Opinion

Can Multilateralism Adapt?

Global governance requires rules, because flexibility and goodwill alone cannot tackle the hardest shared problems. With multilateralism under attack, the narrow path ahead is to determine, on a case-by-case basis, the minimum requirements of effective collective action, and to forge agreement on reforms that fulfill these conditions.

By: Date: July 3, 2018 Topic: Global Economics & Governance

This opinion piece was also published on Project Syndicate

FLORENCE – Rewind to the late 1990s. After an eight-decade-long hiatus, the global economy was being reunified. Economic openness was the order of the day. Finance was being liberalised. The nascent Internet would soon give everyone on the planet equal access to information. To manage ever-growing interdependence, new international institutions were developed. The World Trade Organisation was brought to life. A binding climate agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, had just been finalised.

The message was clear: globalisation was not just about liberalising flows of goods, services and capital but about establishing the rules and institutions required to steer markets, foster cooperation, and deliver global public goods.

Now fast-forward to 2018. Despite a decade of talks, the global trade negotiations launched in 2001 have gotten nowhere. The Internet has become fragmented and could break up further. Financial regionalism is on the rise. The global effort to combat climate change rests on a collection of non-binding agreements, from which the United States has withdrawn.

Yes, the WTO is still there, but it is increasingly ineffective. US President Donald Trump, who does not hide his contempt for multilateral rules, is attempting to block its dispute settlement system. The United States pretends against all evidence that imports of BMWs are a threat to national security. China is brutally ordered – outside any multilateral framework – to import more, export less, cut subsidies, refrain from purchasing US tech companies, and respect intellectual property rights. The very principles of multilateralism, a key pillar of global governance, seem to have become a relic from a distant past.

What happened? Trump, for sure. The 45th US president campaigned for the job like a bull in a china shop, vowing to destroy the edifice of international order built and maintained by all of his predecessors since Franklin Roosevelt. Since taking office, he has been true to his word, withdrawing from one international agreement after another and imposing import tariffs on friends and adversaries alike.

Still, let’s face it: today’s problems did not start with Trump. It was not Trump who, in 2009, killed the Copenhagen negotiation on a climate agreement. It was not Trump who is to blame for the failure of the Doha trade round. It was not Trump who told Asia to secede from the global financial safety net managed by the International Monetary Fund. Before Trump, problems were dealt with more politely. But they were there.

There is no shortage of explanations. An important one is that many participants in the international system are having second thoughts about globalisation. A widespread perception in advanced countries is that the rents from technological innovation are being eroded precipitously. The US factory worker of yesterday owed his standard of living to these rents. But as the economist Richard Baldwin brilliantly shows in The Great Convergence, technology has become more accessible, production processes have been segmented, and many of the rents have gone.

A second explanation is that the US strategy toward Russia and China has failed. In the 1990s, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton thought that the international order would help transform Russia and China into “market democracies.” But neither Russia nor China has converged politically. China is converging in terms of GDP and sophistication, but its economic system remains apart. As Mark Wu of Harvard argued in a 2016 paper, although market forces play a strong role in its economy, coordination by the state (and control by the Communist Party) remains pervasive. China has invented its own economic rules.

Third, the US is unsure that a rules-based system offers the best framework to manage its rivalry with China. True, a multilateral system may help the incumbent hegemon and the rising power avoid falling into the so-called “Thucydides’ trap” of military confrontation. But the growing perception in the US is that multilateralism puts more constraints on its own behavior than on China’s.

Finally, global rules look increasingly outdated. Whereas some of their underlying principles – starting with the simple idea that issues are addressed multilaterally rather than bilaterally – are as strong as ever, others were conceived for a world that no longer exists. Established trade negotiation practices make little sense in a world of global value chains and sophisticated services. And categorising countries by their development level is losing its usefulness, given that some of them combine first-class global companies and pockets of economic backwardness. But inertia is considerable, if only because consensus is required to change the rules.

So what should be done? One option is to preserve the existing order to the greatest extent possible. This was the approach adopted after Trump withdrew the US from the Paris climate agreement: the other signatories continue to abide by it. The advantages of this approach are that it contains the damage from one country’s peculiar behavior. But, to the extent that the US attitude is a symptom, the conservationist approach does not address the disease.

