From Middle East to South China Sea, Minilateralism Is on the Rise

Just like that, minilateralism is back. The slimmed-down cousin of geopolitics stalwart bilateralism – state to state relations – and multilateralism – vast, formal institutions like the United Nations and the European Union – is having a moment.

In an age of a great, bloody, brutal war, this is surprising. But set against the much longer story of the retreat of the United States, it makes sense.

Minilateralism is really just a technical term for small states and groupings of countries working together on a specific agenda or set of challenges, often informally. In contrast to working through the bureaucracies of the UN and EU, and even of large countries like Germany or the US, these smaller pacts can be more nimble and more narrowly focused.

Across multiple regions, they are thriving. In the Middle East, small rich countries like the United Arab Emirates and Israel are working on solar energy projects in Jordan and food security projects in India.

In Latin America, four countries – Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile – are seeking to create a lithium association to protect their production and processing of the metal, which is valuable for new technologies.

No region has seen more dedicated attempts at minilateralism than Asia-Pacific, where the growing assertiveness of China across the disputed areas of the South China Sea has pushed smaller Asian nations into ad-hoc alliances. Even AUKUS, a security pact between the US, the UK and Australia, and the Quad, a “security dialogue” between the US, India, Japan and Australia are sometimes called minilaterals. (I tend to be more skeptical of that, as they both involve the US, but the theory certainly holds: to face down China, it may be better to use smaller alliances that don’t provoke such a strong response.)

For those most interested in pursuing minilateralism, the advantages of diplomatic experimentation are obvious. A small country can pursue alliances with other smaller countries, without undermining its primary relationship with major powers. Another advantage is political latitude – a smaller country is often sandwiched between major countries or closely allied to one, and has to beware its new relationships don’t impact its entrenched allies. (This is especially true in Asia Pacific.) Minilateralism is a solution, because the terms of engagement are usually narrow and, crucially, voluntary.

Yet minilateralism isn’t a reflection of the nimbleness of the current global order. On the contrary, it reflects a growing disengagement from the current political structures of the United Nations and the European Union, as well as traditional superpower allies like the US, Russia or China.

No region better illustrates this tension than the Middle East. At the heart of a couple of minilateral experiments sit the UAE and Israel, two nimble countries that putatively sit under the umbrella of American protection, but which are keen to forge their own alliances in the world.

Yet the main reason they are doing so is a reflection of a Middle East in which the US is more disconnected than it has been for decades, and less sure of itself as China and Russia openly compete for ascendancy.

This disconnection is expressed in different ways: under Obama, as a response to the Iraq debacle; under Trump, as America First; under Biden as “America is back,” a return to the era of global rules and stability. But all point to a central truth: the US military umbrella remains, but the political umbrella has frayed. There isn’t an American vision of the rest of the world, or if there is, there certainly isn’t an American public willing to argue for it.

In the Middle East, you can see this through the burgeoning relations between the UAE and Israel, two countries pushed towards normalization because of suspicion over what, precisely, Washington intends to do about Iran. The back-and-forth of the Iran nuclear deal, and their feeling that Tehran’s weapons pose an existential threat, has made countries around the Middle East feel that America’s democracy is more a liability than a virtue, with seismic changes in policy every few years. Against that backdrop of uncertainty, better to seek allies on smaller issues. If the brick wall of American protection fails, perhaps a cobweb of tangled alliances might suffice.

The real test of minilateralism will come when these overlapping, even competing alliances face an old-world style threat – for example, a war like Ukraine. Sweden and Finland offer a good example of how minilateralism can work – right up until the point when it doesn’t.

For decades, Finland and Sweden sought to balance NATO and Russia, working with both but wary of falling too far into either camp. This was especially true for Finland, a country that shares a more than 1,000 kilometer border with its much larger neighbor. For both countries, for decades, neutrality prevailed. Sweden was rich and prosperous and Finland led the world in digital government.

Until the Ukraine invasion. Suddenly it became apparent that neither tech prowess nor social democratic policies could stop a Russian invasion. What both countries needed was a nuclear umbrella, and within weeks both countries had expressed their desire to join NATO.

This, then, is the unknown aspect of minilateralism. It allows for dynamic, ad-hoc relationships that can, perhaps, add up to as much diplomatic strength as bilateral relations. But such informal groupings have yet to be tested against a major threat, such as a regional escalation by China around Taiwan. In that moment, legally binding military pacts might count for more than voluntary cooperation.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai