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Peace of Westphalia, by Gerard ter Borch . Source: Wikimedia CommonsPeace of Westphalia, by Gerard ter Borch . Source: Wikimedia Commons Each week David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog post reflects on the relationship between multistakeholderim and multilateralism.

I’ve written several posts lately about multistakeholder participation in developing policy on ICTs and Internet.

A lot of what is said and written about multistakeholder decision-making juxtaposes it with multilateral arrangements – the dialogue among governments, and governments alone, that is the norm in most other areas of international policy.

Some people think these two are incompatible. Others that they can and must be better integrated. What’s the story?

Two views of multilateralism

I’ll start with two opposing views of multilateral institutions.

For some, especially in governments, only governments should have a say in reaching international agreements. They place top priority on national sovereignty; and place national sovereignty in the hands of whoever is in government, however they came to power. Many national governments want to place strict boundaries round multistakeholderism. They’d like intergovernmental agencies like the ITU to have more say.

For others, especially in the Internet community, the opposite’s the case. Some are libertarians who regard governments and intergovernmental agencies with deep suspicion. Some are market fundamentalists who think that competition always leads to better outcomes, so business interests should come first. Some are just concerned that governments might stifle innovation. They prioritise multistakeholder bodies like the IGF, ICANN and Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

What’s this I hear about Westphalia?

Some of those who write about this like to say that the Internet’s incompatible with what they call the ‘Westphalian system’. What they’re referring to is the Peace of Westphalia (see picture), which ended Europe’s ‘wars of religion’ in the 1640s by establishing the system of nation states and national sovereignty that led us where we are today.

The Internet, they say, has made the Westphalian system outdated because the Internet means decisions can’t be kept inside national borders. Westphalia, they say, will have to make way for new types of decision-making that suit today’s transnational Internet.

But that argument cuts both ways. True, national governments and intergovernmental agencies find it hard to handle how the Internet is changing things. But it’s just as true to say that the Internet finds it hard to handle the norms and values that have shaped the international system. And governments aren’t going to abandon those in any case.

So are these systems incompatible? Can we do better than watch them fail to meet on common ground?

In defence of multilateralism

I suggest we start by dropping the idea that modern multilateralism’s Westphalian. Today’s multilateral framework didn’t emerge from wars of religion three centuries ago. It followed on the Second World War and the desperate desire of the survivors, in 1945, to avoid another conflagration that would likely be nuclear.

The United Nations and its agencies were set up to help governments prevent the kind of wars that ripped much of the world apart in the first half of last century. European governments sought cooperation for similar peace-building reasons in what became the European Union. Other international agencies, like the World Bank, were established to rebuild shattered economies and enable economic growth.

The international rights regime – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its associated covenants and conventions – also came about because governments agreed in multilateral negotiations to accept common norms and future monitoring of their adherence to them through multilateral mechanisms.

Most people would agree that improvements are needed to make those multilateral agencies work as it was hoped they would. They’ve proved successful in some areas but unable to prevent as many wars, recessions and dictatorships as was once hoped. But they’ve acted as important fora for cooperation and safety valves inhibiting and mitigating conflicts. And they’re especially valued by developing country governments which have limited resources to represent their interests. We should reflect on what the world would now be like without them.

Incompatible or interdependent?

I’d argue, then, that multistakeholder approaches should complement and enhance international decision-making but not be seen as a replacement for multilateralism.

Multilateral institutions benefit from multistakeholder engagement in them, because it brings greater expertise and diversity to bear on complex problems whose solutions need widespread consent as well as quality decision-making.

But multistakeholder approaches need multilateral institutions within which to work. They need governments and intergovernmental institutions they can influence. Without those, at best they’re going to be talking shops; at worst, they could easily be lost in contests between power-brokers.

The need to integrate multilateral and multistakeholder approaches, I’d suggest, is one of the three key challenges for Internet governance today. (My others would be governance of the Internet of Things, and the relationship between governance and global data corporations. See future blogs.)

Achieving interdependence

There’s widespread recognition that the relationship between multilateral and multistakeholder needs fixing, but insufficient focus on this in international discourse.

There are differences of perspective here between the Internet community and governments in general (taking these as broad communities). But there are also different perspectives amongst governments. And, come to that, between businesses, within civil society and amongst Internet professionals.

There’ve been some attempts to address the challenge. NETMundial tried to do so three years ago, but it’s not led to a continued dialogue. The IGF provides a forum for discussion but not much substance yet where this area’s concerned. Initiatives like the Global Commission on Internet Governance have been more substantial but lacked continuity. The UN’s Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation is afflicted by unsuccessful efforts in the past to reach agreement on that nebulous concept.

The wider context

There is also a wider problem. Multistakeholder institutions are more threatened now than at any time since the Cold War in the 1960s.

Nationalism, in many countries, is on the rise. The new US administration is not alone in putting national interests first and preferring bilateral to multilateral agreements. Authoritarian regimes are pushing at the boundaries of what’s allowed and not allowed within international norms of governance and human rights. The role of multilateral aid agencies is being questioned. UN agencies find it harder every year to raise funds, not least for peacekeeping initiatives.

My own country has voted (narrowly) to leave the most successful postwar regional multilateral institution – the European Union – and its government’s said that it may leave the most potent regional rights agreement – the European Human Rights Convention. Major political parties in other European countries are also keen to replace internationalism with nationalism.

All this is happening while ambitious Sustainable Development Goals have been agreed, which require both multilateral and multistakeholder cooperation. And it’s happening while the Internet’s universality and integrity are challenged by changing technology and markets and by deficiencies in cybersecurity.

So what to do?

As I said above, I think the relationship between multilateralism and multistakeholderism is one of the key challenges facing Internet governance today. It’s increasingly recognized but not recognized enough.

I blogged last year about the Global Internet and Jurisdiction Conference, which I thought useful for two reasons. It focused on specific challenges, such as how to enable cross-border criminal investigations in the an age of global data management. And it brought together people with high-level experience in both law enforcement and the Internet.

It emphasised, too, how far we are from answers. It was clear there that very different values and perspectives are in play in governments and in the Internet community. As a result, it looks much easier to reach agreement on due process – having rules in place which enable effective governance, protect consumers and sustain citizens’ rights – than on values and principles. Though that’s a start.

Multilateral agreements will be needed here, but they’ll be better if they’re reached with multistakeholder involvement. More generally, we need a forum in which values and principles can be discussed informally, without the antagonism between entrenched positions that has stymied so many formal talks.

In the 1970s and 1980s, big issues such as this were sometimes addressed by multistakeholder commissions. The Brandt Commission on development and the Brundtland Commission on environment were the most successful of these. The Global Commission on Internet Governance, chaired by Carl Bildt, suggests the model might work too on this vexed question. But any such commission will need to be authoritative and independent, financially, of vested interests. Who, if anyone, could instigate it?

David Souter is a longstanding associate of APC, and has worked for more than twenty years on the relationship between ICTs and public policy, particularly development, environment, governance (including Internet governance) and rights. David writes a weekly blog for APC, looking at different aspects of the Information Society, development and rights. David’s blog takes a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. It comments on current topics and international meetings, draws attention to new reports and publications, critiques assumptions and suggests alternative perspectives. The views are his own, not APC’s. We hope that they will stimulate discussion, and that others will contribute their ideas in complementary blogs in future. More about David Souter. Follow him on Twitter .