The Purpose of Multilateralism: A Framework for Democracies in a Geopolitically Competitive World

Across the globe, multilateralism appears in crisis. Skepticism of the benefits of a multilateral order grounded in underlying liberal principles is manifesting throughout the Western world. The United States, the system’s imperfect cornerstone, scorns a growing number of multilateral institutions and norms each day. Within Europe, Brexit and discord over the European Union’s (EU) future is undercutting the EU as a regional multilateral pillar, alongside the supranational bloc’s capacity as a global actor. Simultaneously, a more assertive China and Russia are seeking to reshape multilateralism, challenging the foundational liberal principles that have guided the post-Cold War multilateral order to which the world has become accustomed. The post-Cold War moment witnessed a tremendous flourishing in multilateral cooperation. Nations employed multilateral architectures with unprecedented success to manage and reduce real shared global problems. Individuals, understandably, are rallying to defend this multilateral order against rising strains. However, multilateralism can only operate in the geopolitical context within which it exists. The unfortunate return of great-power competition, so noticeably dampened during the preceding decades, is eroding the very foundations on which the multilateralism of the post-Cold War era stood. While the United States is currently the most noticeable disruptor, authoritarian countries are actively contesting the underpinnings of the multilateral order. Russia and China increasingly are working to bring multilateral architectures into closer alignment with their own authoritarian norms. Such a transformation is not in the interests of nations around the globe that seek to maintain democratic governance against the growing reach of authoritarian influence.