In response to the numerous challenges facing contemporary multilateral organizations, and indeed the very idea of multilateralism itself, many have called for “wholesale change” yet few have provided specific details on substance or articulated how any such reforms might be supported (politically, financially) or implemented. We summarize key insights from a recent global initiative that sought to both provide a critical assessment of multilateralism at different units of analysis and offer credible corresponding responses, doing so within a basic framework distinguishing between multilateralism’s constitutive elements (e.g., the creation, organization, and collective understandings of the UN system) and its functional components (everyday activities such as budgets and hiring practices). This collection of fourteen papers and six commentaries highlights specific ways in which different kinds of political, policy, and procedural challenges might be addressed, including strategies to adopt more adaptive management practices, ensure compliance with dues-paying rules, and diffuse secession threats; enact difficult trade-offs between imperatives for transparency, accountability, and confidentiality; learn from regulatory innovations in trade and investment rules to strengthen labor, human rights, and the environment; formulate workable domestic and global rules for multilateral cooperation; enhance data on, studies of, and policy responses to rising inequalities; implement potential technical fixes to redress debilitating “binding constraints”; promote greater staff diversity (geographically, demographically, ideologically); forge greater complementarity between regional, “new” (Southern-based) and “established” multilateral organizations; secure the substantive contributions of small states; and respond proactively to the shifting contours of geopolitical rivalries, opportunities, and imperatives.

Chiseled in stone, literally, in front of the United Nations building in New York City is a passage from the biblical book of Isaiah, written some 2,700 years ago: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Such an inscription seeks to present the UN, and multilateralism1 more generally, as the institutional embodiment and fulfillment of humanity’s ancient dream of global peace and prosperity. And judged by the standards of the world before 1945, a strong case can be made that, for all their many problems and inherent limitations, modern multilateral institutions have been a resounding success.2 Multilateral principles such as valuing diplomacy and reciprocity in international interactions that preceded the postwar order can be similarly seen to have expanded and deepened. One can readily concede that postwar multilateralism is not solely responsible for these achievements and yet still recognize that its contribution was (and remains) seminal.

More than seventy-five years after the United Nations was created, however, the postwar multilateral order created at the behest of a few great powers, though applicable to all sovereign states, presents strengths and fissures in both its constitutive and its functional elements. For our purposes, the constitutive elements deal with the creation, organization, and well-understood formal charters and collective understandings of the UN system, while the functional elements describe everyday activities such as budgets or hiring practices.3 Multilateral coordination is a fact of life, but the legitimacy of multilateralism, implying due compliance from global actors, is variously woven across the world (Hurd 1999). In Inis Claude’s monumental work Swords into Plowshares (Claude 1956), pragmatics underlie both the formal constitution and the everyday activities of the United Nations. The UN constitution provides a large space for great powers to be accommodated, most obviously through the Security Council, but a boldly imagined United Nations General Assembly broadens the legislative function to all sovereign members. From the 1950s onward, the United Nations emerged as the chief international overseer for peace, but with rapid decolonization the UN’s specialized and affiliated agencies moved from postwar peace and reconstruction to a global enterprise almost unimaginable in the colonial era—namely, lifting billions of formerly colonized people out of poverty.

Janus-faced to the pragmatics from Inis Claude are historical accounts of the sociological and legal understandings embedded in a United Nations that provide caution on the (constitutive) ideological prerogatives of inclusion and exclusion. Mark Mazower describes a United Nations whose creators include well-known racists who regard the postwar international organization as empire by other means. He writes of the “sheer implausibility” of colonial rulers caring about humanitarian ideals or the colonies (Mazower 2013, 8) and notes the involvement of well-known racists such as Jan Smuts of South Africa in creating the United Nations, whose vision of the United Nations doubtless entailed perpetuating “the wars of civilizing inferior races and keeping them in order” (20). More generally, the great powers made sure (and in many respects continue to make sure) that the system worked to benefit their existing power and political economies (Hoffmann 1977; Krasner 1985).4 The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), for example, incorporated imperial preferences that colonial powers granted the colonies, and created tariff differentials that allowed for higher rates of tariffs on value-added products from the developing world (Irwin 2008). Seeing upstarts in the UN General Assembly, the consensus rule in GATT was designed to keep developing country coalitional politics from usurping great power politics (Steinberg 2002). Great powers controlled the voting and appointments in the twin Bretton Woods institutions—the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (Gardner 1969). Further, the entire system appointed states as key ambassadors for and creators of a global multilateral order. Efforts to align goals with the interests of civil society, such as in UNESCO, were quickly quashed or marginalized (e.g., UN ECOSOC).

Even so, the unprecedented outcomes that resulted from the postwar multilateral order were, nevertheless, the product of a firm commitment to a calculated wager—namely, that international law, mediated through international organizations comprising the near-universal membership of the world’s sovereign nations, backed by strong military (and financial) support from the United States and strategic efforts to incorporate Germany and Japan into global markets (rather than impose punitive reparations), would ultimately make for a more open, safer, and broadly prosperous world. By the standards of the time, both developing countries and development itself were given a relatively prominent role in the formation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (Helleiner 2014).

Understanding contemporary multilateralism’s achievements, limits, and enduring challenges requires some historical context. Western domination took place at the same time as the West celebrated enlightenment and modernity within its continental borders. The broader set of factors contributing to the creation of the United Nations—and, by extension, other multilateral agencies created in the post–World War II period—can also be traced to the historical arc of idealism and liberal ideas, along with a growing cosmopolitanism that had taken hold at least in Western Europe for two centuries, especially with new technologies that allowed people to communicate, travel, and design new cultural forms such as opera that were readily understood across Western and Eastern Europe (Figes 2019). This cosmopolitanism itself has a long history. In early modern humanist thought, the notion of acquiring virtue or skills for good governance took hold, and virtuous conduct entailed moderation through interactions (Skinner 1999); Machiavelli would later distinguish between good and bad governance. Since virtue, as opposed to fortune, is acquired, education became central to ideas of cosmopolitan governance. In Perpetual Peace, Immanuel Kant forwarded the notion that enlightened and free republics could form a federation of states, abolish standing armies, and move toward world citizenship. Kantian perspectives emphasizing the role of ideas and critical reason continue to advance notions of “thin” or “thick” global solidarities and emerging federations of states (Linklater 1998; Wendt 1999; Shapcott 2001). In 2022, however, Kantian idealism seems to be a distant possibility in a world of populist politics and increasing forms of autocracy.

