g20 summit 2017 group photo

A Fragmented Multilateralism?

With multilateral frameworks under attack, a new system in which country groupings – based on, say, geography or worldview – would formulate their own sets of rules may seem like a viable alternative. But the trend toward increasingly close economic and even social interdependence demands global rules and standards.

WASHINGTON, DC – Amid ongoing attacks by US President Donald Trump, the battle for the future of multilateralism has commenced. Previous demands for pragmatic reforms have escalated into pressure for the wholesale transformation – or even total destruction – of the global framework of multilateral institutions. Trump seems to prefer a “system” in which bilateral deals replace the multilateral rules-based order. As the US is still the world’s most advanced (and one of the largest in terms of market prices) economy in the world, he believes America can get the best “deal” by negotiating alone, unbound by international rules – a view that extends to military affairs.

Although multilateralism had made substantial progress since the end of the Second World War, there was a need for continuous reform, owing to changes in the structure of the world economy. By the late 1990s, emerging-market economies had grown in size and market share, overtaking the “Quad” (the US, Canada, the European Union, and Japan), which had dominated the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the GATT’s successor, the World Trade Organization. A similar change in “economic weight” affected the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. At the heart of this change was the spectacular growth of China.

In the case of the WTO, the sheer number of developing countries that had joined also made adjustment necessary. The inability to conclude the Doha Round of negotiations, after 14 years of talks, was a symptom of the problem. In the 2010s, a system emerged in which mega-regional trade negotiations – most importantly, those for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and other “minilateral” negotiations took place outside the WTO framework.