Taiwan’s chance to move towards omnilateralism

It's time to replace the 17th century sovereignty-based Westphalian order with a more inclusive one

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Taipei 101 (Travel Taipei website photo)

Taipei 101 (Travel Taipei website photo)

A pandemic[1] was announced by the WHO on March 11, 2020, describing the global spread of the COVID-19 virus. However, as early as the beginning of December last year, health officers in Taipei were checking passengers from Wuhan for symptoms before they left their plane. As a result, by the end of December 2019, the WHO had already received from Taipei an early warning about the risk of this new coronavirus.[2]

However, the WHO could not officially share this warning with its members. Precious time to prepare for prevention worldwide was lost. Why? In simple terms, because the alert came from a society that is not an official member of the WHO nor its parent body, the UN. As its name suggests, the United Nations accepts only “nations” as its formal members.

Shouldn’t the current “multi”-lateral or inter-“national” institutions, founded on the logic of the 17th-century Westphalian system of “sovereign nations,” which underpins the UN, now be opened up globally to all legitimate stakeholders? Is it not time to evolve towards an omnilateral[3] system?

The often un-“United Nations,” which this year is preparing for its 75th anniversary, has impressively grown its membership from 51 nations in 1945 to 193 today. But like with the democracies of the world, growth seems to be only in numbers and not in strength and efficiency. For about a century, attempts to shape a global order have come and gone under the much-marketed brand of “multilateralism,” notably through its strongholds in the League of Nations and UN. However, how successfully have they managed to build a truly common global order?

The current multilateral “World Order” is not, in reality, shared by all people(s),[4] let alone equally. Rather, it is an order basically limited to governance by sovereignty-claiming nation-states[5] shaped by the norms of the Westphalian system of 1648. Some major nations are withdrawing even from this merely multilateral system, increasingly walling themselves off[6] or challenging it with alternatives and exploiting the void of “Westlessness.”[7]

Most “nations” — as now historic aberrations imposed on the world by Western colonialism in the past — still claim sovereignty with their monopoly of violence within their borders.[8] Narrow-minded national politicians deny the high degree of interdependence achieved through the globalization of their economies (albeit currently “slowbalisation”[9] more in favor of growing regionalization). The limitation to the nation excludes not only various groups of people but also leaves a widely unruled global market outside and across the borders to the “multinational” corporations — in particular, the politically crucial, media-mighty American GAFA and Chinese BATX — in a “winner takes all” rivalry.[10]

In fact, nowadays various developments in global society have significantly chipped away at the authority of nation-states as the core polities of governance. Instead, there is a dire need for coordination and decision-making on wider continental and even global levels.

Besides the world's interdependence in trade and finance, just think of transnational terrorism and even pandemics, the digital “death of distance” in communication, cyberspace and outer space, traffic on the high seas and the mining of the deep sea, global common goods like the climate and environment, the EU's supra-nationality for enduring peace,[11] etc.

Increasingly conscious of these wide-ranging issues, more and more — notably younger — people realize that global problems call for global solutions beyond borders that individual nations cannot achieve on their own. Through the incapacity and lack of cooperation amongst nations, a vacancy has opened up to address this interdependence. It opens up a path to broader inclusion than mere multilateralism, a path towards a comprehensive omnilateralism.

However, the current system omits major non-state stakeholders from civil society and various other legitimate groups from taking part in decisions for the common global good. Hence amendments to enhance global governance need to not only better weigh votes amongst the present nations (cf. huge China, unlike tiny Nauru, which is particularly impacted by climate change) but also have to further open the current system of nation-only votes to omnilateral participation by all accountable stakeholders concerned.

These voices today are most vociferous amongst the youngest generation, still denied votes in national and global decisions. To move the global order from a merely multi- to an openly omnilateral one, it has to engage the non-Western world more widely and deeply with its best practices and proven values.

Thus, under omnilateralism, global governance will no longer be limited to the linear thinking of Christian anthropocentrism but also open to the Buddhist concept of cycles of life. More social elements, such as Islamic banking to fight inequality, could also be considered as well as African experiences of reconciliation in order to overcome the polarisation of our societies.

Regional integration on all continents (the EU, AU, ASEAN, Mercosur, etc.) and pooling national sovereignty should serve as stepping-stones towards supranational cooperation at higher level governance.

Learning from the failure of the League of Nations and now the weakening of the UN, the people(s) and their politicians ought to open the path towards a global stakeholder democracy, by and for all, in omnilateralism.

Dr. Wolfgang PAPE retired from the European Commission in 2011 and is currently a research fellow with CEPS in Brussels after a fellowship in Seoul. His publications cover issues of trade, integration, governance, and culture in Europe and East Asia (i.a. his blog “The Omnilateralist”), and he occasionally lectures at universities worldwide and ‘edu-tains’ on cruises in his four working languages.


[1] From the Greek pan meaning all and demos for people

[2] The Economist, 28.3.2020

[3] Cf. unilateralism centers on one’s own interests and resources without much regard to others (cf. President Trump’s policies); bilateralism is limited to two parties (Switzerland has the most bilateral FTAs with other individual countries); trilateral is the relationship between three parties (e.g. China, South Korea, and Japan with a permanent secretariat in Seoul); plurilateral refers to the involvement of more than three parties (e.g. the Trade in Services Agreement, TiSA, within the multilateral WTO); multilateral (literally many-sided) describes in general a relationship involving numerous parties, in particular of recognized nations in the UN; whereas omnilateral (from the Latin omnibus meaning for and by all, first coined by Immanuel Kant in 1790 in his Science of Rights as “derived from the particular wills of all the individuals”) and nowadays, omnilateralism connotes wider participation by all and a broader purpose for all (e.g. governance including all legitimate stakeholders on issues of concern).

[4] According to Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard (Foreign Affairs, New York, May/June 2015 p.1), “for much of the last three centuries, European order was world order.”

[5] “Nation-state” as a term basically originated in Europe, and the concept was imposed on Africa, the Americas, and Asia mainly by colonialization. Hence, the translation into Chinese and vice-versa often is wrought with different interpretations. The Chinese character for “country”"can in different combinations be translated into English as “nation.” 国 is a most common character and ranks 105 in the Frequency Dictionary of Mandarin Chinese (by Richard Xiao, Abington, 2009).

[6] Most spectacularly with Donald Trump’s wall, but also a historic trend all over the world. See Wendy Braun, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, Zone Books, New York 2017, passim.”

[7] Slogan coined by chairman Wolfgang Ischinger at München Security Conference in February 2020

[8] In recent history, the state has succeeded over other communities like provinces or towns to such an extent in its monopolization of force and violence that we take it for granted. The very definition of the state for Max Weber (1921) refers to an organization that has a "monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory."

[9] [Sic] Economist, 2.1.2019

[10] Except within the EU with its supranational competences for competition law

[11] Officially recognized by the 2012 Noble Peace Prize for the EU