In the aftermath of its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2020, the future of the multilateral system hinges on a restructuring of its constitutive and functional aspects: to extend the pragmatic aspects that Claude (1956) notes; to accommodate or transform the tensions from inclusion and exclusion of actors that have tarred or challenged the workings of the UN system; and to reengage with ideals that have slowly become the “everyday” life of multilateralism. As with the postwar moments of the 1940s, the current system must contend with balancing a variety of pressures including the parochial interests of emerging and extant great powers,5 demands from restive and populist civil societies, crises of peace and unrest, and internal issues such as budgets, bureaucracies, and the representativeness of issues, identities, and demographics.

The contributors to this special collection both debate and offer potential solutions at the constitutive and functional levels. These range from dealing with the current great power rivalry between the United States and China and competing understandings of multilateralism among great powers themselves to those that address postcolonialism, the concerns of “small” powers, and the minutiae of rules that govern budgets, generate revenue, and inform hiring practices. Three overall themes inform the collection: (1) navigating transformational concerns that would reconstitute the structure of postwar multilateralism, in ways predicated on great power rivalries and nation-states but ultimately centered on managing opposing imperatives pertaining to a concentration or diffusion of power among global actors; (2) streamlining incremental change in functional elements such as budgetary and administrative reforms to unlock current “binding constraints”; and (3) strategically changing procedural rules within existing structures to reinvigorate everyday constitutive and functional elements. While dealing with both constitutive and functional elements, the critiques of multilateralism in this special collection are complemented by corresponding practical suggestions regarding what can be done to redress these concerns (providing proposals grounded in the realm of ideals, rather than what ought to be done in the realm of wishful thinking). We address each of these three domains in turn.

Historically, the accepted meaning of the form and function of multilateralism was negotiated among a set of actors. Ruggie’s (1992) emphasis on three or more states sharing some underlying principles as the very definition of multilateralism refers to constitutive understandings. In this sense, GATT (for example) featured an embedded liberalism that was readily understood and endorsed by its members (Ruggie 1982), just as, in the nineteenth century, laissez-faire was invented and accepted as a prevailing ideology (Polanyi 1944). Political orders also reflect collective understandings. The modern nation-state system that underlies the current global order was one among the many alternatives that could have emerged from the medieval era (Ruggie 1993). City-states in medieval Italy or the Hanseatic League in the German North forged alliances among themselves based on an understanding of commerce leading to prosperity, and this was centuries before Adam Smith or David Ricardo wrote of the economies of specialization (Cohen 1980; Cipolla 1994; see also Hirschman 1977). Hendrik Spruyt (1996) argues that the dominance and prevalence of sovereign states arose out of many rival political forms that emerged from the vestiges of the Holy Roman Empire to include city-states, such as in Italy, or city leagues such as the Hanse; certainly the way the Medicis challenged the pope through Florentine supremacy in early modern Italy would justify the claims of city-state supremacy. The Florentine example also suggests the role of power in settling or negotiating meanings: if the city-states had dominated, the global order would have featured entrepôts like Singapore rather than integrated territories that combined nations into states formally after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

As in the past, reconstituting structures for the future of multilateralism is predicated on accepting or transforming collective meanings among a set of actors about the ways and extent to which the world engages with collective action problems, including the rules and processes that underlie such orderings. The postwar multilateral institutions emerged out of a concentration of power in which the United States worked with its allies mostly to fashion an order that would be inclusive of almost all nation-states even as it worked to the benefit of the great powers. The order hinged not on predicating a form of domestic governance but on accommodation of different interests to provide a global public good that would ensure peace, prosperity, and varieties of economic and cultural exchanges among nation-states. It was not radically different from the understandings that emerged from the Congress of Vienna, which had ensured a long peace in Europe until the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Writing in 1764, fifty years before the Congress of Vienna, François de Callières (de Callières [1716] 1963, 162), in an oft quoted passage, underscored the social understandings within which multilateral interactions and diplomacy take place:

To understand the permanent use of diplomacy, and the necessity for continual negotiations, we must think of states of which Europe is composed as being joined together by all kinds of necessary commerce, in such a way that they may be regarded as members of one Republic, and that no considerable change can take place in any one of them without affecting the condition, or disturbing the peace, of all others. The blunder of the smallest of sovereigns may indeed cast an apple of discord among all the greatest powers, because there is no state which does not find it useful to have relations with the lesser states and to seek friends among the different parties of which even the smallest state is composed.

François de Callières envisioned “one Republic” that involved great and small powers in “necessary commerce” over continual interactions and shared cultural meanings. In 2022 the future of multilateralism and global development is being debated at a time when any notion of a concentration of power among great powers must immediately deal with a countervailing diffusion of power sought by a variety of actors that may not share the collective understandings of (former) great powers. A concentration of power entails a hierarchy in which dominant actors make and enforce the rules of global governance. If Austria’s Prince Metternich and others fashioned a multilateral understanding for western Europe essentially behind closed doors at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 (Kissinger 2014), then in a diffusion of power multiple actors and contending understandings jostle for influence (Singh 2008, 2019; Strange 1996; Zartman and Rubin 2000). In a diffusion of power situation, deliberating or even strategically negotiating new institutional forms is inherently difficult. Reflecting on the rise of media and information technologies, Hedley Bull (1977) bemoaned “loudspeaker diplomacy” as the end of diplomacy itself; writing at the end of the Cold War, John Mearsheimer (1990) argued that we would miss the Cold War with its sense of “order” and clear understanding of its functioning parts. More recent writings on the benefits of hierarchy in international relations point to the ability of hierarchical order to deliver public goods (Lake 2011; Barnett 2021). A diffusion of power, on the other hand, is characterized by a flatter distribution of power with the differences between great powers being less than the kind of absolute hegemonic advantage, for example, that the United States possessed over others in 1945. Current power groupings such as the G20 or the Quad (United States, India, Japan, Australia) reflect the diffusion of power. Nation-states must now also contend with private, philanthropic, and civil society actors that can have considerable influence over governance arrangements.

Table 1.
Two Elements of Global Power Configurations
Number of issues or subissues Multiple (e.g., several subissues within services) Singular or framed as singular (e.g., “security” or “securitization”) 
Number of actors (states, international organizations, NGOs, MNCs) Multiple Bilateral, even in pluralistic contexts (for example, North-South, US-EU, West-China) 
Forms of Decision-Making Collective/networked Hierarchical 
Number of issues or subissues Multiple (e.g., several subissues within services) Singular or framed as singular (e.g., “security” or “securitization”) 
Number of actors (states, international organizations, NGOs, MNCs) Multiple Bilateral, even in pluralistic contexts (for example, North-South, US-EU, West-China) 
Forms of Decision-Making Collective/networked Hierarchical 

Source: Adapted from Singh (2008).

