Competing for order: Confronting the long crisis of multilateralism

Chinese President Xi Jinping (on screens), addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s 75th session.
Editor's note:

In this paper, Bruce Jones and Susana Malcorra argue that the current malaise in the multilateral system “stems from much more than just the anti-multilateral instincts of some contemporary political leaders; rather, it has deeper roots and has been more than a decade in the making.” This paper was published in partnership with IE University School of Global and Public Affairs.


In September 2020, against the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the heads of state or government of 170 countries met—virtually—to commemorate the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. In an outcome document that had been negotiated over the summer, they tasked the Secretary General with developing ideas to reinvigorate multilateral cooperation in twelve areas, ranging from public health to peace and security.

This is not the only process by which governments are seeking to develop ideas to tackle the ongoing crisis of the multilateral order. In various informal groupings, governments and civil society institutions have begun to look for answers to this essential question: can the multilateral order, on which so many have relied for so much, be revamped in the face of mounting geopolitical tension, divisions over globalization, and rapid technological change? It’s a question made both more necessary and more difficult by the outbreak of the largest international public health crisis in a century.

This paper—launched at an event cohosted by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation of Spain, Arancha González, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sweden, Ann Linde—is designed to help governments in the process of answering that question. It is intended to spark debate and spur a continuing discussion. Our hope in publishing it is to inform clear-eyed assessments by governments as they develop strategies for the rejuvenation of multilateralism; but we also hope to encourage a sense of ambition in that effort, commensurate with the scale of the challenge ahead of us.