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Why Multilateralism Still Matters

MADRID – Across the West, faith in international governance and economic globalization is declining. As Donald Trump’s victory in the United States’ presidential election showed, voters, driven by a sense of injustice and inequality, are increasingly rejecting openness, as well as the political establishment that has advanced it. But, while the grievances fueling these choices are real – many have been left behind by globalization – the treatment is likely to cause more harm than the disease.

Trump won by promising to pursue unilateral and inward-looking solutions, much like those advocated by proponents of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. Voters were galvanized by the prospect of rejecting new free-trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and renegotiating old ones like the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA). They rally against multilateral bodies like the World Trade Organization (WTO) – the main forum for negotiating and implementing global trade norms and one of the only international organizations with a quasi-judicial dispute-settlement entity.

All of this ignores a crucial fact: in today’s world, turning inward is not a viable option, especially for Western liberal democracies. We are simply too interconnected; the problems, challenges, and opportunities we face have no regard for national borders.

Efforts to move backward to the time of independent nation-states will therefore carry massive costs. Indeed, the decline of the WTO, together with the demise of deals like the TPP and NAFTA, would fuel the emergence of separate trade blocs, inaugurating a new era of great power competition. Perhaps most important, a retreat from global trade would bring about a generalized loss of welfare.