Traditional Multilateral Institutions in Retreat?

Lady Catherine Ashton, PWH Visiting Fellow


It is not so much that we live in interesting times, though we do, as it is that we live in times of large-scale unpredictability. These new times sometimes require something different from our multilateral institutions, particularly with regard to how we resolve global crises.  Since the end of WWII, governments have relied almost exclusively on formal institutions and mechanisms to address global issues.  Today’s problems require a flexibility that will allow governments to make alliances and to group themselves less often through formal, multilateral intuitions and increasingly through informal, fluid, self-organized processes.


Things we took for granted about how individuals, leaders, or nations would behave are no longer so easy to predict.  The institutional frameworks we have typically relied upon, for example, the EU, NATO, the Arab League, the Africa Union, the UN, etc., seem at times outdated, cumbersome or fragile, as they struggle to manage threats and problems from cyber attacks to terrorism, from poverty to civil wars.  Within those institutional frameworks designed to bring together people of common interest and common cause for common outcomes, many alliances, even within the same geographical region, are ever shifting and strained.  For some, disillusionment with the whole project altogether, such as the British with the EU, is a risk, as is the ever-present threat of budget cuts or political distancing, as evidenced by the current Trump Administration toward the UN. 


Yet, whether governments rely on tried and true formal alliances or more informal groupings, there are no problems of significance that can be addressed singularly, from growing the economy and the importance or challenges of trade, to cyber attacks that know no boundaries, to civil wars that though distant in geography resonate globally.  To address any of these interdependent concerns, governments have to cooperate and collaborate with one another to find lasting solutions.


We have seen collaboration succeed and we have seen it fail.  However, it needs to continue to be an integral part of global engagement.   Increasingly we see alliances of expediency as the norm – “friends of” for example, allowing states or organizations to join forces in solving one specific concern without trying to go beyond that discrete issue.  Indeed, if two groups of “friends” are formed it may well be that the membership of one contains some that might be reasonably classified as “enemies” of the other.  Such an approach isn’t easy, but it is at times necessary and requires a more compartmentalized approach to crises.


I am not arguing for an end to the major multilateral institutional organizations.  We need them.  Their work is vital for the depth and breadth of the approaches they can take to solve deep-rooted problems – and to prevention.  These institutions’ long-term commitments significantly increase the odds of success in supporting failing or failed states, generating trade agreements, and remedying long-term issues such as education or poverty alleviation.  We must, however, recognize the growing use and real, complementary value of informal groupings to help us tackle particular issues and maybe help expand confidence in “soft power” solutions.