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Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 24, 2019 (AP photo by Richard Drew).

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

Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021

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—to the World Health 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. 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, not least the World Health Organization, which is leading the global coronavirus response.

In addition to the U.N. and its agencies, multilateralism of all stripes is under strain, in large part because of the Trump administration’s hostility during its four years in office toward these organizations over the perceived constraints that multilateralism places on Washington’s freedom of action. The World Trade Organization was already struggling in its efforts to regulate international trade before Trump took office, but his protectionist-minded administration further hobbled the organization, particularly its ability to resolve trade disputes.

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 in its first months in 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. Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court is under pressure from all sides. The Global South has denounced the Court’s lopsided focus on Africa—every defendant so far has come from the continent. And the Trump administration leveled sanctions against the ICC’s former top prosecutor for investigating American war crimes in Afghanistan—sanctions the Biden administration only recently removed.

Other multilateral bodies, including the G-20 and G-7, are finding themselves ill-equipped to exercise any influence, as global powers are increasingly interested in competition rather than cooperation. While Moscow, Beijing and, increasingly, Washington were already looking to shake up the status quo, the pandemic has encouraged other countries to try to take advantage of the situation for their own political, economic and strategic gain. Bodies like the G-20 and the G-7 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.

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 addressing the health crisis and economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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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.

The U.S. Approach to Multilateralism

Former President Donald Trump consistently criticized multilateral institutions during his four years in office, threatening to cut funding to the U.N. and waging a largely victorious campaign to sideline the International Criminal Court. Meanwhile, he withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate change agreement and the WHO, while bringing the WTO to a virtual standstill. Biden has already reversed some of these moves and is expected to do the same on others. But he will have a harder time repairing the damage done to U.S. leadership by four years of Trump’s presidency.

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.


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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. The U.N. and its agencies led efforts to end the recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo and are helping to rebuild key infrastructure following the massive explosion in Beirut’s port, which killed 178 people. They are also scrambling to bring down rising global hunger levels, even as the pandemic threatens to create skyrocketing rates of malnutrition. That is one of the many roles the U.N. and other multilateral actors have to play in the response to the coronavirus pandemic—if the U.S. and China can agree to set aside their rivalry.


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