Right now my city, Rio de Janeiro, is hosting the Summer Olympic Games. It is in many ways a great moment, and it is especially good to see people from so many parts of the world together in relative harmony. In other words, a good example of cosmopolitanism. The cosmopolitanism in the city today reminds me of the attempts of multilateralism that marked Brazilian (and world) foreign policy in previous governments, but that now seem to fade away. The two terms, cosmopolitanism and multilateralism, are not exactly synonyms, but are closely related: multilateral policies should work in bringing peoples together in a more cosmopolitan world. Concerning that, I think of a multilateralism that does not work in bringing people together through cosmopolitanism, and one that can work in that way.
When the Cold War was over, multiple theories were presented to explain what would happen to a world without the tension between two superpowers. Some suggested that the US would reign as a lone superpower; others that it would embrace some form of benign hegemony, in a New World Order. Others still believed that US power was in decline, and that the World would see more multilateralism in the 21st century. This last view was especially dear in Brazil, but as the 21st century progresses, it does not seem to hold as much water anymore.
One great example of multilateralism substituting American hegemony was the integration of Western Europe, but that does not seem to be the case anymore. It is true that beginning shortly after WWII European countries experienced growing levels of regional integration, culminating with the European Union and the Euro in the 1990s. But even then, economists warned politicians and the general public that such a level of integration was not possible, at least not without a central government in Europe. Successive economic crises, Brexit, and the harsh questioning of immigration policies show today that economists were right back then.
Another example of multilateralism celebrated in the 1990s was the growing importance of the UN. Successive humanitarian missions and interventions in several countries suggested that that UN could now surpass the dawn that marked the relationship between USA and USSR in the previous period. Optimism went so far as to discuss themes such as the ‘obligation to intervene’, substituting previous understandings of state sovereignty. But as the years go by, cases like Haiti, Rwanda, Sudan, and many others show that the optimism was at best too high.
Finally and more recently, Brazil and other underdeveloped and developing countries focused greatly on South-South Cooperation, trying to substitute the more standard paradigm of North-South Foreign Aid. This materialized in initiatives such as UNASUR and BRICS. Although presented as a new development, that was actually very reminiscent of The Non-Aligned Movement, The Group of 77, and other initiatives from the 1960s and 1970s. Now, as Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Turkey, China, Russia, and several other countries face growing levels of economic and political hardship, attempts to “overcome American hegemony” seem but preposterous.
New forms in multilateralism in Europe, the Global South, and even the World (in the UN) did not work because they are not really democratic, as they claim to be. Behind a rhetoric of democracy, empowerment of the poor, and so on, they are just new forms of mercantilism: political elites trying to control the economy, not just at the national level, but the international one as well. The point was never to actually bring people together, but to maintain the status quo by avoiding real competition.
The multilateralism that can bring about cosmopolitanism, and that somewhat shows in the Summer Olympic Games in Rio, is one characterized by spontaneous order. People do come together: that is the natural ways of things. The desire to trade spontaneously brings different peoples closer to one another, and as they are closer they realize how much they have in common, and also what can be learnt from the differences. It is not always a peaceful dealing, but the more people are educated to tolerate the differences and to benefit from them, the more cosmopolitan they become.
A top down approach to cosmopolitanism is just a deformed clone of the real thing. Even if some results appear, they always seem to fall somewhere in the uncanny valley, and anyway, the results do not last very long. A bottom up cosmopolitanism is the real thing, and if only elites let it be, it can grow stronger, bring more wealth, and even a little more peace to the world.