Global Perspectives | Policy Paper | December 2018

GP Policy Paper “Reframing Multilateralism in a New Era”

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GP Policy Paper "Reframing Multilateralism in a New Era"

Context: Multilateralism under attack

Today, multilateralism faces its most severe crisis since the end of the Second World War. Despite significant multilateral successes in 2015 – the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate accords – a rising political tide of right-wing populism opposed on principle to multilateralism washed over both sides of the Atlantic. By the end of the following year, illiberal governments held power in Poland and Hungary, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and Donald Trump won the presidency of the United States. Right-wing nationalist parties surged in Germany, France, and Scandinavia, and though they failed to win power they firmly established themselves as major political forces in these countries. The political victories and successes of these often-authoritarian right-wing populist parties and movements over the last several years have deepened the underlying crisis of multilateralism that emerged in the wake of the 2008 global financial crash. Even before the crash, however, multilateral institutions like the European Union, World Bank, and United Nations found themselves facing stresses and strains that stretched their core capacities. Since the crash, multilateral institutions have found themselves overwhelmed by the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, massive civil wars in the Middle East that have produced or facilitated substantial migration flows, social media tools that give demagogues a direct line to citizens, and the rise of illiberal great powers like China and Russia opposed to traditional trans-Atlantic values of democracy and human rights. The rise of right-wing populism on both sides of the Atlantic (as well as the Pacific) threatens to make the crisis of multilateralism all the more acute. Under President Trump, the United States no longer makes human rights, democracy, and liberal values priorities in its approach to the world. Instead, President Trump instinctively embraces dictators like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, and Muhammad bin Salman rather than America’s traditional democratic allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific. Though the Trump administration has become the major driving force behind the current crisis of multilateralism, it’s not the only one. Campaigners for the UK’s departure from the European Union, right-wing populists in France and Germany, and illiberal governments in Poland and Hungary all threaten in one way or another to help Trump unravel the threads of trans-Atlantic cooperation carefully woven together by North Americans and Europeans alike since the Second World War. In recent weeks alone, Italy’s new coalition government of the far left and right has pulled out of the Global Compact on Migration and Brazil’s new right-wing government has reneged on its offer to host 2019 UN climate talks.

As bleak as the current moment may be, it also offers multilateralists an opportunity to reflect on nature and role of multilateral institutions going forward. These institutions do not exist for their own sake, but rather came into existence for contingent reasons as means to solve or address pressing problems. Indeed, today’s world confronts large-scale problems ranging from climate change to the threat of pandemic disease. Despite poor prospects in the present, multilateralists can begin to lay the groundwork for action to address these pressing issues when politics and policy align once again. To defend multilateral institutions against the predations of populists and dictators alike and reinvent and reinvigorate them in the future, it is important to understand why these institutions are the way they are and what problems they were intended to address.


  • Michael Werz, Senior Fellow Center for American Progress


  • Global Perspectives Initiative

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