At the turn of the twenty-first century, a diffusion of power seemed to have tamed the coercive ambitions of great powers and provided agency to other actors to shape global outcomes in their favor. The decline in US leadership and its retreat from multilateralism had been much debated since the 1970s, yet the multilateral system seemed secure (Kindleberger 1977; Drezner 2008). The newly created World Trade Organization (WTO) emerged with a strengthened dispute settlement system that checked unilateral rule-making such as use of protectionist trade remedies; the WTO also concluded important services agreements (e.g., on telecommunications in 1997) and launched the Doha Round in November 2001. China’s accession into the WTO was welcomed with euphoria about the rules-based order and even the possibility of liberalism in China as a boomerang effect from its networked markets (Mavroidis and Sapir 2021). Meanwhile, global coordination on finance and regulatory affairs was deepening, and global development had grown several-fold beyond the UN system through the emergence of new forms of international finance ranging from corporate investors to private foundations (e.g., Gates, Open Society) to crowdsourcing (e.g., Kiva). For all their limits, the UN Millennium Development Goals conveyed a shared sense of collective commitment to improving human welfare.

Two decades hence, however, multilateralism appears to be under severe stress, its credibility and capability being regularly questioned, along with its very legitimacy—all with consequential implications for global development as both a professional “field” and a shared international “project.” One explanation for this contends that an increasing concentration of power favors dominant states, which in turn may have little immediate incentive to comply with (or enforce) international rules in a world in which power is becoming more diffuse, since they themselves would not benefit from it. Another explanation locates the doubts about global governance in the perceived lack of legitimacy among citizens in various countries (Dellmuth et al. 2022). Yet a retreat from multilateralism need not be beneficial for the actors that exit, as recent global events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change attest: at a minimum, multilateral coordination is necessary to generate, finance, and implement global solutions to global problems (Devarajan 2022, this collection); more importantly—if perhaps optimistically—at a maximum, a search for new forms of effective multilateralism can create shared values and interests that distribute costs and benefits more widely and equitably (Rodrik and Walt 2022). Proposals exist to modify the “incomplete contract” that created the GATT and the WTO to make sure that the liberal understandings of the trading system are accepted among state-dominated systems such as China (Mavroidis and Sapir 2021).

Supportable constitutive change, big and small

How do the essays in this special collection speak to this interregnum between the concentration and the diffusion dynamics and its implications for global development? Atal (2022) shows how governments in the Global South have been at the forefront of constituting new understandings or regulations to forge “a new multilateral consensus on the need for stronger transnational regulation of corporate practices.” She provides examples from labor, human rights, and climate change regulations that affect corporate practices via a somewhat “trickle-up” diffusion effect extending from national, bilateral, and regional consensus to a global level. Both by design and sometimes by default, reform strategies in these three domains primarily center on exploiting diffused power arrangements yet—having achieved specific “local” victories—also enable the consolidation of gains in ways that generate potentially durable agreements at the global level. Given that many of these gains would probably have been deemed (highly) unlikely several years ago, Atal’s cases lend considerable hope and insight to those seeking broad legal redress on other difficult fronts.

The “trickle up” of domestic solutions can be especially transformative where great powers are concerned. In their article (discussed in more detail later), Bowen and Broz (2022) propose an incremental change to move the Appellate Body forward at the WTO, doing so in ways that accommodate US concerns. Underlying this change is a “domestic grand bargain” that the authors outline to reform the consensus within the United States for international trade.6 This would include greater engagement from the US Congress, increased use of the “escape clause” in case of trade’s detrimental effects, and enhanced compensation for workers displaced from trade. External engagements can also reform domestic processes. In the case of China, understanding the expansive and decentralized provinces in China can help to empower the liberal reformist wing of the Chinese state, which has become secondary after President Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012 (Tan 2021). The alternatives—unilateral threats against China by the United States, such as those from Presidents Trump or Biden—have not worked (Lincicome 2020; Mavroidis and Sapir 2021; Tan 2021).

While the Atal essay outlines emergent multilateral forms of regulating corporate conduct, and the Bowen and Broz (2022) essay summarizes the role of the state in global markets, global firms have themselves become increasingly important in multilateral organizations. Many of them reflect multistakeholder interests such as the Internet Corporation on Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in their governance structures, but private/philanthropic influence (e.g., that of the Gates Foundation) can also be seen in rival international organizations now prominent in global governance or development. One potential avenue for ensuring that an appropriate balance is struck between contending political and economic forces in multilateral organizations has been long-standing calls for greater transparency and accountability, doing so by creating a robust “third space” for civil society, including grassroots movements (Fox and Brown 1998). Two essays in this collection speak to the way civil society engages with, and sometimes contests, global governance processes (Adler and Kentikelenis 2022) and how public opinion can be used to represent civil society interests in multilateral organizations (Dumdum 2022). Both papers seek to infuse these spaces with a wider array of voices, and thereby to enhance the legitimacy of ensuing policy decisions. In an age when technological advances can, in principle, enable such voices to be heard more frequently and accurately at low cost and high scale, and where politically salient development issues increasingly have no clear technical solution, perennial concerns remain that these same forces, when harnessed by global civil society organizations—themselves often unaccountable to electoral or regulatory oversight—can overwhelm legitimate sovereign interests.

Yet another entry point into quests to enhance the effectiveness of multilateral organizations is to have them pay much closer attention to how similar issues pertaining to the everyday management of people and strategy are undertaken in the private sector. Dupont and Skjold (2022, this collection) propose to draw on management innovations in private firms to improve coordination among the entities in the UN Development System (UNDS). They argue that the numerous previous attempts to reform the UNDS, which have not been successful in overcoming systemic fragmentation, have followed a hierarchical logic of coordination, and that reforms should instead reorient their focus toward decentralized coordination mechanisms. Their leading examples include companies from sectors as diverse as home care (Buurtzorg), aviation (GE Aviation), and energy (AES Corporation), which have all found ways to decentralize decision-making authority so that frontline employees have the necessary flexibility, authority, and discretion to craft and enact context-specific responses to context-specific problems, while still retaining corporate coherence. As multilateral agencies seek to respond more effectively to an increasingly complex array of implementation challenges—and to do so while balancing the vexing imperatives of concentrated/diffused power—it can be helpful to call upon the successful experiences of comparably sized organizations elsewhere.

Regional actors as multilateral organizations have deepened, expanded, or even contested the work of global organizations, though they, too, face distinctive challenges to remain positive contributors to an evolving global governance architecture. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC), established in 1948 as a regional development bank adopting a Keynesian orientation, paralleled the worldviews of economic organizations in that era. However, it also challenged prevailing wisdom about development and trade (Tussie and Chagas-Bastos 2022): it encouraged the agenda of import substitution industrialization domestically, for example, while questioning the workings of international trade for the developing world. Argentinian economist Raúl Prebisch not only led the way in the latter but also helped to create the United Nations Conference on Trade in Development in 1964, which galvanized the Global South against GATT trading practices that were not beneficial to them (Margulis 2017).

