International cooperation is crucial to Norway’s security, economy and prosperity. Until recently, it has been easier to take such cooperation for granted, but now we see that states are less inclined to turn to multilateral organisations to solve common challenges through compromise and cooperation. At the same time, the world is facing major global challenges that no state can solve alone. A key goal for Norwegian foreign policy over the coming years is therefore to support binding international cooperation and the multilateral system, enabling us to strengthen our ability to address common challenges and safeguard national and global interests.
The multilateral system is a network of agreements and organisations established by the states. The system as we know it today mainly evolved after World War II, and includes organisations such as the United Nations (UN), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union (EU). The word multilateral has traditionally been used to describe cooperation where three or more states participate.
The multilateral system has multiple functions. It is an arena where states can promote their interests and seek peaceful solutions to conflict. It is also a system through which states can meet and cooperate on common challenges, and is the source of new standards and rules for international cooperation and important global agreements, such as the Paris Agreement on climate change and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The multilateral organisations also compile and share facts and analyses that states can use to solve both national and international problems.
The liberal world order has been crucial to the development of the multilateral system. It rests on a set of common rules and values, such as individual rights and liberties, rule of law and democracy. This world order is now under increasing pressure. At the same time, certain influential countries have chosen to place less importance on multilateral cooperation than before. Emerging powers play a greater role and bring new content to international cooperation – content that is not necessarily in line with the values on which the liberal world order is based. This changes the multilateral system and what it comprises.
The multilateral system, in the form and with the content that have served Norway so well, currently faces six major challenges. Firstly, the global balance of power is shifting. The conditions for international cooperation are altered when the US and European powers become relatively weaker in the global context, and the economic centre of gravity shifts to the east. There is reason to assume that the strategic rivalry between the world’s major powers, first and foremost between the US and China, will have impact on international cooperation going forward and have consequences for the multilateral system.
Secondly, multilateral cooperation is challenged when major states choose to solve their problems bilaterally, or at worst, unilaterally, rather than as part of a larger community. This can lead to relations between states becoming more fragmented and less predictable, and will primarily serve to benefit the states that have the power and capacity to impose their viewpoints. Countries of Norway’s size will find it more difficult to safeguard their interests.
Thirdly, liberal values, standards and rights are under pressure, both globally and on our doorstep. A growing number of countries are working actively to prevent progress in civil and political human rights. Consequently, the multilateral system’s ability to compel states to respect fundamental human rights is challenged.
Fourthly, greater inequality within countries amplifies discontent with and distrust of globalisation and the institutions facilitating it. Many critics of globalisation consider the multilateral system to be a threat to national sovereignty rather than a forum where national governments can solve problems together. This can undermine its legitimacy and increase political pressure against participating in and funding the system.
The fifth challenge for the multilateral system is the lack of efficiency and representativeness. Trust in international cooperation depends on it being relevant, legitimate and productive. This trust diminishes when international organisations are viewed as incapable of acting, inefficient or unrepresentative. Reforms that ensure greater legitimacy and better results are therefore essential to the organisations’ relevance and sometimes even to their survival. The solution to these challenges is not to tear down the system that states have carefully developed, but to reform it from within.
The sixth challenge is that the world faces a wealth of new and urgent problems that we need to solve together, but that the multilateral system is not currently set up to handle. Transnational security threats such as terrorism and digital attacks are a danger to individuals, societies and states. Climate change and cross-border threats to health can only be handled through stronger international engagement. A multitude of new challenges indicate that we need more, not less, cooperation across national borders.
The current situation is challenging for Norway because we have based our prosperity and much of our international influence on the multilateral system. Norway’s multilateral work is an extension of its national priorities, and international cooperation is vital to safeguarding Norwegian interests in many areas. Multilateral institutions like the UN have played a key role in developing the rules-based international system between states. Smaller countries like Norway particularly rely on there being a set of rules that all nations must follow.
Norwegian security is dependent on international cooperation that takes place within organisations such as NATO and the UN, and with the EU. Our NATO membership is crucial to balancing Norway’s asymmetric relationship with Russia – it contributes to predictability and underpins neighbourly relations that are also characterised by dialogue and cooperation. Collective defence is also more cost effective than national or bilateral solutions, although it cannot substitute a strong national defence. Norwegian interests in combating international terror and crime are also best safeguarded within a multilateral framework.
As an open and relatively small economy, Norway depends on open, free and well-functioning markets. An economic system with few barriers to trade and foreign direct investment serves the country well. The EEA Agreement and Norway’s membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) are of particular importance to the Norwegian economy. More broadly, Norway is dependent on an international legal framework that safeguards access to and use of Norway’s natural resources on our continental shelf and in our marine areas. Rules that ensure open markets, free flow of capital and the possibility of investing in other countries are important factors in the management of our collective savings account, the Government Pension Fund Global.
The multilateral system also plays a crucial role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. We will not be able to solve the problems related to climate change and environmental degradation without global cooperation. International organisations play an important role in combating poverty and providing humanitarian assistance and protection to those in need. International financial institutions such as the World Bank are important channels for the provision of results-oriented Norwegian aid. It is in Norway’s interest and in line with our values to save lives and improve other people’s living conditions.
In all, this report’s review of the multilateral system’s importance to Norwegian interests shows that multilateral agreements, international law, rules and regulations are crucial to safeguarding the needs of Norwegian society. Many of our most important bilateral relations also benefit from cooperation and agreements negotiated in multilateral forums. Preventing the erosion of the international law and multilateral systems of governance is therefore defined as Norway’s primary foreign policy interest.
Norway has a number of tools at its disposal to promote Norwegian and common interests in the multilateral system, including international political and financial contributions, partnerships, police and military contributions, candidacies, board memberships and the recruitment of Norwegians to international organisations. In an ever changing landscape, the Norwegian government representatives must consider in each specific case which tools and methods have best effect.
The challenges facing the multilateral system mean that we must adapt our efforts and prioritise where and how we engage. Over the next years, Norway’s priorities must be to defend its room for manoeuvre in foreign policy, be a driver for reforms that make the institutions more effective and representative, seek even closer ties with like-minded European states, cooperate more on issues of common interest with countries that differ from us, strengthen the Norwegian public administration’s work on multilateral issues, and ensure sufficient resources and relevant expertise for multilateral efforts.
Norway is not merely a member of organisations like the UN, NATO, the IMF, the World Bank and WTO, but has played a role in establishing them. We have not passively observed the growth of the rules-based world order, but have actively helped build it. Now we must defend and further develop what we have helped create.