Is the choice Multilateral or Minilateral constellations or do we need both?

Can we have greater diplomatic synergy through minilateralism? What are we learning from the Ukrainian crisis reverberating through the multilateral system and regional and minilateral groups? This month, Edit Morin-Kovacs, Programme Manager for the Foundation’s Multilateral project reflects on these pivotal questions. She previously worked in Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine.

Most of us in Europe remember the moment we learned about the full-scale Russian military invasion of Ukraine as the sun rose over the ´old continent´ nearly a year ago on 24 February 2022. While we shared an emotional mix of shock, concern, and condemnation, there were significant differences on the dosage of each of these depending on our respective historic reference points as well as the physical and psychological distance from the Russian tank columns fast approaching Kyiv. For the people of my native Hungary, sharing a border with Ukraine, it became another watershed moment. Once again, we relived our own invasion with tanks on the streets of Budapest. It was Dag Hammarskjöld’s era as United Nations Secretary General and Hungary’s struggle to break free from Soviet occupation in 1956. In 12 days, all our hopes were crushed by Moscow’s actions. The expected outside help did not arrive and the dream of neutrality, achieved by Austria just a year before, was shattered. Would such an intervention have changed the course of history? We learned otherwise of course, the ball was in the court of the powerful Member States, caught in the evolving Suez crisis, a far greater amplitude, but clear pathway to resolution.

Hungary’s moment passed, and the country was condemned to wait another 35 years for the last Soviet army soldier to leave. Now we face a fundamentally different geopolitical context, 66 years later the political landscape is coloured by an abundance of regional, sub-regional and minilateral groups.

During the last three decades, we have witnessed a proliferation of parallel or minilateral initiatives filling the gaps created by the decline of multi-lateral effectiveness.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine triggered an unprecedented global solidarity despite the inability of the United Nations (UN) to develop a robust or swift response. The multilateral system was tested and shaken to the core and highlighted the continued weaknesses of the UN dating back to its foundation. Closer to home, it has underscored the weaknesses and strengths of European regionalism. The European Union, although dizzy and confused at first, set aside its differences and gathered extraordinary support and solidarity with the provision of humanitarian assistance, sanctioning Russia and welcoming Ukraine in the group of countries aspiring for membership. Simultaneously, the Ukraine crisis revived deeply rooted existing cleavages within. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), with its 57 participating states and long-term presence in Ukraine, was also shaken. The full-scale invasion stopped its eight-year field presence and intensive conflict prevention efforts, the Minsk process and Normandy Format.

The inability of multilateral organisations to reach their full potential is well known. During the last three decades, we have witnessed the proliferation of parallel or minilateral initiatives filling the gaps created by the decline of multi-lateral effectiveness. Reflection will teach us that the Ukraine crisis impacted on these minilaterals in different ways, depending on their raison d’être, composition, agenda, geographical location, age, and other factors. While it may be too early to see the long-term institutional implications, it is perhaps useful to reflect on some of the developments within these groupings.

One such example in Europe is the constellation of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the Visegrad Four (V4), a 32-year-old a cultural and political alliance, born after the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the one hand, the V4 response was collaborative for enhancing security capabilities and providing support to Ukraine, on the other hand Hungary´s political stance vis-à-vis the crisis deepened an already existing rift between its members, leading to the cancellation of the group’s 2022 Spring meeting.

In contrast, the Nordic Baltic Alliance, also created during the same historic period, is remaining unified and even strengthened collaboration amongst its members. The much younger Three Seas Initiative, a regional cooperation platform comprising 12 countries along the Adriatic, Baltic, and Black Seas, with north-south connectivity, strengthening EU cohesion and transatlantic ties on its agenda, has opened a new way to support Ukraine by welcoming it as a partner, following the announcement of Ukraine´s EU integration prospects.

Amid periods of chaos and uncertainty, there will always be a need for flexible and informal mechanisms to address the complex issues of common concern and minilaterals seem to rise and fill that function.

Zooming out of Europe into Asia where minilaterals emerged as a response to the changing regional security landscape, the war in Ukraine deeply affected the dynamics following Russia and China alignment. Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, re-established the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in 2017. Commonly known as the The Quad, it has become an important platform for regional security cooperation. In their May 2022 meeting, the members acknowledged the global impact of the war, but reaffirmed focus on regional challenges which are predominately economic in nature and to this end welcomed the establishment of the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. One can learn that the Quad countries agree and disagree vis-à-vis Ukraine. They bring different outlooks, and their values might not fully align when it comes to a conflict outside of the Indo-Pacific region. Here, Japan fully endorsed a pro-active policy to support Ukraine with sanctions against Russia and sent aid including military defence equipment. Conversely India is advocating for a more principled neutrality, and while offering humanitarian assistance, remaining more cautious on security issues.

When looking at minilaterals in Asia with China and the United States of America as members and with a strong defence cooperation agenda and maintaining stability in the region, the Ukraine war greatly elevated tensions. An example is the heated debates on Ukraine and supply chain disruptions, US-China relations at the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), a minilateral forum comprising 10 ASEAN countries and eight dialogue partners, including China, India, Japan, and the United States.

Careful consideration of minilaterals in Africa, Latin America or the Middle East will likely show us other dynamics on the current crisis. The spillover of the conflict sparked by rising food insecurity and poverty, the Russian advance in filling existing voids in regional security or the complex realities around sanctions. The response to the Ukraine crisis and the strategic evolution of the minilateral formations should serve as a basis of our understanding of regional and sub-regional dynamics. We are seeing that some of these groups can respond quickly and effectively to regional challenges and opportunities. Furthermore, they can build trust and collaborate, pool resources and expertise to tackle regional challenges.

Amid periods of chaos and uncertainty, there will always be a need for flexible and informal mechanisms to address the complex issues of common concern and minilaterals seem to rise and fill that function.

Edit Morin-Kovacs By Edit Morin-Kovacs

Edit Morin-Kovacs is the Foundation’s Programme Manager leading the Multilateralism work. Over the last 25 years she has worked in the areas of conflict prevention,emergency contexts, crisis management, peacebuilding and international development. Her rich experience has been built during her tenure with the United Nations, European Union as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the Western Balkans and Ukraine. She also held various consulting assignments in the Middle East. Edit has master’s degrees in International Relations and Political Science.