Two essays in this special collection highlight the expansion of regional and alternative multilateral organizations, in so doing suggesting ways in which such organizations might more effectively represent and enact the interests of their members. Indrajit Roy (2022) builds on the Global South’s marginalization from the post–World War II multilateral order to write of recently created multilateral development banks (e.g., the New Development Bank) where they have a greater constitutive voice. At a different level, Briffa (2022) writes of small nation-states and their experience through the pandemic, noting how these nation-states have used existing multilateral mechanisms to not only bring resources to themselves through the pandemic but also demonstrate considerable ingenuity (in the form of coalitional and creative maneuvers) in being able to deftly negotiate the fallout of the pandemic. Here, too, we see the concentration-diffusion dynamic being reprised in innovative ways, even as these new organizations remain (for now, and perhaps of necessity) relatively small. Retaining overall institutional coherence and credibility while expanding the multilateral “ecosystem” to effectively accommodate the increasingly diverse needs and influence of all countries—and especially those of low- and middle-income countries—will be a defining challenge in the coming decades. As Lant Pritchett (2022) argues in his commentary piece in this collection, achieving this will be especially difficult if the development priorities of low- and high-income countries (“donors”) continue to demonstrably diverge.

Constitutive issues in multilateralism impact not only formal organizational structures but also the informal ways in which they work (Roger 2020). Collective understandings about agendas, for example, can be embodied in the formal charters of organizations or arise informally as the organizations evolve. The IBRD in the 1950s was mostly concerned with the R of reconstruction but over time has become associated with the D of development, especially since the Robert McNamara presidency. However, there are numerous micro issues and sectoral agendas within development generally, which, over time, multilateral organizations have selectively engaged or ignored. Debt relief is one such example; another is the intrinsic and instrumental importance of inequality, whose journey to contemporary prominence, as Ferreira (2022) argues in this collection, was preceded by decades of indifference, even outright rejection. He documents how instrumental and intrinsic concerns about rising national and global inequality became—as a result of increasingly sophisticated analyses by academic economists and sustained advocacy by senior World Bank staff—one of the “twin goals” of the World Bank (the other being ending extreme poverty). Such trends are one example of the way in which the World Bank increasingly positions itself as a “knowledge bank.”

Development narratives are seldom cohesive or singular. They reflect contestation and syncretism, and are part of changing cultural values within and across organizations (Singh 2017, 2020). The idea of international development itself is one of the constitutive values of multilateralism. From humanitarian ideals that developed in the nineteenth century to postwar multilateral institutions, the multilateral idea of international development has entailed some minimal acceptance of the narrative of development in which global actors imagine large-scale programs that would alleviate poverty and provide resources for services for daily needs (from transportation and infrastructure to health and microfinance); more recently, that narrative has included the idea that those people most affected “on the ground” need to be consulted or included in the design of endeavors shaping their lives, livelihoods, aspirations, and identities.7

Narrative values can shift through geopolitical rivalries, but minimal understandings can continue (see commentary from Espinosa 2022). Even as the United States variously bemoans or reconstructs its influence in multilateral institutions, China both accepts and contests long-standing multilateral narratives about development, as Ngaire Woods (2022) argues in this collection. The connection between the Bretton Woods institutions and the new development banks that China supports may ultimately be the acceptance of the multilateral value that development is indeed a global enterprise. The Roy (2022) and Briffa (2022) essays in this collection, however, remind us of the enduring contestations surrounding multilateral efforts, especially from the perspective of emergent powers (Roy 2022) or small island states (Briffa 2022).

Thirty years ago, Ruggie (1992) asked why the discipline of international relations had conspicuously ignored substantive discussions of multilateralism. At the time, most accounts spoke of nominal elements of multilateralism involving three or more states, or functional parts that existed within international regimes and institutions. But multilateral is an adjective, argued Ruggie, one that modifies the term “institutions”: “The concept of multilateralism here refers to the constitutive rules that order relations in given domains of international life—their architectural dimension, so to speak” (Ruggie 1992, 572). From this standpoint, multilateralism comprises socially constructed understandings or generalized principles that inform the workings of institutions—for example, the norm of diffused reciprocity in trade or international interactions in general. These generalized principles are generic and can be carried over from one functional form to another.8 The discussions on the future of multilateralism, therefore, must address generalized principles that have carried over through various functional forms and those that are coming into being but may not yet have an institutional home. The 2022 Russia-Ukraine war, most presciently, has brought up constitutive understandings regarding the conduct of war—including treatment of civilians and war crimes that can be traced back to the medieval era (Hathaway and Shapiro 2017). The future of multilateralism—especially as it pertains to what global development “is,” how it should be realized, and by whom—will entail reconciling and reprising long-standing and emergent constitutive understandings.

The constitutive understandings in this special collection address the interregnum in power transitions: the older understandings continue to trudge along, new ones are getting established, but the overall framework of multilateralism that assigns rank and position to various actors seems incomplete and unsettled. Our second major theme in the collection deals with incremental changes that will affect the future of multilateralism, including its status as a public good that can accommodate both future members and issues (nonrivalry), and some inherent free riding (nonexcludability).

In 1984 Robert Keohane’s After Hegemony noted that liberal international institutions could have a life of their own and did not necessarily require a hegemon or a leader to provide the global “public good” (Keohane 1984). Certainly, Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformist policies—glasnost and perestroika starting in the mid-1980s, the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, and the breakup of the Soviet Union by December 1991—reinforced the sense that a rules-based international liberal order had triumphed and would continue to deepen through international institutions. An ambitious trade round concluded in 1993 and led to the reincarnation of the GATT as the WTO in 1995. Accession talks began to admit formerly communist or currently nonmarket economies such as China (in December 2001) and Russia (in August 2012) into the WTO-led global trading order. Francis Fukuyama’s End of History underscored liberal triumph and anticipated an enduring peace (Fukuyama 1992).

