from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Multilateralism is Hard to Do

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, September 28, 2015. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

June 9, 2016

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, September 28, 2015. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
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The following is a guest post by Naomi Egelresearch associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program.

From the lack of any substantial outcome at the World Humanitarian Summit to the failure to reform the UN Security Council (or even the World Health Organization), multilateral cooperation often seems more an aspiration than a reality today. To assess looming challenges to the liberal world order and how the United States should respond, the International Institutions and Global Governance program last month cohosted the Sixth Princeton Workshop on Global Governance. The conclusions were far more somber than last year’s event, where participants anticipated that international cooperation might get messier, but would surely continue. This time around, the assembled academics and policymakers fretted that rising geopolitical competition abroad and surging domestic populism posed grave threats to multilateralism.

Challenges to the liberal world order limit multilateralism

Traditional multilateralism—as part of the U.S.-led liberal world order—is under strain and underperforming. At the precise moment that global interdependence is deepening, resurgent great power competition is undercutting prospects for sorely needed cooperation.

Emerging powers are obviously determined to secure greater influence over international institutions. What is less clear is whether their ultimate aim is simply to increase their proportional weight and authority within these institutions, or something more ambitious—to replace the current norms and rules governing state conduct in spheres ranging from international security to development cooperation. The answer to this question matters. If countries like China, India, Russia, Brazil, and Turkey are invested in the system but merely looking for greater voice, the relative decline of the West seems less worrisome. If their aims are to transform the system, all bets are off.

Complicating matters, the redistribution of global power is occurring in an increasingly crowded institutional environment—in which the effectiveness of different bodies varies dramatically. With many existing multilateral organizations deadlocked and resistant to reform, the United States and other countries are pursuing alternative, essentially experimental forms of international cooperation, including coalitions of the capable, interested, or likeminded. This dynamic is evidenced across the board, from the Nuclear Security Summit to the surprising resilience of the Group of Seven advanced market democracies.

Multilateralism is also increasingly networked, disaggregated, and bottom-up. The Paris Agreement on climate change exemplifies this new model. Although it was an intergovernmental agreement, a slew of nonstate actors influenced its negotiation and will be critical to its implementation. It is also simply one part of the climate change puzzle, which is being addressed through multiple, mutually reinforcing multilateral initiatives. Finally, it took the form not of a single comprehensive treaty, handed down on all parties from above, but as the compilation of individual, nationally-determined contributions, in the hopes that the whole would exceed the sum of its parts.

Domestic turbulence makes multilateral agreement more difficult

Turbulent domestic politics around the world, including in the United States, create serious obstacles to effective multilateral cooperation. The tensions facing the European Union highlight this point: The persistence of low economic growth, the ongoing crisis in the Eurozone, Europe’s struggle to respond to uncontrolled flows of refugees and migrants, and the rise of nationalist and xenophobic parties have stopped integration in its tracks. Meanwhile, the total breakdown of social trust and governing structures in much of the Middle East poses a fundamental, potentially decades-long challenge for the region. Whatever agreements the United States and other external actors might be able to achieve in diplomatic corridors will not be sufficient to restore stability and deliver prosperity in the Middle East.

Getting the world on the right track, in other words, increasingly depends on whether individual countries can get their own houses in order first. Take the international economy. In the wake of the global financial crisis, the major institutions of global economic governance performed rather well, staving off what might well have been a second Great Depression. What multilateral cooperation has not delivered, however, is a path to sustained global growth and prosperity. And the reason is that this outcome ultimately rests on sound domestic policy decisions and their implementation at the national level. The main challenges facing the global economy, including low productivity in developed economies and growing inequality around the world, will not be met through simply deeper commercial and financial integration or multilateral regulations.

What multilateral institutions can do, at least in principle, is to help repair the fraying social contract between governments and their citizens. Around the world, people are demanding more of their governments. But while these arrangements are primarily ones for national polities to negotiate, they need to be harmonized at the international level, to avoid distorting the global economy, as well as to survive competitive pressures of a “race to the bottom.” For the past few decades, turbocharged globalization has been based on the premise that liberalization and deregulation of market activity will result in broadly shared prosperity. As levels of inequality continue to rise, even as societal expectations grow, governments around the world will need to strike new bargains at the global as well as domestic level to meet the aspirations of their citizens.

How should the United States respond?

Despite these daunting challenges, the United States is and will remain well-positioned to shape the world order going forward, given its unmatched resources and ability to pivot between issue areas. The United States should work to limit the consequences of geopolitical tensions and maintain its global leadership through strengthening core alliances, selectively compartmentalizing issues to limit competition, and recommitting to comprehensive reforms of global institutions. Building other countries’ capacity to strengthen the liberal world order will also pay dividends in the long run: this cannot be solely a U.S. project. At the same time, the United States must adapt to and embrace the increasingly networked nature of global governance and international cooperation, while recognizing the imperative of reducing levels of inequality, both globally and domestically. It can do so by combining its vast resources, including traditional attributes of power and the ability to mobilize support across a range of actors, and by investing in infrastructure and human development at home as well as abroad.

See the workshop report for more information on the workshop discussion.

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