Professor of Law : Georgetown University, and Director,
Institute of International Economic Law

As much as people talk about economic “multilateralism,” it remains very much an elusive term, in part because it is used loosely to denote two similar though distinct concepts.

At its simplest, multilateralism often is described as the cooperation between three or more countries. Still, most legal scholars tend to equate multilateralism with the forms of cooperation that have dominated the postwar story of international cooperation – highly ritualized “global” forums of cooperation where heads of state sign treaties that memorialize certain economic relationships, usually under the auspices of a formal international organization.

Multilateralism just isn’t what it used to be. Wherever you look, the big, global international organizations that dominated the postwar economic system appear to be suffering from middle age – and in some instances, irrelevance.

The last successful multilateral trade agreement was signed over 15 years ago, when 123 countries created the World Trade Organization (WTO) and crafted a new set of rules for international trade. Since then, all other attempts to reach an additional deal have failed, including the most recent Doha Round of trade negotiations.

The United Nations, meanwhile, has played virtually no role in crafting international financial policy in the wake of the most recent crisis.

Perhaps not surprisingly, pessimists have tended to dominate the punditry in recent years. For Parag Khanna, in today’s globalized world, “islands of governance” tend to drive policy, as opposed to cogent global statecraft.

Far from being connected, the world is “never more than a hair’s length away from the symptoms of medievalism” – a disagreeable disease of “economic chaos, social unrest … and wild expenditures.” For Fareed Zakaria, the problem is even more basic, as the rise of emerging markets has made the world so complicated that it is impossible for countries to even articulate “grand strategies,” or rules of thumb, for the conduct of their foreign affairs, economic or otherwise.

[F]ew people dispute that as a general rule, it’s good to be a hegemon. You generally get what you want, if you want it badly enough. Yet for all of its advantages, hegemony comes with its own drawbacks and risks.

Indeed, it is, to paraphrase Karl Marx, beset by its own “internal contradictions.” Most important, the same multilateral systems hegemons routinely rely on to advance their interests can also facilitate and even speed their decline.

This is in part because multilateral institutions are expensive enterprises to get off the ground, especially when one country, the hegemon, shoulders the burden of institution building. Then, once regimes are up and running, they tend to lull hegemons into making very bad policy decisions.

One of the central ironies of today’s financial statecraft is that “global governance” isn’t always, or even mostly, about the “globe.” Instead it’s about groups, and the interaction of groups. This shouldn’t be entirely surprising. As we saw at the outset of this book, bargaining at the multilateral level involves players of great diverse strategic interests, as well as stages of development and philosophies.

Crafting a deal at a global level with any real import is often difficult, especially when parties are expected to make sacrifices of some sort. For every additional member you put at the negotiation table, an exponentially greater number of issues potentially have to be haggled over, as each country will want to satisfy its own preferences.