A generation after the seemingly revolutionary events of the early 1990s, the public good of the international order is struggling—it sputters along, seemingly a miracle that it is still alive. One clear reason is that China’s entry into the WTO presaged its rise to great-power status; rules within international organizations have been bent or broken with Western anxieties and Chinese assertiveness. The Doha Round of trade talks, launched in November 2001, for example, could not be completed due to differences largely between the United States and China over issues such as agriculture subsidies. China has now overtaken the United States as the biggest subsidizer of agriculture, lending a twist to a system wherein the developing world had been excluded from a global trading order because either agriculture was “off the table” prior to the Uruguay Round, or Western agriculture subsidies made developing world exports uncompetitive on price in global markets (Hopewell 2022). Paradoxically, a country that claimed nonmarket and developing-country status could now marginalize the exports of other developing countries. Some trade rules were broken in the West; both presidents Obama and Trump blocked the WTO’s appellate body appointment, and it ceased to function on December 10, 2019, when the number of judges fell below the requisite three to rule on cases. President Biden has not changed course (though he made tentative initial steps in that direction). China’s trade surpluses and the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States have contributed to populist politics that have shaken the domestic foundations of liberalism in the places that backed the international order. Both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are often explained by the support of “left-behind” voters in the UK Midlands and the US Midwest, respectively. In this collection, Bowen and Broz (2022) propose, as noted above, a three-part solution to this vexing challenge, one that (a) provides a pathway around US dissatisfaction with Appellate Body rulings (on a case-by-case basis) and (b) relaxes requirements for consensus rulings (e.g., supermajority voting and/or explicit sunset clauses) while (c) reviving domestic consensus-building institutions to address domestic political concerns in the United States (especially as they pertain to the tone and terms of international trade debates), the latter discussed in the last subsection.

With liberal internationalism, as a multilateral principle, under stress domestically and internationally, can the global public good continue to be provided? In a commentary for this special collection, Devarajan (2022) insists that it must be, albeit in a reinvigorated “fit for purpose” manner. The classic definition of a public good is nonexcludability of any members for consumption and nonrivalry in that one member’s consumption does not preclude that of another. In this sense, the postwar liberal international order was never quite a pure public good: its creators imposed good behavior and entry conditions on membership and constraints on acts of consumption (an example is the IMF’s structural adjustment conditions on loans). In speaking of a global liberal order, a relaxed definition of a public good was in play—it was a rules-based order whose benefits extended to those beyond its creators. The preceding pages also showed that its exclusion mechanisms were not just incidental but externalities that rested on social and socialized understandings such as paternalism toward the postcolonial world.

Our assertion below that the global public good will continue to be provided, albeit in a limited form, builds on the two understandings above. First, the public good was always limited by domestic constraints emanating from the developed world. Most of the postcolonial world was de facto excluded from a trading order where agriculture was off the table and manufactured exports were mostly allowed only through special and differential treatment (Helleiner 2021). Second, the limited public good rested upon social understandings that provided everyday domestic legitimacy to the acts of their governments abroad. The continuation of the provision of the public good thus similarly rests upon the limited ways that it can be provided and the permissive social understandings that would lend it legitimacy.

How sweeping does reform really need to be?

Despite the deglobalization backlash, the rise of China, and associated anxieties in the West, broad international agreements continue to exist and new ones to be forged; institutionalized multilateral arrangements sputter along for tackling issues that can be resolved only at the global level. Of the 7,825 IGOs and the 66,425 INGOs in 2021, fully 1,268 IGOs (16 percent of the total) and 22,751 INGOs (34 percent of the total) listed in the Yearbook of International Organizations were founded after 2000. Figure 1 (below) shows that the number of active IGOs may have flattened in the last two decades even as the number of INGOs continues to grow.9

Figure 1.
Number of international nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations (1983–2019). Number of IGOs includes all multilateral governmental organizations including treaties and those dissolved or inactive. Conventional IGOs include autonomous international governmental organizations of a nonprofit nature as defined by UN ECOSOC.

Data source: Yearbook of International Organizations. Graph prepared by Caroline Wesson. Operational definitions:

Figure 1.
Number of international nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations (1983–2019). Number of IGOs includes all multilateral governmental organizations including treaties and those dissolved or inactive. Conventional IGOs include autonomous international governmental organizations of a nonprofit nature as defined by UN ECOSOC.

Data source: Yearbook of International Organizations. Graph prepared by Caroline Wesson. Operational definitions:

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Meanwhile, the pandemic put severe strains on global value chains but has not crippled the $28.5 trillion international trade—which saw a 25 percent increase over 2020 and a 19 percent increase over 2019. To date, none of the important international organizations such as those in trade, development, health, or environment have closed, though their “effectiveness” (and the means by which this might be determined) is constantly questioned. One of the biggest threats to multilateral organizations was President Trump’s targeting of the World Health Organization in 2020 for not pushing back on China’s narrative about the pandemic outbreak. In hindsight, President Trump may have been partly right. At the same time, both Western and non-Western states defended the World Health Organization and promised funding to make up for US shortfalls.10 Dellmuth et al. (2022) demonstrate that while citizens rank multilateral organizations low for legitimacy, the WHO, nevertheless, ranks higher than others (such as the IMF, World Bank, or WTO).

The lack of effectiveness among some IGOs may be coupled with the parallel rise of other organizations at global, regional, and public-private levels. As functional forms change, underlying multilateral values may or may not do so; indeed, new multilateral banks may even recruit their staff and expertise from the same universities that supplied the old ones, or attract staff away from other multilateral and regional banks. Nevertheless, new organizations can have new interests. Al-Jazeera may have recruited its journalists from CNN or the BBC but has also provided a distinctive “Arab voice” and coverage to regional issues. Indrajit Roy’s (2022) essay in this collection outlines the ways that the new multilateral banks, in representing the Global South, are (or have the potential to be) qualitatively different from Bretton Woods institutions, though only time will tell whether and how this actually comes to pass.

There may be seemingly transformative changes underway, but it is hard to imagine the future shape of multilateralism will entail a complete breakdown of the current one; the current order may be “aged and infirm,” but it is surely far from obsolete. Within this framework, limited forms of public goods provided through incremental change are feasible. There are precedents. First, agreements at the micro level on issues may continue to proliferate, whether these are technical protocols for the internet (the ICANN regime, for instance) or global acceptance of norms on human rights (Kollman 2007; Mueller, Mathiason, and Klein 2007). Slaughter (2004) outlined such incremental change through the vertical and horizontal networks that have proliferated in global governance. By vertical networks, Slaughter meant the value chain of an issue (e.g., conflict minerals that require global coordination and governance from extraction to distribution) while horizontal networks involve like agencies in different regions (e.g., national regulatory agencies learning from each other or coordinating around the world on a similar issue). Therefore, even domestic-level policy might be reflective of international norms or rules (Newman 2008; Barnett and Finnemore 2012).

