Academic journal article Global Governance

Unilateralism and Multilateralism in International Fisheries Management

Academic journal article Global Governance

Unilateralism and Multilateralism in International Fisheries Management

Article excerpt

Traditional international relations theory suggests that unilateral action in pursuit of the national interest should be the first preference of states in an anarchical international system. [1] Empirically speaking, however, the actions of states are rarely purely unilateral. States often pursue international relations through bilateral negotiations and multilateral mechanisms, such as alliances, treaties, and international organizations. They do so largely because in a variety of issues they cannot achieve their goals unilaterally. Within the broad issue area of international environmental politics, one of these reasons for multilateralism in particular is far more pronounced. Transboundary and global environmental issues are almost by definition problems that cannot be effectively managed by one country alone. For example, a state cannot guarantee the survival of a highly migratory animal species because no matter how effective its unilateral efforts at conservation, the species can always be killed off e lsewhere. This logic, inherent to most international environmental issues, mitigates toward a strong bias in these issue areas for cooperative mechanisms for international management. We also see a wide array of multilateral activity undertaken to provide environmental protection. By the time of the Rio Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, there were over 900 international agreements devoted wholly or partially to environmental protection, [2] and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) counted around 150 multilateral agreements devoted solely to environmental protection. [3] The numbers have only increased since then.

The use of multilateral mechanisms for international environmental management is thus the norm, both logically and empirically. Yet we continue to see cases of unilateral attempts to manage environmental resources that cross borders or that form part of an international commons. These unilateral attempts are vastly outnumbered by instances of the more normal multilateral approach, yet they remain important objects of study in the area of international environmental politics for two reasons. The first relates to the politics of environmental protection: to more successfully plan attempts to generate international environmental management, we must know when countries are likely to engage in unilateral action that can undermine, or perhaps support, concurrent multilateral efforts to manage the environmental resource in question.

The second reason unilateral actions in support of environmental protection remain important objects of study involves politics outside of environmental management. Attempts at unilateral action in pursuit of international environmental goals can prove highly conflictual and can have significant political implications beyond the immediate environmental issue in question. For example, unilateralism in defense of domestic tuna industries by various South American countries in the 1950s profoundly affected international maritime law by providing the impetus for the creation of 200-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs). The "Turbot War" between Canada and Spain led to the most severe political crisis between these two North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies in the twentieth century. And unilateral attempts by the United States to protect dolphins from tuna fishers on the high seas have led to significant confrontations between the United States and many of its closest trading partners within the core ins titutions of the international trading system.

Moreover, none of these unilateral approaches solved the underlying resource conflict in question. Without acceptance by most of the world's states, EEZs could not have been successfully defended, especially by small, weak Latin American states. Although the Canadians successfully chased off Spanish fishers in 1995, the ultimate management of the fishery could not be ensured without Spanish cooperation in the longer term. …

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