Will Multilateralism Be Great Again?

A few weeks ago, six eminent world leaders — including UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — called for the revitalization of multilateral cooperation. They reminded us of the UN Millennium Declaration, which was signed by 189 countries in 2000. The declaration expressed the confidence of the international community that multilateral policies could defeat global challenges such as “hunger and extreme poverty, environmental degradation, diseases, economic shocks, and the prevention of conflicts.”


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The declaration marked the heyday of multilateral optimism. But contrary to the millennial vision of global governance, international affairs today are dominated by entrenched mistrust between governments.

Sadly, the above-mentioned article by the six world leaders does not explain what went wrong in the 21st century. Without such an analysis, however, appeals for changing course risk being little more than aspirational talk. To really make multilateralism great again, we have to ask: Why did things go astray?

The Adverse Effects of Nasty Surprises

Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister between 1957 and 1963, is frequently quoted as having said that what he feared most in politics were “Events, dear boy, events.” This catchy phrase points to the proverbial overlooked elephant that has rampaged through international affairs in the last two decades. Apparently, unexpected events, escalating into major crises and global disruptions, have driven the international community apart and contributed decisively to the demise of multilateralism.

To their credit, the world leaders are aware of this. They accurately state that major crises remind us of how interdependent we are, referencing the global financial crisis of 2008 and the current COVID-19 pandemic. However, there have been far more important disruptions in the past two decades: the 9/11 attacks in 2001; the popular revolts in the Middle East in 2011, which escalated into civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen; the eurozone crisis; Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014; the 2016 Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom; and the presidency of Donald Trump in the United States. More could easily be added to the list.

These disruptions shattered international cooperation. Economic crises intensified cleavages within as well as between societies. Austerity and social inequality championed populist and anti-liberal sentiments that were expressed through battle cries of “take back control” and “America First.” Following 9/11, the 2003 war in Iraq split the West, whereas the military confrontations in Libya and Syria continue to divide the international community. Russia was suspended from the G8 after its territorial aggression against Ukraine, closing an important channel of communication with the Kremlin.

The cumulative effect of these disruptions has been a significant decline in the willingness of governments to collaborate. International organizations and multilateral agreements have become political battlegrounds. Many administrations, including those in the United States, China, Russia, India, the United Kingdom and the European Union, prioritize policies such as decoupling, self-sufficiency and strategic autonomy. Consequently, the COVID-19 pandemic is unfolding as a dual crisis of global connectivity and global governance.

Credible Foresight Creates Trust in Multilateral Cooperation

In their article, the world leaders shied away from the conclusion that global disruptions are not only a result of, but also an important catalyst for many governments retreating from multilateralism. That is why they are missing the low-hanging fruit for policy innovation: Avoiding nasty surprises by cultivating anticipatory governance — for instance, by investing in multilateral foresight and forecasting capabilities.

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Hardly any of the major disruptions in international affairs have come as a surprise. Genuine “black swans” are very rare: The 9/11 Commission Report pointed out that several American agencies had been collecting evidence that al-Qaeda was planning attacks; there were plenty of reports from the Middle East and North Africa region analyzing the widespread dissatisfaction with repressive governments and bad governance; experts had frequently warned about the global financial crisis, the eurozone and the pandemic; and the referendum in the United Kingdom and the elections in the United States could only have had one of two outcomes. So, the lack of preparations for the unexpected results had more to do with wishful thinking than surprise.

The exception to the rule is the annexation of Crimea. That the Kremlin would drastically change course instead of waiting out the developments in Kiev, which had proved a winning strategy for Moscow after 2004, came as a real surprise. But in all other cases, plenty of unheeded warnings lined the road to the tragedy of multilateralism.

Of course, governments’ reluctance to trust forewarnings is understandable. The track record of expert predictions is not that impressive. Quite often, they turn out to be wrong. And crying wolf has consequences: Policymakers might be criticized by their opponents, the media, courts of auditors or the public when they order, for example, vaccines but a pandemic does not materialize as expected. This happened in 2009 with the swine flu scare, when policymakers in Europe and the United States learned a lesson that partly explains the inadequate preparations for COVID-19.

But some predictions are better than others. Research has shown that the best forecasters achieve up to 30% higher prediction accuracy than analysts with access to classified material. Diversity and multi-perspectivity are important criteria for the success of forecasting teams that consistently outperform their competitors. Policymakers should harvest this knowledge. Investing in multilateral foresight and forecasting capabilities promises not only to increase timely awareness of future events. Collectively anticipating risks and opportunities could also stimulate international cooperation and joint policymaking.

*[This article was originally published by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), which advises the German government and Bundestag on all questions related to foreign and security policy.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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