Multilateralism is defined as cooperation, or a formal alliance, between multiple countries in pursuit of a common goal. Without the collaboration afforded by multilateralism, we would be without the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organisation, the United Nations, and World Health Organisation. With multilateralism, we have a genuine global community with the necessary foundations to shape by common rules, build peace, and deliver shared prosperity.
Of course, even with functioning multilateralism, the world faces huge, complex and interconnected challenges such as climate change, global health threats, delivering sustainable development, expanding human rights, and ending armed conflicts. Given the scale of these problems, they cannot be met by any one country. Indeed, only through greater multilateral cooperation can we hope to meet the challenges of today. It cannot be left to governments alone to work towards this, but it needs all actors with an international stake – particularly the business community – to get involved.
Why does multilateralism matter?
History shows that integration and collaboration across the world advance prosperity for economies and societies. But there has been a shift in the past 10 years away from the systems rightly implemented following the second World War.
Global leaders are becoming wary of multilateral institutions and turning towards policies that favour protectionism and economic nativism. Examples of this include Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign, and policies across Europe that tighten immigration rules and visa restrictions. Both examples created an ‘us versus them’ attitude in the western world and led to protectionism.
Ultimately, protectionism is the killer of innovation, efficiency, prosperity, and – as history shows – peace. The world thrives on sharing knowledge and ideas for the greater good. Take for example The Montreal Protocol, enacted to protect the Ozone layer, which was the first universally ratified treaty and inspired global innovation and led to an increase in the development of technological solutions, scientific discoveries and patents across the world. It is the perfect example of the need for cooperation between international governments, organisations and businesses for the greater good, and a reminder that we must reject the growing calls for protectionism and economic nativism.
How can businesses uphold multilateralism?
Businesses are the engine room of our economy and one of the essential links in the multilateral system, but there is more to be done to engage with governments to uphold and advocate for multilateralist approaches to international priorities.
Businesses play a significant role in the internationalisation of countries, creating avenues for trade and investment and opening up new markets. It is on businesses, and organisations, like chambers that represent the interests of businesses, to ensure governments utilise international connections as an additional tool for diplomacy and global cooperation.
Cooperation by chambers across borders has increased connections between countries in many ways. Trade Carnets, an international customs document that permits the tax-free and duty-free temporary export and import of non-perishable goods, are the result of collaboration and commitment from 87 global chambers of commerce agreeing to share a singular system for import and exports. Firms using trade Carnets move their goods between countries with ease, enabling meetings, cooperation and collaboration between businesses who might not have otherwise interacted. This strengthens trade bonds between nations and encourages governments to cooperate with their counterparts in breaking down barriers to a more multilateral trade system.
The business community should also hold governments to account over their involvement in post-war reconstruction. Just take the example of the invasion of Ukraine. We know from engagement with businesses in Ukraine that private sector participation in the reconstruction process is essential for rebuilding and that the single most valuable thing right now is business-to-business connection and partnership. Working with governments, businesses can encourage better systems to facilitate and simplify recovery processes, which in turn will lead to a stronger global economy and more opportunities.
Ultimately, businesses need certainty and stability for success, and multilateralism is a key component of this. It is no accident that the post-Second World War multilateral consensus contributed to innovation, economic growth and development that has lifted billions of people out of poverty and into better living conditions.
Business and chambers and those invested in diplomacy and global cooperation must ensure that the gift of international trade and sharing of ideas is not stifled by protectionist movements. By building international links and encouraging cooperation through trade and investment, as well as demonstrating the gains of shared prosperity and peace, businesses can ensure that governments remain committed to multilateral approaches to foreign policy. This should help provide the clarity, certainty, and stability businesses need to grow which will power further development and greater prosperity for all into the future.
*Disclaimer: The content of this article may not reflect the official views of the International Chamber of Commerce. The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and other contributors.