Why Today We Need Multilateralism More Than Ever

Multilateralism embodies the recognition of the universally shared, fundamental values of humanity. Let us not forget that it was born out of the tragic experiences of the twentieth century. We must not repeat the mistakes made in the past century, writes Lassina Zerbo, Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, for valdaiclub.com

The main topic of the Valdai Club’s Conference in Vienna is the future of multilateral diplomacy. Is there one, actually? Earlier this year, at the Munich Security Conference, I was struck by a discussion on a so-called epochal shift taking place in global politics. Some experts were stating that today our multilateral era is coming to an end. Their belief was that it is soon to be replaced by a new one. Indeed, at times it feels that there is a widely shared sense that multilateralism is under threat, and that the sustainability of a rules-based international order cannot be taken for granted. Angela Merkel, I believe, said very wisely that “we have to fight for multilateralism – against all of those who think that they can do it alone”. 

Multilateralism embodies the recognition of the universally shared, fundamental values of humanity. And let us not forget that it was born out of the tragic experiences of the twentieth century. We must not repeat the mistakes made in the past century. 

Since the founding of the United Nations, the international community has built-up a multilateral framework of international institutions and legal mechanisms designed to promote peace and prosperity. The objective was to provide justice, protect human rights and promote the dignity and equality of men and women. All these objectives are as pertinent today as they were before. If we assess the dynamics in contemporary geopolitics, it becomes clear that there is a need for more intensive and effective international cooperation. This is true of the economic, political and scientific fields, but also in what can be argued is the most important – the security field. 

As Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), the value of multilateral cooperation in the security field is readily apparent. When we consider the risks posed by nuclear weapons, we must recognize that issues of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation should be a top, if not the top, priority. Multilateral diplomacy gives credibility and legitimacy. The field of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation is facing almost unprecedented challenges. The overall picture is far from bright and positive, and there continues to be lack of political will, mistrust, and misunderstanding. The continuing crisis on the Korean peninsula, the challenges faced by the JCPOA, and difficult obstacles in the US-Russian bilateral relationship preventing cooperation in this area are just a few of many such examples. Unfortunately, this negative trend suggests that many of our political leaders are not convinced of the power and purpose of international cooperation and multilateral agreements. 

But we must not lose faith, as I do believe there are still positive signals to build upon. Many countries still choose to follow the path of multilateralism and cooperation instead of confrontation and exclusion. For example, Russia remains among the strongest supporters of the CTBT and its entry into force. Only a few weeks ago, the 2019 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee was held. Numerous delegations there reiterated their commitment and strong support for multilateral cooperation. During the meeting, the Russian delegation asserted that “The CTBT is the patrimony of all parties and is intended to serve the benefit of all mankind.” And rightly so. There is perhaps no other issue where the potential for immediate and irreversible devastation is greater than the threat of nuclear weapons. These weapons pose a truly existential danger to humanity. The CTBT and its verification regime constitute not only a vital step towards reducing and eventually eliminating the nuclear threat, but also provides a template for effective and verifiable multilateral measures in other security fields. To achieve a world free of nuclear weapons we first need a world free of nuclear testing. 

While bilateral measures have been and will continue to be necessary in the interim, only multilaterally verifiable nuclear disarmament can eliminate nuclear threats once and for all. The CTBT should be the proving ground to demonstrate that multilateralism is the way to a safer and more secure future. The CTBT is perhaps one of the greatest illustrations of what we can achieve through multilateralism in international peace and security. By putting an end to nuclear explosions, the CTBT places critical restraints on the development of nuclear weapons, and will play a key role in any future nuclear disarmament framework. Since its opening for signature in 1996, the Treaty has been signed by 184 States, of which 168 have ratified. We continue to reach out to and engage the remaining eight Annex 2 States to help facilitate their ratifications and ensure the Treaty’s entry into force. And even though the CTBT has not yet entered into force, nuclear explosions have all but come to a complete end. Only one country has conducted a nuclear test explosion this century, and there are still prospects that an agreement will be reached to put an end to that country’s testing as well. So talking about the DPRK, it is crucial to understand that whatever bilateral agreement ca be concluded, it will in the end need a multilateral framework. 

We also work with our partners around the globe to advance the universalization of the Treaty, because every signature and ratification strengthens the Treaty, and underscores that every State has an important role to play in its implementation – the true essence of multilateralism. But one of the most important contributions that the CTBT makes to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation is the value of its verification regime. The Treaty’s verification protocols are extensive, effective, and require international cooperation to implement and execute. Every State Party will have a role in ensuring that the nuclear test prohibition is not violated. With equal verification responsibilities and access to data, the CTBT embodies multilateral verification at its finest. Its success will prove that further non-proliferation and disarmament measures can and must be verified and implemented on a multilateral basis. We will only succeed in diminishing the nuclear threat if we work collectively towards multilateral nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament measures. The solutions are at hand, we simply need the political will and courage to embrace them. 

After all, I am optimistic about the future of multilateralism. The world cannot do without this crucial framework. But to make it work – we will need to stand up for multilateralism, for multilateral diplomacy and international cooperation. We should keep in mind that global challenges require global solutions and these challenges can only be faced together. As the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres recently said, “Today, we need multilateralism more than ever”. The current international context dictates that we should work together.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.