The current system of multilateralism, borne out of circumstances after the Second World War, is no longer fit for purpose today. How should this system be reinvented, and what types of research can contribute to its reform? First, it is not enough to tell international organizations that they ought to do more of the same good things such as transparency and engagement; rather, we need contextually grounded and publicly engaged research that helps practitioners dispel tropes and elevate public discourse in a deeply politicized world. Second, being public in nature, international organizations cannot be expected to operate like private firms. Any prescription must take into account their political imperatives. Publicly engaged research on multilateralism should move in three directions: (a) take US-China great power competition as a necessary starting point; (b) support ethnographic and empirical research that sheds light on internal operations, political dynamics, and constraints within international organizations; (c) promote dialogues between academics and practitioners, as this special collection has done.
All systems are a product of a particular time. As times change, they too must change.
The current system of multilateralism emerged after the end of the Second World War. That was a time when liberal Western powers, led by the United States, designed and dominated the world order. Newly independent nations were emerging in the South, all aspiring to “catch up” with the first world through industrialization and growth.
Today, more than seventy years later, the defining conditions of multilateralism have been or are being disrupted. First, given China’s rise, the United States is no longer the sole, uncontested superpower. In the context of great power competition between the United States and China (Woods 2023), multilateral issues have become deeply politicized (Dumdum 2022). Even public health, which is supposed to be technical and scientifically driven, is no longer immune from geopolitics. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization was caught between the United States and China, who accused each other of mismanaging the outbreak.
Second, fueled by rising inequality, voters in advanced economies are pushing back against globalization (Adler and Kentikelenis 2022). Indeed, some argue that the world is “deglobalizing.” In the name of “America First,” the Trump administration withdrew the United States from multilateral accords such as the Paris Agreement, leaving a gap in global leadership that China has sought to fill and the United States has vigorously resisted. The possibility that a nativist candidate like Mr. Trump could win future US presidential elections means that America’s commitment to leading the liberal global order is fragile.
Third, the advent of social media and technology-enabled communication has disrupted public communication (Dumdum 2022). On the one hand, social media has democratized communication by giving any individual with internet access the ability to access and post content for a global audience. On the other hand, it has tended to amplify divisions and anger. Social media is both a resource and a danger, depending on how it is managed.
Fourth, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the tension between legitimacy and effectiveness (Woods 2023). International organizations are obliged to follow procedural rules and include many voices in their deliberative process. But global problems such as the pandemic and trade imbalances require decisive actions that multilateral organizations struggle to deliver. Frustrated with inaction, disproportionately powerful states have threatened to withdraw from international organizations (von Borzyskowski and Vabulas 2023).
In short, the system of multilateralism is no longer fit for purpose today (Devarajan 2022). The Weberian structures designed to maintain accountability and rules in a previously predictable environment are a poor fit with the disruptions outlined above (Dupont and Skjold 2022).
It is clearly time to reform, if not wholly reinvent, multilateralism for the postpandemic age. Borrowing Lenin’s quote, the hard question is, What is to be done?
This collection of essays offers a rich set of prescriptions:
Engage more with the public and provide more transparency (Adler and Kentikelenis 2022)
Adopt flexible structures and norms of organization from the private sector (Dupont and Skjold 2022)
Shape public opinion through social media (Dumdum 2022)
Strengthen leadership within international organizations (Woods 2023)
These constructive recommendations prompt two of my own reflections on reinventing multilateralism. First, while it is easy to tell international organizations that they should do more of the usual good things (e.g., engagement, transparency, flexibility, etc.), what’s really hard, urgently needed, and in short supply is empirically grounded insights and advice on how to do the usual good things differently in a disruptive, “new cold war” climate.
Take China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a multibillion-dollar initiative to build infrastructure and expand trade links between China and some sixty-five other countries (Ang 2019). Many US politicians see the BRI as central to China’s ambitious effort to displace US primacy. This is accompanied by a common perception that the so-called “China model”—typically assumed to mean top-down control—presents an ideological challenge to the Western liberal model (Ang 2018b). Thus, Washington hawks perceive signing on to BRI projects as siding with China and endorsing authoritarianism.
International development agencies find themselves caught between Beijing’s global policies and Washington’s vehement opposition to the BRI. Regardless of its possible geopolitical motives, BRI offers developing countries a massive infusion of capital for infrastructure and growth, which has been pitifully lacking from the United States. (It was only recently, in June 2022, that President Biden enlisted the G7 nations to contribute some $600 billion to the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment.) Yet even as international agencies wish to engage Beijing as a financier in development, they obviously want to maintain and promote liberal values. This is a delicate balancing act.
