ROME —  Pope Francis’s personal envoy for the war in Ukraine has said that multilateralism, meaning cooperation among various states and international actors, is the only way to face contemporary challenges, but also warned that such an approach today is “in great difficulty.”

In diplomatic argot, “multilateralism” is generally understood to mean an alternative to the unilateral domination of global affairs by one or more superpowers, such as the United States.

Cardinal Matteo Zuppi said Aug. 27 that multilateralism is “indispensable because it’s the only way to translate the demanding awareness that ‘we’re all in the same boat,’ that great vision of Pope Francis in ‘Fratelli tutti,’ translating it also into places of understanding, discussion, examination, and … why not? .. also of making decisions.”

Zuppi’s reference was to the 2020 encyclical letter of Pope Francis “Fratelli tutti,” the heart of which is a call for greater human solidarity.

The 67-year-old Zuppi, a veteran of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a new movement devoted to conflict resolution and ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue, is president of the powerful Episcopal Conference of Italy.

In May, Francis tapped Zuppi to be his personal representative regarding the Russian war in Ukraine. He’s carried out visits to Kyiv, Moscow and Washington, and is expected to travel to Beijing soon.

Zuppi’s remarks on multilateralism came in a video message for an Aug. 29-30 conference in Venice devoted to the topic of “soft power,” a phrase coined by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye to refer to achieving objectives through persuasion and the attractiveness of ideals. It’s opposed to “hard power,” meaning economic and military strength.

The conference is organized by the “Soft Power Club,” an organization founded by center-left Italian politician Francesco Rutelli, who served as Mayor of Rome from 1993 to 2001 and as Deputy Prime Minister from 2006 to 2008.

Zuppi pointed to Europe as an example of the difficulties multilateralism faces today.

“We have to find rules for this multilateralism, which, in reality, is in great difficulty,” he said. “Think of the difficulties for Europe, which is very multilateral but which needs a synthesis and is having a very hard time finding one that’s effective, capable of responding to the challenges Europe faces, that we all face.”

Zuppi argued that while the vision behind multilateralism is clear, it needs a stronger and clearer institutional structure in order to function effectively in global affairs.

“I believe that the path of multilateralism, the difficult task of putting together the influences, the deep currents of history that lie underneath the earth, is the way to find adequate responses,” he said.

“For me, the vision remains that of Pope Francis: ‘Fratelli tutti.’ But, that vision needs instruments, [it needs] an institutional framework,” he said.

Pope Francis repeatedly has stressed the importance of multilateralism in international affairs, devoting much of his 2019 address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See to the subject.

“An indispensable condition for the success of multilateral diplomacy, is the goodwill and good faith of the parties, their readiness to deal with one another fairly and honestly, and their openness to accepting the inevitable compromises arising from disputes,” he said.

On that occasion, the pontiff warned that “whenever even one of these elements is missing, the result is a search for unilateral solutions and, in the end, the domination of the powerful over the weak.”

Rutelli said “soft power,” the ability to bring various actors together around common ideals, is essential.

“Soft power, the power of persuasion, is more important today than ever, in a changing world facing dramatic crises,” he said. “History teaches that soft power cannot substitute for hard power, military and economic power, but it also teaches no power can survive for very long without consensus.”

In his four-minute video message, Zuppi said the soft power approach is especially important today, “When we see the great difficulties facing the forces that once were able to control and to balance global exchanges and influences. Now, we have to find another way.”

He offered an example of the immediate post-World War II period, when, he said, “everyone saw the need for a supra-national power that would be able to manage conflicts,” and both the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were responses.

Today, Zuppi said, there’s a need again to find ways of expressing a multilateral vision, which, he said, is essential “to learn to live together in this one boat, this living room of the world, which we have to care for and live in together.”