What’s Next for Multilateralism and the Liberal International Order?

What’s Next for Multilateralism and the Liberal International Order?
Video monitors show the result of a U.N. General Assembly vote in favor of a resolution condemning Russia’s illegal annexation of parts of Ukraine, at U.N. headquarters, Oct. 12, 2022 (AP photo by Bebeto Matthews).

The United Nations’ ability to carry out its mission has been severely constrained in recent years by its member states. And many of its agencies are now facing funding shortages that could severely curtail their work. In fact, multilateralism of all stripes is under strain, from the International Criminal Court to the World Trade Organization.

The United Nations is perhaps the most prominent manifestation of an international order built on balancing sovereign equality with great-power politics in a bid to maintain international peace. But its capacity to do that—and to meet its other objectives, which include protecting human rights and delivering aid—have been severely constrained in recent years by its member states.

The real power in the U.N. lies with the five veto-wielding members of the Security Council—the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain and France. And they have used their positions to limit the institution’s involvement in major recent conflicts, including civil wars in Syria and Yemen. But perhaps no two global crises have underscored the Security Council’s limitations more than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. Because of its veto, Moscow has been able to block all efforts at the council to condemn or intervene in a war of aggression that clearly violates the U.N. Charter. And the U.S. has done the same to stymie efforts by the council to call for a cease-fire in Gaza to alleviate the suffering of Palestinian civilians there.

Beyond the Security Council, the U.N. has sprouted additional specialized agencies to address specific issues—health, women’s rights and refugees, among others—that have met with varied degrees of success. In some instances, they have been able to galvanize global action around urgent goals, like UNAIDS’ work curbing the international AIDS crisis. But many of those agencies are now also facing funding shortages that could severely curtail their work.

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In addition to the U.N. and its agencies, multilateralism of all stripes is under strain, in part because of the Trump administration’s hostility during its four years in office toward these organizations due to the perceived constraints that multilateralism places on Washington’s freedom of action. In the absence of U.S. leadership and at times in the face of U.S. obstructionism, many multilateral efforts floundered. Heightened tensions and strategic competition among the U.S., Russia and China have also blocked efforts to address crises, even where their interests converge, as in Afghanistan.

President Joe Biden promised to adopt a more conventional U.S. approach to multilateralism and America’s global role, and his administration has already followed through with efforts to correct course on both scores since taking office. But whether that will be enough to shore up the international order remains to be seen. It is unclear whether the WTO will be able to reassert itself as global trade revives after the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance. The International Criminal Court, which could play a vital role in pursuing charges of war crimes emerging from the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, is under pressure from all sides—including the United States.

Other multilateral bodies are finding themselves ill-equipped to exercise any influence, as global powers are increasingly interested in competition rather than cooperation. Forums like the G-20 were designed to leverage the economic power of rich countries around a unified response to international crises, but there is little unity to be found at the moment. And while Moscow, Beijing and, increasingly, Washington were already looking to shake up the status quo, other countries are now also trying to take advantage of the current period of flux in global relations for their own political, economic and strategic gain.

WPR has covered the U.N. and multilateral institutions in detail and continues to examine key questions about their future. Will veto-wielding Security Council members continue to curtail U.N. involvement in key geopolitical hotspots, and what will that mean for the legitimacy of the institution? Will the U.N. and its specialized agencies be undone by threatened funding cuts? Will the world be able to formulate a multilateral approach to pressing challenges and crises, like the Sustainable Development Goals and climate change? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

The U.N. Was Having a Bad 2023. Then Came the War in Gaza

As 2023 ended, ambassadors and international officials at the U.N. did not have much to celebrate. The organization was having a hard year even before Hamas attacked Israel in October. Now the war in Gaza has sparked furious debates in the Security Council and General Assembly, with many asking if the U.N. can recover from the crisis.

U.N. Politics and Security Council Diplomacy

The Security Council’s activities have always been constrained by the five veto-wielding members, known as the permanent five, or P5. There have been regular calls to rethink the composition of the permanent members to reflect contemporary geopolitics, but those efforts have made little progress. Meanwhile, as gridlock in the Security Council hampers many diplomatic efforts, the U.N. General Assembly has taken on added significance as a sounding board for multilateral initiatives that lack great-power sponsors—and as yet another arena in which great power competition plays out.

The Liberal International Order

The creation of the U.N. heralded the rise of an international order based on collective security, liberalized trade and political self-determination. That is now beginning to recede as powerful states like China, Russia and, increasingly, the United States prefer to oversee spheres of influence and disregard the principles of sovereign independence and nonintervention.

The U.S. Approach to Multilateralism

Former President Donald Trump consistently criticized multilateral institutions, particularly the U.N., during his four years in office, while withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change and the WHO, and bringing the WTO to a virtual standstill. Biden has already reversed most of these moves, with the exception of his embrace of a protectionist trade policy. But he has had a harder time repairing the damage done to U.S. leadership by four years of Trump’s presidency—and the possibility of his return.

Crisis Management

One of the strengths of the U.N. and its specialized agencies is their ability to organize relief in the aftermath of a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis. They also work to bring down rising global hunger levels, even as the war in Ukraine threatens to create skyrocketing rates of malnutrition and food insecurity. But those and the many other roles the U.N. and other multilateral actors have to play in responding to global crises are all being complicated by geopolitical rivalries between the great powers.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2019 and is regularly updated.