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Long Reads

Reclaiming Multilateralism

Since the dawn of civilization, humankind has gradually formed ever-larger cooperative networks, first by changing minds, and then by changing institutions. But with nationalist forces around the world threatening to reverse that progress, proponents of multilateralism will need to show why international cooperation is not just valuable, but necessary.

KIEL – In country after country, populists are beckoning voters to pursue atavistic dreams of national glory and abandon international commitments and multilateral cooperation. This is the age of “America first,” “Take back control,” and “Hungary belongs to the Hungarians” – to cite just a few of the slogans one hears nowadays.

Yet, when it comes to global problems, there can be no alternative to cooperation. Without it, we will all be at the mercy of cyber conflicts, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation. We will be buffeted by the spillover effects of financial crises, failed states, pandemics, and massive involuntary migrations. And we will have to learn to live with water and food crises, increasingly catastrophic weather events, and ecosystem collapse.

The question, then, is how to save multilateralism from populist forces. In fact, while multilateralism certainly appears to be on a collision course with nationalism, the two are not necessarily incompatible. The task for multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the G20 is to bring them into a complementary alignment.

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