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How International Institutions Die

While the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted international institutions’ shortcomings, it also made plain, yet again, that the biggest challenges today are global in nature. In this context, defending multilateral institutions is not a display of “nostalgia,” but an act of realism.

MADRID – In the aftermath of World War II, the victors established a set of institutions that have underpinned the world order ever since. While those institutions have often been contested, they have proved to be highly resilient. But this does not mean they are invulnerable. On the contrary, their effectiveness may be gradually eroded – especially when they are used as geopolitical pawns.

Academic research offers abundant analysis of the factors that boost institutional hardiness, and those that tend to hasten institutional failure. One key message – which my own experience at the World Bank and in the European Union confirms – is that institutions thrive when there is trust. Small wonder, then, that the international order’s institutional arrangements are at risk.

Former US President Donald Trump’s administration threw the institutional-trust deficit into sharp relief. In just four years, Trump either defunded or disengaged from several United Nations agencies and multilateral agreements, paralyzed the World Trade Organization, and withdrew the United States from the World Health Organization.