A second option is to use the crisis as an opportunity for reform. The EU, China, and a few others – including, one hopes, the US at some point – should be the ones to take the initiative, salvaging those aspects of the old multilateralism that remain useful, but fusing them into new arrangements that are fairer, more flexible, and more appropriate for today’s world.

This strategy would have the advantage of identifying and absorbing the lessons offered by the exhaustion of traditional arrangements and the emergence of new ones. But is there enough leadership and enough political will to go beyond empty, face-saving compromises? The downside risk is that failed reform could lead to a complete unraveling of the global system.

In the end, the solution is neither to cultivate the nostalgia of yesterday’s order nor to place hope in loose, ineffective forms of international cooperation. International collective action requires rules, because flexibility and goodwill alone cannot tackle hard problems. The narrow path ahead is to determine, on a case-by-case basis, the minimum requirements of effective collective action, and to forge agreement on reforms that fulfill these conditions. For those who believe that such a path exists, there is no time to lose in finding it.


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint.

Due to copyright agreements we ask that you kindly email request to republish opinions that have appeared in print to communication@bruegel.org.

View comments
Read article Download PDF More on this topic More by this author

External Publication

Examining interrelation between global and national income inequalities

The author contributed to the new issue of 'The Russian Journal of Economics' with a paper on the global dimension of the inequality trends

By: Marek Dabrowski Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: November 15, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

US mid-term elections and the global economy

Democrats won control of the House and Republicans held onto the Senate in the most consequential US mid-term elections in decades. Bowen Call reviews economists’ and scholars’ analyses of the impact this might have on the world economy.

By: Bowen Call Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: November 12, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

The global economy’s three games

In this column, Jean Pisani-Ferry portrays the current international economic and geopolitical order as increasingly reminiscent of chess. Three key players: the US, China and a loose coalition of the other G7 members play three games simultaneously, and no one knows which game will take precedence.

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: October 29, 2018
Read article Download PDF More on this topic More by this author

Policy Contribution

Should we give up on global governance?

The pervasive gridlock affecting the traditional global governance approach calls into question the idea of broadening its scope beyond its core remit, and it calls for alternatives, either as substitutes for obsolete arrangements or to address emerging collective action problems in new, inadequately covered fields.

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: October 23, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

How could Europe benefit from the US-China trade war?

Under pressure from the US, Beijing is set to be more open to making new allies.

By: Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: October 18, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

Backstage: The new balance of Asia-EU-US trade relations

Amid the Asia-Europe Economic Forum on the fringes of the 12th ASEM Summit, Bruegel senior fellow hosts a conversation on developing global trade relations, with guests Moonsung Kang, professor as Korea University, and Michael G. Plummer, director at SAIS Europe – Johns Hopkins University, for an episode of the Bruegel Backstage series on ‘The Sound of Economics’.

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: October 17, 2018
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Competition Policy and Extraterritoriality

An in-depth look at competition policy.

Speakers: Guntram B. Wolff and Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: Innovation & Competition Policy Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: October 16, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Global markets’ tepid reaction to China’s new opening

China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001 was greeted with great fanfare. But near silence has greeted the recent removal by the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission of caps on foreign ownership of Chinese financial institutions. For Beijing, the apparent lack of interest might be an issue of too little, too late.

By: Alicia García-Herrero Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: October 11, 2018
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

External Publication

The EU response to US trade tariffs

The authors contributed to the new issue of 'Intereconomics - Review of European Economic Policy' with a paper on the EU's strategy for managing the trade war. The authors argue that to minimise the economic costs of the trade war and protect multilateralism, the EU's best and only response is to retaliate.

By: Maria Demertzis and Gustav Fredriksson Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: October 11, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Ten years after the crisis: The West’s failure pushing China towards state capitalism

When considering China’s renewed state capitalism, we should be mindful of the damage done by the 2008 financial crisis to the world's perception of Western capitalism.

By: Alicia García-Herrero Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: October 10, 2018
Read article Download PDF More by this author

Parliamentary Testimony

Belgian Federal ParliamentCroatian Parliament

Transatlantic relations

Testimony before the Belgian Federal Parliament ( La commissions des Relations extérieures de la Chambre des représentants )

By: Maria Demertzis Topic: Belgian Federal Parliament, Croatian Parliament, Testimonies Date: September 27, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Inequality in China

After amply discussing income inequality in Europe and the US, economists are now looking at the magnitude, implications and possible remedies for this phenomenon in the context of the Chinese economy.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: September 24, 2018
Load more posts