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Can Multilateralism Survive?

In today’s deeply interconnected world, we need rules and institutions to govern markets and economic activity more than ever. Yet multilateralism is under increasing strain, and the lack of a clear and consistent means for assessing changing global power dynamics is not helping.

WASHINGTON, DC – It is often said that the unipolar world order, dominated by the United States, that emerged at the end of the Cold War has lately shifted to a “multipolar” arrangement, owing to the growing geopolitical “weight” of countries such as China, as well as many emerging economies. But the actual metrics by which we weigh global powers are typically discussed in only vague terms, if at all.

There is no agreed scale with which to measure a country’s international weight relative to others. For example, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank use economic metrics, such as GDP and trade volumes, that are not standardized across other institutions. The United Nations does not even use the same metrics across all of its agencies: in the General Assembly, every country is weighted equally, and there are no veto rights; in the Security Council, the five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the US) have veto rights.

At a time when multilateralism is under increasing strain, it is useful to understand the underlying shift in key weights and try to judge how much of what we are experiencing reflects structural shifts in these weights and how much is simply due to independent policy changes.

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