The Centre's Final Conference of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg / Centre for Global Cooperation Research was opened yesterday in the DKM Museum in Duisburg with greetings from Professor Sabine Döring, State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, Professor Barbara Albert, Rector of the University of Duisburg-Essen and Professor Sigrid Quack, Managing Director of the Centre, followed by a keynote from Professor Mirjam Künkler, a longstanding member of the Centre's Scientific Advisory Board and currently its speaker, who presented a tour d'horizon of 'minilateral' interstate configurations as examples of what she termed to be a trend in current global politics. Künkler in a remarkable way linked this suggested trend to shifts in the Centre's research since its beginning in 2012.
Mirjam Künkler is an expert in contemporary Islam, who has examined the relations between religion and state in Iran and Indonesia, on questions of law and constitutionalism, Islamic authority, religious education, and religious political parties. Her most recent work focused on the role of female religious authority in Islam. After Mahsa Amini's death in custody last year Künkler organized a Käte Hamburger Dialogue panel that situated the ensuing protest wave in the longer history of political dissent and mobilisation in Iran since the late 1990s.
Künkler presented a shift in the post 9/11 world towards 'minilateralism', networks of small groups of nations collaborating to tackle problems or pursue shared goals. Those configurations are neither regional – in that they usually transgress regional borders – nor do they appear as a formal bloc. They tend to focus on specific issues and shared interests, are often voluntarily and not based on a shared ideology.
Many minilateral networks involve countries of East and Southeast Asia and were initiated by the United States in an effort to contain China, particularly its economic and financial expansions along the Belt and Road Initiative. Those tend to pursue defense interests, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (United States, Japan, Australia and India), Aukus (Australia, UK, US) or a trilateral alliance between Japan, South Korea and the United States. Others pursue ecological interests, such as the Mangrove Alliance formed in the run-up to COP27 in Egypt, involving the UAE, Indonesia and other countries.
Seen as a trend symptomatic of the decline of the multilateral system and the emergence of a new superpower configuration, Künkler reflected on the motives that were behind the founding of the Centre in 2012, a time when global cooperation was felt as promising and as the only solution to tackle global problems ('global problems need global cooperation'). With the multilateral system increasingly under stress, the Centre shifted its focus towards trans- and substate configurations, non-state actors, NGOs and also regional cooperation. That the lense of political sociology became more prominent in the Centre's research in the mid 2010s may have been a contributing factor. Dynamics below and beyond geo-political interpretations were seen as ways to understand the role of social forces in global politics and to also provide insight into emerging trends and future scenarios. Künkler explicitly mentioned research done by then research group leaders Katja Freistein, Frank Gadinger, Christine Unrau and Nina Schneider done at the Centre in recent years. Research on NGOs (Sigrid Quack, Marjam Deloffre), migration (Volker Heins, many fellows) and de-growth (Lauren Eastwood) extended and profiled an analysis of dynamics that in the understanding of the Centre are at work also as motives and limits of interstate cooperation and the stories and practices emanating from those configurations.
Despite the indisputable continuing crisis of multilateralism, Künkler argued that simultaneously with the growth of minilateralism, decisive support for multilateral processes has recently come from non-state actors. She highlighted three trends in international law which have chosen multilateral channels to hold authoritarians accountable and to further citizens’ rights, the most recent of which is the initiative by Afghan and Iranian women to enshrine the crime of gender apartheid in the new UN Convention of Crimes against Humanity.
The conference will have an extensive debate over the remaning two days on this remarkable interpretation, embedded in an overal reflection on the promises and pitfalls of research on global cooperation and the original working thesis: that global problems need global cooperation to reach finally global solutions. Connoisseurs of the Centre's own history remember a lecture by Scott Barrett, who in 2015 provided a judgement that might be related to the 'minilateralism' diagnosis of Mirjam Künkler yesterday: that cooperation has a better chance to succeed when specific (limited) problems are addressed: a global health problem was his example then: the eradication of small pox desease in 1980. Today when urgencies are felt much more pressing – compared to 2012, we might suspect that this will not be enough.
Founded as the 10th Käte Hamburger Kolleg on the initiative of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the Centre for Global Cooperation Research in Duisburg established an interdisciplinary Denkfreiraum (“Open Space for Thinking”) in 2012. It hosted close to 200 international scholars from many disciplines during two funding periods over 12 years.