The provision of global public goods depends on the conditions under which limited agreements are possible among global actors, and the type of good in question. Rodrik and Walt (2022) propose such a framework, working their way from global issues where no agreement among states is in their mutual interest to those where they might desire autonomy of policy-making, or where one state’s actions cause spillover for others. They also note the negative and positive externalities from national actions that lead to both international consequences and the need for corresponding rules. Subsidies lower the price of exports and can be seen as a positive externality, whereas an export tax can raise the cost of goods or intermediate products for an importing country. Several authors in this special collection move toward outlining provision of alternative public goods. Apart from the Roy (2022) essay on multilateral banks discussed earlier, in Latin America, Armijo (2022) examines global financial governance to highlight the relationship between regionalism and strong multilateralism, arguing in favor of a focus on relative power capabilities to accompany the concern with reforms of the constitutive or functional aspects of multilaterals’ institutional design. If rising global multipolarity implies lessened appetite by the postwar founders and incumbent leaders of global multilateralism to continue paying the largest share of its costs (Andersen, Cooley, and Nexon 2021), then additional strong supporters are needed. Latin American policy experts, close to but not necessarily in government, she suggests, are eager—but only with greater influence on the agenda of problems to be addressed. Thus, de facto independent regional institutions and interest aggregation are more likely to buttress future global provision of public goods than is the implementation of “regional” organizations hierarchically linked to global multilaterals. In fact, the regional or new development banks have often hired former World Bank officials, and thus this is a route to greater influence by regional banks that may already exist.

Second, a reformulation or extension of an existing rule can lead to agreements. The Bowen and Broz (2022) essay in this special collection argues that, in response to the closure of the Appellate Body (cited above), a narrow solution—in which some autonomy is granted to national governments on trade remedies—will help to get the Appellate Body, and thus the WTO more generally, restarted in the short run rather than waiting an indeterminate length of time for wholesale reform to the WTO constitution. Such narrow, specific, and incremental change for multilateralism to move forward is also supported in the Vabulas and von Borzyskowski essay (2022), which shows that exit threats from member states most likely result in reform in international organizations when the demands come from powerful states, and when they are narrow and specific. Similarly, the Dupont and Skjold (2022) essay in this collection can also be viewed as expanding the space for incremental hybrid innovations.

Another deeply challenging issue for which there may be an impactful procedural corrective is identified in this collection by Carnegie and Carson (2022), who make the case that crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic have revealed an urgent need for states to confidently (and accurately) share sensitive information. Their data posit a high correlation between effectiveness of IO governance with appropriate confidentiality and safeguard agreements for data protocols at these organizations; similarly, their policy implications detail how IOs such as the WHO could improve trust and effective governance through technical and other protocols that allow for data to be safely shared. One of their exemplars is IAEA, which has such safeguards in place; another is the Boeing-Airbus case that moved through dispute settlement with adequate safeguards to both firms, ensuring that their sensitive product and market information would not be publicly shared or revealed to each other. We note, however, that creating and protecting space for confidentiality and safeguarding data may, on occasion, run squarely against countervailing calls for greater transparency, openness, and public accountability in multilateral organizations, and accommodation of public opinion (see also further discussion below). If, as we suggest, managing both of these imperatives—for promoting greater confidentiality and openness, albeit in different ways on different issues—will be a defining challenge for multilateralism in the twenty-first century, then much applied scholarly work remains to be done to identify where and how, exactly, these distinctions will be drawn, and then enacted in practice.

Third, multilateralism at an everyday level works within a density of constitutive understandings and norms, making small-scale informality a necessary pathway by which such complexity is navigated, and the rules and associated practices deepened. Research on informal international organizations (Vabulas and Snidal 2013) and the informal ways in which IOs increase their effectiveness offer examples (Roger 2020). In this special collection, Briffa’s (2022) essay on small states being smart and working around obstacles during the pandemic offers an instance of such informality. Many of the processes and mechanisms that Roy (2022) outlines for new development banks are similarly informal.

An expansive public domain

Public goods derive their legitimacy from the public domain. It is easy to outline a narrowing of the public domain with increasing concerns about the globalization backlash, the “left-behinds,” and rising ethnonationalism (Norris and Inglehart 2019; Mutz 2018). Counterintuitively, one can argue that the public domain is broadening both in numbers and in quality (Ruggie 1992; Dryzek 2012). The numbers issue is hinted at above in figure 1, where the growth of INGOs is especially remarkable.

The qualitative broadening of the international public domain, or the public sphere, has occurred through explicit contestation of global rules (Wiener 2014) but also shared national concerns (Adler and Kentikelenis 2022, this collection). Jonathan Fox (2020) outlines the broadening of the terrain in international development as the excluded find a voice and raise countervailing narratives. A deepening of international civil society can also be seen on issues such as racism and human rights, climate change, and regulatory accountability on privacy and social media (Keck and Sikkink 1998; Dryzek 2012). Omar Dumdum’s (2022) essay in this collection advocates how international public opinion can be accommodated in global governance: Dumdum’s solution speaks both to incremental change to the public good and a broadening of the public domain within which it is provided and deemed to be legitimate. The public domain has broadened with amended narratives of international development, all of which connect international development processes with local and international levels, as opposed to the past when international development narratives were mostly top-down and could not be connected to a public domain for deliberation (Singh and Flyverbom 2016; Singh 2017). In general, there is a higher sensitivity in the social sciences to how narratives and communication acts tell a publicly legitimate story at the international level (Miskimmon, O’loughlin, and Roselle 2014; Risse 2000). Several international relations scholars have argued for a consideration of the public domain in global governance processes (Keohane 2001; Ruggie 1992).

Multilateralism and international organizations are not synonymous. The future of multilateralism warrants serious consideration of the adjective “multilateral” in the constitutive sense and functional reconsideration of the noun “institutions.” Until recently, attention was accorded to the norms, rules, and decision-making procedures governing multilateralism, but the governors or the governing institutions were treated as a black box—responding to the interests of the nation-states and stakeholders, or representing the shared meanings across these global actors’ issue areas (Drezner 2008; Krasner 1999; Finnemore and Sikkink 1998; Keohane and Nye 1977). The third theme in this special collection takes seriously the internal makeup of multilateral institutions and changes that may be plausible for its future.

The institutionalist dimension of multilateralism has begun to receive heightened scrutiny and highlights the internal mechanisms that make multilateral organizations effective (or at least responsive). There has been attention to how international organizations champion issues or agendas (Carpenter 2011), how they “orchestrate” and implement issues (Abbott et al. 2015), their dysfunction (Barnett and Finnemore 1999), how they balance budgets and bureaucracies (Singh 2011), their degree of overall effectiveness (Lall 2017), the way they develop “scripts” that may be copied from one treaty text to another (Kentikelenis and Seabrooke 2017; Allee and Elsig 2019), and the ways they do or not respond to pressures for change (Barnett, Pevehouse, and Raustiala 2021). But more granular and inside-the-black-box analyses of international organizations can yield some unique insights on the microdynamics shaping how change processes unfold. As noted above, Ferreira (2022) narrates the story of how World Bank economists came to champion a leading research program on inequality, doing so at a time when it was often overlooked by much of the economics profession. On a different front, some multilateral agencies have moved faster than others to promote greater demographic and geographic diversity among their staff. Weaver et al. (2022) in this special collection document how greater diversity of the staff—including diversity of gender, education, and nationality—can be important sources of legitimacy for international organizations, noting that the IMF has actually made considerably more progress on this front than others. Weaver et al. outline proposals for ways to increase staff diversity (including in intersectional terms), even as perhaps the most immediately consequential forms of diversity—those shaping policy and practice on the basis of disciplinary and ideological perspectives—remain largely as they have always been.

