Multilateralism for the masses

Numerous national flags hang outside a building.
Editor's note:

This op-ed was originally published by Project Syndicate.

As the United Nations General Assembly gathers in New York City for its 75th session—which will open with a high-level meeting focused on “reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism”—the United States is engulfed in perhaps the most contentious presidential election in recent memory. The outcome will have far-reaching implications for the future of international cooperation and globalization.

All over the world, nationalist populists are stoking “anti-globalist” sentiment. Rather than address the sources of alienation, and mistrust—including income inequality, economic insecurity, and insufficient cooperation against global threats such as the current pandemic—populists manufacture bogeymen.

In the populists’ portrayal, “globalists” are a shadowy cosmopolitan elite that seek to destroy national sovereignty in the name of a self-serving agenda. Anti-globalist rhetoric—which refers, for example, to “rootless elites”—often includes a hefty dose of anti-Semitic dog-whistling, particularly in Eastern Europe.

In the U.S., this anti-globalist rhetoric was recently on stark display at the Republican National Convention, where speakers implored voters not to let the Democrats—supposedly under the control of the dreaded globalist cabal—dictate what voters think or say. At last year’s U.N. General Assembly, President Donald Trump declared that, “the future does not belong to globalists,” but to “patriots.”

Such statements have proved potent, convincing a growing share of voters that multilateral cooperation serves the interests of the elites and comes at the expense of “the people.” Yet it is nationalist populists who often pursue policies that benefit the wealthiest groups; Trump’s tax reforms are a case in point. By contrast, the global public goods that only multilateralism can deliver—from pandemic control to a healthy planet—disproportionately benefit the least privileged.

How, then, do populists so often succeed in equating international cooperation with cosmopolitan elitism? First, they muddy the conversation by referring to globalization and multilateralism interchangeably, even though the two terms describe distinct processes.

Globalization refers to the increasing flow of goods, services, capital, labor, data, and ideas across national borders. Many, including Harvard economist Dani Rodrik, have long argued convincingly that globalization has gone too far in many domains.

But this is very different from multilateralism, which refers to cooperation or coordination among nation-states. While multilateralism can lead to more globalization, it doesn’t have to. The first step toward countering the populist narrative is clarifying this distinction.

As Rodrik notes, however, multilateralism can also be overused, such as when global governance solutions are applied to areas where individual nation-states’ actions do not have significant spillover effects. For example, if a country uses moderate tariffs or subsidies to protect or encourage the development of certain industries, the effect on competitors in other countries is likely to be small.

If the international community steps in anyway—say, by imposing rules that constrain domestic policy—it risks fueling nationalist sentiment, especially among vulnerable groups who could be facing concentrated losses as a result of the lack of domestic protection against competition. As trade theorists have long known, diffuse gains spread over large numbers of consumers cannot compensate politically for such losses. And some industrial policies may generate net national gains due to externalities or dynamic effects.

Just as excessive multilateral intervention can look to domestic populations like an international assault on sovereignty, it can convince voters elsewhere that their “rivals” are using national policies as economic weapons against them, fueling rather than preventing self-defeating cycles of retaliation. Effective multilateralism thus requires us to respect national sovereignty where policies have limited spillover effects, so that it can better help manage these effects when needed.

The other populist myth that must be dispelled is that international cooperation benefits only a wealthy, footloose, and privileged global elite. Many grassroots “people’s cosmopolitanism” movements exist, but they must grow rapidly to shrink the political space occupied by national populists.

This will require overcoming two long-standing obstacles: the distance between people and the absence of a common language. Though still formidable, these obstacles have diminished in recent decades. Thanks largely to digital technologies, from social media to translation apps, there are now countless ways to overcome them.

Shared challenges, such as climate change, have spurred the rise of increasingly influential and highly diverse global movements, and multilateral efforts such as the Sustainable Development Goals have fostered similar kinds of broad activism, with the U.N. playing a significant facilitating role. Ironically, even nationalists are awkwardly attempting to summon a common voice and agenda.

Yet internationalist discourse is still politically costly if it appears to ignore the local and the familiar. That is why progressive internationalism must not only celebrate diversity and nurture a global civic consciousness, but also recognize that people will always give priority to their families, communities, and countries. Acknowledging our common humanity and shared responsibility as stewards of the planet does not require asking anyone to tear up the parochial roots that underpin their sense of belonging. Those roots are precisely what will provide the security they need to reach out to others.

Contrary to populist myth, global solidarity does not mean caring more about children in far-flung locales than one’s own; it simply means recognizing that all children—all people—have equal value. The U.N. enshrined this subtle but essential distinction in its Charter 75 years ago. There is no better time to reaffirm it than at the upcoming U.N. General Assembly.