At a time when the world faces a number of complex problems that transcend national borders and which individual states appear unable to address on their own, multilateralism ought to matter more than ever. All too often, however, attempts to encourage collaborative and effective responses to transnational problems are unable to overcome national interests, or lack the capacity to address novel challenges that defy easy resolution. Despite the urgent need for international cooperation, it is often conspicuous by its absence and it is not unreasonable to ask, does multilateralism really matter anymore? We argue that it does, if only because, there is no alternative. To illustrate multilateralism's weaknesses and potential strengths we provide a novel comparison of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Arctic Council, which reveals the importance of history, diplomatic styles, the significance of issue areas, and the motivations of members. The two bodies literally and metaphorically illustrate developments in the North and South, and provide a novel and revealing benchmark for measuring the success of multilateral bodies at different moments in history.
- Multilateralism is still a potentially vital, even irreplaceable form of institutional architecture. However, policy makers need to commit real political capital to realising such potential if multilateral forums are going to be effective.
- Some forms of international order are more conducive to multilateralism's successful utilisation than others. Studying the real successes of the European Union remains a useful starting point despite its current problems, and valid sensitivities about eurocentrism.
- The initial design and goals of multilateral institutions are important determinants of their effectiveness and impact. Binding agreements and a degree of compulsion may be required to make multilateral institutions effective.
- Unless states are able to overcome the constraining influence of national interests policy makers will be unable to address, much less solve, collective action problems. Reciprocal agreements and recognition of the need to develop a formal, binding basis to underpin collective action are vital.