Haug, Gulrajani, and Weinlich (2022) in this special collection speak to another way in which seemingly modest internal reforms can make a potentially significant difference. They show how the UN scale of assessments—the long-standing mechanism by which member states’ obligatory dues are calculated, through a system of differentiated universality—has proved to be remarkably stable over the course of its history. This very familiarity, transparency, and stability, Haug et al. argue, provide a clear basis on which modest reform measures can be enacted—and, crucially, enforced—to strengthen this vital internal revenue collection system, and thereby significantly enhance the UN’s budgetary resources. What might appear to external observers as a merely procedural reform effort could, if actually implemented, enable the UN system to move several steps closer to its administrative “possibility frontier.” Such internal efforts, however, need to be complemented by significant external efforts to greatly increase budgetary resources, given the scale of current and future global challenges. Commenting on the High-Level Independent Panel (HLIP) of the G20, three influential global leaders have recently called for a “fundamental reset” of multilateralism for the pandemic era and beyond (Okonjo-Iwela, Shannugaratnam, and Summers 2021). They strongly advocate for enhanced financing, arguing that “[t]he current system of global health security is not fit for purpose. It is too fragmented, overly dependent on discretionary bilateral aid, and dangerously underfunded” (6).

Bold proposals for revamping the finance system undergirding multilateral institutions reveal how the movers and shakers of the world think about global issues, but they also indirectly highlight how important it is that multilateralism itself sustains the broad legitimacy needed to secure public resources at the needed scale (especially when domestic political pressures always favor focusing on narrow national concerns). In this regard, as Ngaire Woods (2022) points out in this collection, strong leadership really matters: the skills, sensibilities, and stature of those appointed to the top posts of the major multilateral organizations can play a decisive role in shaping the very legitimacy of multilateralism, and the extent to which rapidly evolving crises and geopolitical pressures can be channeled in the pursuit of global public goods.

After the seventy-fifth anniversary of the conception of modern multilateral institutions, it is a timely opportunity to reflect on the many and varied ways in which both the constitutive and the functional elements of multilateralism have changed or need to be changed, especially in the context of global development issues. Multilateral principles predate the previous seventy-five years and may percolate through future functional forms. The founding organizations of today’s multilateral system—the United Nations, the European Union, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund—are themselves products of two previous attempts, the Concert of Europe (1815–1854, an agreement between the major European powers to prevent a recurrence of the Napoleonic Wars)11 and the League of Nations (1920–1946, forged in the aftermath of World War I). It is important to recognize that these efforts, noble in intent as certain aspects may have been, failed when it mattered most: World War I unfolded when legacy agreements of the Concert of Europe could not hold, while the “package” of responses to World War I, of which the League of Nations was a centerpiece, are now largely regarded as having sown the seeds for the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and the outbreak of World War II. In 1944, at the height of World War II, there was thus precious little evidence—empirically, and in the lived experience of the key participants—that multilateralism “worked”; if anything, it transparently did not. Only committed leadership on the part of Roosevelt and Churchill (in negotiations with Stalin) made it possible for the Allied powers to, in effect, double down on the idea that prevention of future global conflagrations required global organizations with the necessary global membership, legitimacy, resources, instruments, and power.12 What carried over into the postwar era were humanitarian ideals that had a long history in Western political thought, but also rising collective understandings from reciprocity of diplomatic conduct to technical protocols on interconnecting telegraph cables.

Today’s multilateral system features emergent collective understandings and a multiplicity of functional forms: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the African Union, the new and old regional development banks, and other efforts to build regional multilateral organizations to promote development, reduce trade barriers, negotiate conflicts, and build strategic alliances. Perhaps multilateralism’s most prominent and effective exemplar is the European Union: the ruined arena of great wars from past centuries is today, less than sixty years after the establishment of the first limited free trading block in Europe, perceived to be a haven of peace, prosperity, and stability. Its marked achievement in today’s discontented world is the extent to which EU countries have delegated the traditional core powers of sovereigns to the community while retaining an enduring sense of their own cultural and political distinctiveness. Thus, with multilateralism at over seventy-five, it is worth considering not only how multilateralism has changed—and, in turn, how multilateralism has shaped global development—but also to draw on these experiences to discern in what ways substantive changes might be needed to keep global multilateralism vibrant, broadly supported, and effective in the twenty-first century. (Such outcomes cannot be presumed; after all, in 1890, a dispassionate observer of the Concert of Europe at seventy-five would most likely have concluded that it was holding up reasonably well.)

The future of multilateralism and global development demands a reconsideration of both constitutive and functional elements. The contributions in this special collection focus on these elements with a pragmatism informed by whetted empirical possibilities. Pragmatism need not foreclose ideals: emergent rules and regulations on global corporate conduct reflect ideals about human rights, labor, and climate change (Atal 2022, this collection). Budgetary reform at the United Nations can reflect long-standing commitments on fair but differential commitments among states (Haug, Gulrajani, and Weinlich 2022, this collection). The World Bank’s agenda on poverty has changed from the 1960s McNamara era to a serious consideration of inequality considerations that arose from “norm champions” within the bank (Ferreira 2022).13 Yuen Yuen Ang’s (2022) commentary further emphasizes dialogues among practitioners and academics, and new forms of empirical research that are needed for understanding the challenges of multilateralism.

Seventy-five years after the birth of the postwar multilateral order, there are few people now alive who can actively remember life before the liberal world order, and seemingly fewer still who can imagine what the absence of such an order—its shortcomings and limits notwithstanding—would likely mean for life today and the foreseeable future. The many untold benefits that stem from multilateralism, in short, are now mostly invisible or taken for granted, leaving them vulnerable to attack from those who glibly and grossly inflate its costs (and/or its ineffectiveness) (Ikenberry 2020). Across the Western world, and elsewhere, the existence of postwar multilateral institutions is now being not merely questioned but also actively challenged. The essays in this special collection provide both a respite and an agenda on how to think of the past and the future of multilateralism and global development—both in terms of the often taken for granted or emergent multilateral principles, and the functional forms in which they are embodied through our unfolding history.

