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In sharp contrast with former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America first” agenda, President Joe Biden and his administration have conspicuously embraced multilateralism. The new team spent its first weeks in office reversing some of the more controversial manifestations of its predecessor’s approach—rejoining the Paris climate accord, halting the United States’ withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO), reengaging with the UN Human Rights Council, and conditionally recommitting to the Iran nuclear deal—and Biden and his deputies rarely miss an opportunity to talk up the importance of alliances and international cooperation.
This is all generally to the good. From Washington’s perspective, working with other countries to resolve common challenges often means greater legitimacy and lower costs compared with going it alone. But not all multilateralism is created equal. In an era of renewed great-power competition, venues such as the UN Security Council and the G-20 are frequently deadlocked, even when their members share broad interests. Chinese influence has undermined the effectiveness of key international organizations, such as the WHO, and multilateral trade agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, lack domestic political support.
The lack of effective mechanisms for coordinating international action has clearly frustrated the new administration and generated a clutch of proposals for new configurations: a T-12 that would unite “techno-democracies,” for example; a D-10 that would bring together leading democratic powers; a “Quad-plus” that would include South Korea or Southeast Asian nations in dialogues with the United States, Japan, India, and Australia; a climate summit that would galvanize global action; and a new pandemic-fighting coalition.
Washington should pay special attention, however, to the potential for small countries to take a multilateral lead. Often better equipped to pilot new programs, and better positioned to play honest broker on thorny issues, small countries are sometimes well positioned to lead multilateral efforts with more powerful nations. This combination of small-country leadership and large-state participation—call it “microlateralism”—should emerge as a key instrument in the United States’ collective-action toolkit.
Versions of microlateralism have proved effective in the past, especially when entrenched conflicts have pitted great powers against one another. In the 1990s, for instance, Norway brokered backchannel negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, ultimately producing the U.S.-backed Oslo accords. In 1999, Togo led a peace process that, with Washington’s support, helped end Sierra Leone’s civil war. In 2008, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani convened rival Lebanese factions for talks that, with the support of France, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United States, produced the Doha Agreement, ending 18 months of political crisis in Lebanon.
Small states have also successfully mobilized financial and other resources, and secured important commitments, from their larger counterparts. Beginning in 2015, the Jordanian-led Aqaba Process has brought larger states together to share information and coordinate counterterrorism efforts. After the horrific Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern worked with French President Emmanuel Macron to convene governments and Internet companies to issue the Christchurch Call, a commitment to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. In March 2020, Austria led the formation of the First Movers Group, creating a venue for countries including Australia, Greece, Israel, and Singapore to discuss responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. And in November 2020, Finland cohosted the Afghanistan Conference, raising $3.3 billion in development support for the beleaguered country.
Leadership by small states can make multilateral efforts more palatable to rival powers.
Such ad hoc collective efforts, led by small states but including much larger ones, are often more flexible than long-standing multilateral structures. Drawing on smaller nations’ particular strengths—Scandinavian countries’ long history of conflict mediation, for instance, or Jordan’s experience dealing with extremist groups—allows for a productive division of labor that combines deep expertise with the kinds of resources that larger, more influential countries bring to the table. Leadership by smaller countries can render a multilateral effort more politically palatable to great powers locked in rivalry with one another. Such efforts will, in the best case, be launched with clearly defined, time-bound goals—raising funds for a particular cause, agreeing on principles around a specific issue, resolving a particular crisis—rather than broad mandates of indefinite duration.
Many of the aforementioned microlateral efforts began organically, often thanks to visionary leadership in smaller countries to marshal their unique expertise and convening power. Given their successes, it is time for Washington to take a more proactive role in encouraging their formation. This can include encouraging particular small countries to take on leadership roles, pledging U.S. support for the efforts. It also means resisting the urge always to play convener in chief, urging others to lead multilateral efforts of which the United States will nevertheless be part.
An early agenda might start with the digital economy. Estonia, for example, has a population of just 1.3 million and borders a hostile Russia yet ranks ahead of Japan, Singapore, and the United States in global e-governance surveys. Bigger countries—including Mexico, Finland, and Japan, among others—are using Estonia’s open-source backbone X-Road to improve their own digital governance. An Estonian-led microlateral forum could help many countries to improve the efficiency and delivery of government services and health care via digital systems.
Indeed, international frameworks that allow smaller countries to take the lead on digital issues have come to the fore in the last year, including the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement, signed by Singapore, Chile, and New Zealand in June 2020. The agreement addresses end-to-end digital trade, builds trust in cross-border financial services data flows, establishes ethical standards for artificial intelligence, and more. If successful, this agreement could show how small countries can take proactive steps to give market certainty through digital policy parameters, connect digital economies, and even scale their efforts with the partnership of a larger nation: Singapore is already pitching a bilateral digital economy agreement to Washington.
There may also be opportunities for microlateralism stemming from the global pandemic response. The World Bank is keeping a database of how different countries are using technology to provide remote learning opportunities during COVID-19, an area in which the United States is failing many students. It’s too soon to know which remote learning systems are most effective, but a microlateral information-sharing effort could help countries to meet the educational needs of underserved populations, even after the pandemic is over. Singapore, which has experience with remote learning gained during previous health crises, could be well placed to lead such an effort.
Regional developments could provide yet another opportunity. The Abraham Accords, which began as a series of U.S.-brokered normalization agreements between Israel and Arab countries, should attract continued U.S. efforts to deepen and widen them. But Washington could encourage individual small countries—Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates, or even a non-Arab country such as Cyprus—to establish a coordinating mechanism aimed at deepening the agreements on key elements, including in the economic and security spheres, with broad support from outside the region. Costa Rica has emerged as a leader in ecotourism and conservation, both important issues for a new U.S. administration interested in environmental sustainability. And after a decades-long conflict ended in 2016, Colombia has become a leader in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, a model that could be applied in other postwar settings.
Critics of microlateralism warn that “ad hoc solutions to systemic, foreseeable global risks,” as UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it to the Security Council in September 2020, could undermine global governance and broader multilateral efforts. Yet developing more vehicles, under innovative leadership, through which countries can deal with international challenges could serve ultimately as a necessary complement to existing multilateral structures rather than a way of undermining them.
In documenting American civil society, Alexis de Tocqueville once praised the United States’ “art of association,” an impulse that gave the nation’s civic life its exceptional vitality. “Wherever, at the head of a new undertaking, you see in France the government, and in England, a great lord,” he wrote, “count on seeing in the United States, an association.”
The Biden administration seems keen to apply this general truth to international affairs, building associations of states that will tackle challenges more ably than the United States alone. The global art of association has numerous components, ranging from those formed decades ago to new, startup-style groupings aimed at particular problems in specific times. But a focus on niche, time-bound multilateral efforts—including those led by small countries—is likely to have a disproportionately positive effect.