overcome geopolitical deadlocks between states? What should the future multilateral system look like? And can ‘multistakeholderism’ be the answer?

This session was hosted by Körber-Stiftung.

Date : 12 November 2019

Paris, France – Grande Halle de La Villette, Agora 1

Watch the full debate


  • Moderator: Nora Müller, Executive Director International Affairs, Körber-Stiftung
  • Amitav Acharya, Distinguished Professor, School of International Service, American University, Washington DC
  • Latha Reddy, Co-chair, Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace (GCSC)
  • Mary Robinson, Former President of Ireland; Chair, The Elders
  • Martin Tisné, Managing Director, Luminate

Key takeaways from the discussion

  • States are not seen as the sole solution to contemporary challenges: in a live poll, over 70 per cent of the audience stated that they were somewhat or very pessimistic about the ability of states to tackle current global challenges while only 29 per cent expressed that they were optimistic. This might indicate, in turn, that the Paris Peace Forum community has trust in the problem-solving capacities of other (non-state) actors. A second live poll confirmed this assumption: Almost two thirds of the audience expressed that they trusted NGO’s most in tackling global challenges, as opposed to states (24.1 per cent), private enterprises (3.4 per cent), and philanthropic actors (6.9 per cent).
  • Small states can make a difference: small states are by nature very interested in cooperation and multilateral arrangements, emphasized Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland. Therefore, they often push for cooperative solutions, for instance in tackling climate change, especially since many of the current geopolitical tensions are between the big players. “I sometimes envy small countries because they have greater flexibility and fewer illusions about being large and therefore important,” admitted Latha Reddy, a former Deputy National Security Advisor of India. However, we should rather talk about “powerful or less powerful,” rather than big or small, according to Amitav Acharya. In all this, strong and thoughtful leadership is key, concluded Mary Robinson: “The essence is leadership. A small country with a strong leader can make a big difference.”
  • A louder voice from the Global South: according to Latha Reddy, countries from the Global South are not raising their voice sufficiently. “Perhaps this stems from a lack of confidence, perhaps this comes from being so busy grappling with their own preoccupying problems of development and providing the basic necessities to their citizens.” The South could be much more vocal in building bridges or coming up with comprehensive solutions representing the ideas of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.
  • The unipolar moment is over: the exceptional time, in which the United States was the crucial player for global order is over, argued Amitav Acharya. We will see a multiplicity of actors – social movements, corporations and other – in a multiplex world, in which states are no longer the sole exercisers of power. Large tech companies have greater incomes than many small or developing countries, so they wield significant influence in today’s world. According to Latha Reddy, effective multistakeholder initiatives, however, need to combine knowledge and expertise from various sectors, i.e. from governments, companies and civil society.
  • Multistakeholderism may be the key… for finding creative solutions to contemporary challenges, the answer lies in cooperation, according to Martin Tisné. Innovation will not come from states alone, but rather through collaboration with civil society and the private sector. This way, the affected stakeholders are brought into the conversation. In times of shrinking spaces, platforms for civil society to thrive are more important than ever. This was also in line with the audience’s opinion: as mentioned above, over 65 per cent said they trusted NGOs most in tackling global challenges.
  • … but what type of multistakeholderism? Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Martin Tisné identified at least three types of multistakeholder arrangements: (1) informal gatherings of multistakeholder partners who think alike (e.g. Open Contracting Partnership); (2) groupings of different stakeholders with divergent interests who thresh out the normative baselines of a governance mechanism; (3) multistakeholder bodies that set standards and certification mechanisms that we assess against (e.g. Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative), with the latter being the type that is most talked about but that is the rarest in reality.
  • Bottom-up movements can push governments to action: especially on the climate crisis, movements on the streets have managed to set the agenda. It is often democratically elected governments, preparing for the next elections, who find it particularly difficult to respond to this by taking far-reaching decisions, Mary Robinson pointed out. Amitav Acharya also recommended to use existing shared cultural norms to build climate ethics that can regulate policies.


Discover the article by Nora Müller on the Medium blog of the Paris Peace Forum.

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