The purpose of multilateralism

A framework for democracies in a geopolitically competitive world

A protester gestures as he blocks the entrance to the United Nations headquarters with other protesters in Colombo July 6, 2010. The protesters on Tuesday blocked the entrance to the UN offices, trapping workers inside, to demand the immediate withdrawal of a panel advising UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on whether war crimes were committed in the final months of Sri Lanka's war last year against separatist Tamil Tiger rebels. Ban appointed the three-member panel on June 22, 2010. REUTERS/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds  (SRI LANKA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CRIME LAW POLITICS) - GM1E6761CKD01

Executive Summary

Across the globe, multilateralism appears in crisis. Skepticism of the benefits of a multilateral order grounded in underlying liberal principles is manifesting throughout the Western world. The United States, the system’s imperfect cornerstone, scorns a growing number of multilateral institutions and norms each day. Within Europe, Brexit and discord over the European Union’s (EU) future is undercutting the EU as a regional multilateral pillar, alongside the supranational bloc’s capacity as a global actor. Simultaneously, a more assertive China and Russia are seeking to reshape multilateralism, challenging the foundational liberal principles that have guided the post-Cold War multilateral order to which the world has become accustomed.

The post-Cold War moment witnessed a tremendous flourishing in multilateral cooperation. Nations employed multilateral architectures with unprecedented success to manage and reduce real shared global problems. Individuals, understandably, are rallying to defend this multilateral order against rising strains. However, multilateralism can only operate in the geopolitical context within which it exists. The unfortunate return of great-power competition, so noticeably dampened during the preceding decades, is eroding the very foundations on which the multilateralism of the post-Cold War era stood.

While the United States is currently the most noticeable disruptor, authoritarian countries are actively contesting the underpinnings of the multilateral order. Russia and China increasingly are working to bring multilateral architectures into closer alignment with their own authoritarian norms. Such a transformation is not in the interests of nations around the globe that seek to maintain democratic governance against the growing reach of authoritarian influence. Globalization’s ties have created deep interconnections and vulnerabilities between democratic and authoritarian states. As states continue to “weaponize” those channels, and China presents a true global economic challenge to the market democracies, the United States and other democratic countries must move toward a conception of multilateralism that defends democratic interests within existing, and even new, architectures.

A relearning of the history of multilateralism is central to this process. Decades ago, multilateral arrangements born amidst post-war hopes of cooperation quickly learned to function in divided environments throughout the Cold War. As great-power competition casts a shadow over today’s multilateral systems, we must recall lessons from beyond the past quarter-century. To meet rising geopolitical challenges, democratic countries ought to approach multilateral architectures through a framework along three complementary lines:

  • Continue to support measured collaboration on shared challenges;
  • Create or revitalize fora to provide for deconfliction and crisis off-ramps; and
  • Compete selectively both within existing institutions and via new ones to better defend democratic values against authoritarian rivals.

A strategic outlook of competitive multilateralism seeks a rebalance among these three dimensions so that democratic governments are best positioned to strive to avert the specter of conflict without sacrificing their publics’ liberty and prosperity.