Reforms not happening in global institutions, so it’s time for smaller powers to step up to protect own interests

DESPITE grand promises of cooperative action among the global community, multilateralism’s weaknesses, not strengths, remain centre stage. 

Institutions, such as the United Nations (UN), World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), continue to face criticism of preferential treatment of more powerful states, institutional corruption and bureaucratic redundancies. While not uncommon, they have been repeatedly highlighted as the major obstacles that remain unaddressed.  

Recent disruptions, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, have not only made these struggles more apparent but also challenge the image of functionality and representation championed by these institutions and arrangements. 

Alternatives have been heavily debated upon but what was often overlooked has been the role of small countries in such a space. The amount of influence they can assert have been significantly limited by the influence and will of their much stronger counterparts. 

Thus, it raises the questions about whether these institutions truly can empower these small states. Should they be asserting themselves more? 

While there can be differing reasons to cooperate with other states, it cannot be denied that practical reasons to do so still exists. First, there are gains made through reducing negative risks and increasing positive spill over effects that come from the growing interconnectedness. Second, enhanced cooperation can increase the overall supply and distribution of global public goods.  

This has been demonstrated on a smaller scale through minilateralism, which has long been the preferred approach of smaller countries. It was commonplace in Southeast Asia as the multilateral experience struggled to advance global policy issues. Instead, these countries resorted to ad hoc frameworks, networks and projects among a limited number of like-minded members.  

However, what sets them apart is that minilateralism is not the endgame. Ideally, it aims to complement a more inclusive form of multilateralism. To work towards such an ambition, it would require considerable reprioritisation and a perspective shift for a greater buy-in from these smaller countries. 

And to achieve so, it needs support from the appropriate domestic strategies. 

In Malaysia’s case, their participation in multilateralism is one of the key components of foreign policy. Their status as a trade-dependent country does mean the best way to maintain favourable conditions for trade is to maintain cordial relations with all. This is supported by principles of non-alignment and support for a liberal rules-based order, which allow diplomatic manoeuvring space and sends a clear signal that Malaysia is reluctant to be involved in rivalries. 

To future-proof Malaysia for challenges and play a bigger role in shaping the multilateral institutions it aims to support, it would need a structured approach. 

While the most minute detail is not expected, points of reference, such as the recent foreign policy frameworks, must be maintained and developed. They emphasise and highlight principles that can be the steps taken to move away from personality-based actions and ad hoc arrangements. Instead, it should be working towards a guided set that still allows for space to evolve and develop a more nuanced strategy to benefit the country. 

But this means that Malaysia’s foreign policy should be sustainable and not hampered by issues, such as shortage of funds and qualified manpower. 

It also requires more than just the commitment of the Foreign Ministry as it requires internalisation of these goals across government to incorporate policies of the global agenda into its respective domestic politics and enforcing them.  

National commitment is only part of the equation, as multilateral institutions and arrangements are expected to put similar amounts of effort. 

More importantly, trust and legitimacy need to be rebuilt as these ongoing weaknesses have eroded the overall authority. Established powers do not believe that new powers comply with existing institutions. Similarly, new powers do not believe that the existing institutions have the legitimacy to govern global affairs. 

This is further stressed by the unilateral tendencies of populism, as the UN and similar institutions need to prove themselves through both rhetoric and action to a new generation of people. They need to be able to reflect their representation of a global community as people and ideas from the East and Global South remain underrepresented.  

They also need to deliver better results, such as public goods and be able to be credited with such improvements. Given the limitations of international bodies in domestic policy implementation, transnational challenges should be one of the key areas to pursue first.  

The complex dilemma this poses cannot be understated but both domestic and international platforms need to persist beyond basic lip service to demonstrate they, too, can practise the same principles they wish to benefit from. 

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