The outcome of these debates is of particular significance for “development” as a normative global goal, with today’s mix of schisms, ambivalence, and indifference toward it manifest in foundational contests over what development itself “is” (local/targeted poverty alleviation or national/inclusive transformation); how, by whom, and on what pretext different aspects should be enacted (iterative domestic learning, adopting global standards, awaiting “rigorous evidence”); and what counts as “success” (e.g., compliance or enhanced functionality; solving local problems or providing global public goods; meeting short-run “targets” or long-run transformation). Being clear about the contours of these differences, and their real-world consequences for poor people, poor places, and the nature of development assistance should be the basis on which many “hard conversations” are had, routinely, in the coming decades. Their purpose should not be to seek universal or singular consensus, but to:

(a) enable respectful dialogue across wide (and widening) gaps between development’s key stakeholders, especially as it pertains to resolving (i) fundamentally contested issues regarding whose political interests (rich or poor countries) are to be prioritized, and (ii) higher-order epistemological concerns as to what counts as a question and what counts as an answer (only most prominently manifest in land management, agriculture, maternal health, justice, and claims regarding “expertise”);

(b) imbue decision-making processes with the resources and legitimacy they need in order to bear the burden of these conversations (especially when harsh trade-offs are required, and/or the costs are disproportionately borne by specific groups or places that contributed the least to the problem); and

(c) build administrative systems that can “manage” these kinds of complex tasks at scale.

To the extent the rising prevalence of “global problems” will indeed necessarily require effective “global solutions,” the future of multilateralism and global development will turn on securing credible responses to these key aspects. It remains an open question whether the necessarily broad, durable, and accommodating “solidarities” needing to be forged across these divides to address twenty-first-century development problems can be undertaken in ways consistent with twenty-first-century technologies, sensibilities, resources, and political realities.

J. P. Singh is professor of global commerce and policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow with the Robert Bosch Academy, Berlin. He is the author or editor of ten books and over one hundred articles. His book Globalized Arts won the American Political Science Association award for best book in information technology and politics. He is the recipient of multiple competitive grants including a $1.4 million grant in 2022 from the Minerva Research Programme. In 2022, the International Studies Association named him a distinguished scholar in international communication, and he was awarded a Fulbright-Nehru Professional Excellence Award for research in India. Michael Woolcock is lead social scientist in the World Bank’s Development Research Group, where he has worked since 1998. For seventeen of these years, he has also been a (part-time) lecturer in public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In addition to more than one hundred journal articles and book chapters, he is the author, co-author, or co-editor of thirteen books, including Contesting Development: Participatory Projects and Local Conflict Dynamics in Indonesia (with Patrick Barron and Rachael Diprose; Yale University Press, 2011), which was a co-recipient of the 2012 best book prize by the American Sociological Association’s section on international development; Building State Capability: Evidence, Analysis, Action (with Matt Andrews and Lant Pritchett; Oxford University Press, 2017); and The Case for Case Studies: Methods and Applications in International Development (edited, with Jennifer Widner and Daniel Ortega Nieto; Cambridge University Press, 2022).

The authors have no competing interests for this article.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors alone and should not be attributed to the organizations (or the leaders or executive directors of those organizations) for whom they work. Our deep appreciation to the contributors and discussants associated with this project for their substantive inputs across such an array of issues associated with multilateralism and global development, discussed at two workshops held for this special collection, and to participants at a workshop on the initial draft of this introduction held at Princeton University for their helpful feedback and suggestions. We also gratefully acknowledge the important role of Vijayendra Rao in this project’s formative stages, the excellent research and administrative assistance provided by Caroline Wesson throughout, and generous funding support provided by the Government of New Zealand and the World Bank’s Research Support Budget.


For present purposes, we adopt Ruggie’s (1992) definition of multilateralism “as an institutional form which coordinates relations among three or more states on the basis of ‘generalized’ principles of conduct.” Our more focused concern will be on the past, present, and future of multilateralism’s engagement with global development.


As Robert Kagan (2018, 3–4) summarizes it: > Until 1945 the story of humankind going back thousands of years was a long tale of war, tyranny, and poverty. Moments of peace were fleeting, democracy so rare as to seem almost accidental, and prosperity the luxury of the powerful few. Our own era has not lacked its horrors, its genocides, its oppressions, its barbarisms. Yet by historical standards, including the standards of the recent past, it has been a relative paradise. Between 1500 and 1945 scarcely a year passed when the strongest powers in the world, the great powers of Europe, were not at war, but since 1945 there have been no wars between the great powers… [T]he world has also enjoyed a period of prosperity unlike any other, with more than seven decades of global GDP growth averaging almost 3.5 percent a year… Since 1945, some four billion people around the world have climbed out of poverty. The number of democratic governments has grown from no more than a dozen in 1939 to more than a hundred today.


For similar understandings of organizations and institutions, and their underlying collectively accepted meanings, see Onuf (2013), Throsby (2001), and Giddens (1984).


See also Martin (2022), who provides a detailed examination of the post–World War I period during which the League of Nations and the Bank for International Settlements were created, in the process generating practices and precedents with enduring consequences for the subsequent Bretton Woods institutions.


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine starting in February 2022 brought back some of the “cold war” politics. While the vetoes and abstentions at the UNGA to condemn Russia broadly matched the interests of states such as India (i.e., those importing armaments from Russia), the great power and veto politics can be seen in the tacit support of China toward Russia at the UN, or Hungary’s veto in the EU efforts to sanction Russia or reduce its exports of energy to Western Europe.


The term “domestic grand bargain” comes from a private communication with the authors, with permission obtained for its use here.


For critical commentaries on these perspectives, see Escobar (2011), Pritchett and Woolcock (2004), and Barron, Diprose, and Woolcock (2011).


Indeed, reciprocity in trade began to develop after the abolition of the Corn Laws in England in 1846 but was carried over into the formation of GATT and then the WTO.


The Yearbook of International Organizations is employed here to provide a comparison between IGOs and INGOs. The frequently used Correlates of War dataset that lists 534 IGOs for 2020 does not list INGOs (Pevehouse et al. 2020). The discrepancy between the COW and Yearbook of International Organizations is due to the many types of IOs included in the yearbook, including those inactive, whereas the COW dataset includes only active IOs with at least three member states. The conservative estimate in the yearbook is conventional IOs, using the UN ECOSOC definition, and importantly their growth has also stayed flat. As well, IGO growth stays flat in the COW dataset for the last two decades. (We are thankful to Inken von Borzyskowski for helping us clarify and substantiate our analysis of international organizations.)


In May 2022 Tedros Ghebreyesus was reelected as the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO).


Details on the Concert of Europe’s history, structure, operating procedures, and effectiveness can be found in Elrod (1976) and Mazower (2013). See also Talbott (2009).


See Reynolds (2007, chap. 3) on the events of 1944, and especially the summit in Yalta, that shaped these negotiations. For an insightful interpretation of events and negotiations preceding by several years the formation of the IMF and the World Bank at Bretton Woods in July 1944, see Helleiner (2014) and Steil (2013).


See also Finnemore and Sikkink (1998) on the role of norm champions and cascades in change processes.

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