· Vatican City ·

Multilateralism from below

06 October 2023

With his Exhortation Laudate Deum, Pope Francis has not only clarified and brought to completion the message of the Encyclical Laudato Si’, published eight years ago. And this new document, full of data and numbers drawn from the most recent scientific literature, does more than just sound yet another dramatic alarm about the worsening consequences of climate change, in the hope that cop28 in Dubai will finally reverse the trend before it is too late. Laudate Deum contains much more, and in the chapter devoted to the weakness of international politics it puts its finger on a plague of our times: the absence of supranational institutions and organisations capable of enforcing commitments and settling disputes. The Holy Father contextualises his suggestions, looking in particular at the climate crisis and the need to reduce harmful emissions through a real ecological conversion, but they concern our future, and not only as it relates to care for creation. They are in fact applicable to other spheres — just think of war, indeed of the many wars that are being fought in the world at this precise moment, tiles of a ghastly mosaic that Francis has repeatedly called “World War iii fought piecemeal.”

The Pope’s vision is a multipolar one, a multilateral one, insisting on the need to favour multiparty agreements among states and the possibility of “some form of world authority regulated by law,” that is, of “more effective world organizations, equipped with the power to provide for the global common good, the elimination of hunger and poverty and the sure defence of fundamental human rights”. Organisations, in short, capable of “providing for the attainment of certain essential goals.” New tools are needed, not just a revival of the old ones.

Just as, with the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Pope called for a rediscovery of the “spirit” of Helsinki, aware that the 1975 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe as such would be unrepeatable today, so with regard to the environmental crisis he writes: “More than saving the old multilateralism, it appears that the current challenge is to reconfigure and recreate it, taking into account the new world situation.” This involves recognising and properly valuing the work that many civil society associations and organisations accomplish, compensating for the weaknesses of the international community. It is significant in this regard that the Pope cites the Ottawa Process, which aimed to bring an end to the production and use of anti-personnel mines, as “one example that shows how civil society with its organizations is capable of creating effective dynamics that the United Nations cannot.”

In his Exhortation, the Bishop of Rome thus proposes multilateralism as an “inevitable process,” a “multilateralism ‘from below’ and not simply one determined by the elites of power.” He recognises the importance of the new emerging powers, which are “increasingly relevant.” To achieve this new multilateralism, new procedures for decision-making are needed, as are “spaces for conversation, consultation, arbitration, conflict resolution and supervision, and, in the end, a sort of increased ‘democratization’ in the global context, so that the various situations can be expressed and included.”

Because, Pope Francis concludes, “it is no longer helpful to support institutions that preserve the rights of the more powerful without caring for those of all.” This holds true whether we are addressing the climate and migratory crisis, the conflicts staining the globe in blood, or, finally, addressing the scandal of world hunger and thirst with a proposal to change the current financial and economic system, which produces “inequality.” These are all interconnected phenomena, as the Encyclical Laudato Si’ had already amply shown. (Andrea Tornielli)

By Andrea Tornielli