Will more public engagement and transparency resolve the issue? Not necessarily. If anything, we live in a world of overabundant information. There is no lack of commentaries and reports from both the proponents and the critics of BRI.
Or is shaping public opinion through social media the solution? In fact, international organizations already know that they must engage audiences through social media, and many have become adept at using these media. The hard question is, facing geopolitical sensitivities, what messages should they craft and deliver?
Rigorous and publicly engaged research can help meet their needs—and by that, I do not mean just more randomized control trials. Instead, we need the opposite: macro, historical, contextually grounded research that corrects misleading tropes about both Western and Chinese development. One common misperception is that China’s rise is simply thanks to big infrastructure and authoritarianism. In reality, during the reform era under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, adaptive governance and bottom-up participation played a critical role in Chinese development, even though Deng maintained a single-party autocracy. While this is well-known among China scholars, it is little known or unknown to public audiences around the world. Informing the public about this history would alleviate fear that engaging with China means embracing authoritarianism.
For another case in point, consider Deborah Brautigam’s (2019, 2022) refuting of claims about BRI as “debt trap diplomacy,” based on her deep, on-the-ground knowledge of China-Africa relations. Critics of BRI accuse China of deliberately giving out loans to poor countries and then seizing their strategic assets when they cannot pay. (This meme is so catchy that comedian Trevor Noah based an episode of his nightly show on it.) The poster child of this narrative is Sri Lanka, which gave Chinese lenders the lease to the Hambantota Port after it failed to repay a loan.
Citing research by the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, Brautigam pointed out that Sri Lanka was the only one out of more than three thousand projects where assets were given up. Even in Sri Lanka, financial losses at the Hambantota Port were partly the result of an election upset in 2015, which Chinese lenders did not anticipate, let alone control.1 Brautigam’s message isn’t that developing countries should unquestioningly welcome BRI; her warning is that they should “overcome the rent-seeking and cronyism” that typically accompany big-ticket loans and construction.
In sum, policy prescriptions must go beyond stating that multilateral organizations should engage the public—of course they should. Analysts should specify how such engagement should take place in light of geopolitical tensions. Researchers can contribute their knowledge of particular country contexts and the politicization of global development. Lessons must be communicated accessibly to broad audiences, not only academic ones.
A second important principle to keep in mind is that public and international organizations cannot be expected to behave like private firms. International organizations serve public goals, not profit for shareholders. They must be accountable to the public and accommodate competing demands from numerous stakeholders. By design, procedural correctness and legitimacy are prized over efficiency. It is possible to inject a very limited dose of private-sector incentives and norms into the public sector (as the New Public Management movement in advanced economies has tried to do) or to carve out pockets of flexibility within large organizations, but these initiatives are the exception rather than the norm. They cannot feasibly become the rule.
Take the case of China’s public bureaucracies during the reform era. In the past decades, when China prioritized growth at all costs, Chinese bureaucrats operated on a “profit-sharing” system that pegged actual compensation and perks to financial performance (Ang 2020, chap. 4). This created a high-powered incentivized environment where bureaucrats were driven to seek revenue and growth, but it also had perverse effects on public services delivery and public perception of government. China’s example reminds us that there are social costs associated with operating public organizations like private ones.
Telling international organizations to behave like private companies is likely to become an empty slogan that will soon tire staff members who are forced to go along with a charade, or if it is seriously carried out without knowledge and preparation for the consequences that will follow. This brings to mind Pritchett, Woolcock, and Andrew’s (2013) caution against “looking like a state,” in which reforming governments adopt best practices and subsequently abandon them because they are impractical. Any prescription of flexibility for international organizations must be tailored to their political imperatives.
This brings me to a second question: what should scholars study to help international organizations carry out necessary reforms? I’d like to offer three suggestions.
First, all analyses and reforms of multilateralism must take as their starting point the greatest disruption: US-China competition. This cannot be ignored because the current system is the product of US primacy. China’s rise and its global aspirations affect all aspects of multilateralism, from funding and operations to values and norms. In the social sciences, there is a tendency to separate geopolitics from organizational studies because the former is super macro and the latter is super micro. But as multilateral organizations are borne out of geopolitics, the macro and the micro cannot be considered separately.
Second, the task of reinventing multilateralism will benefit immensely from empirical studies about the internal operation of international organizations through ethnography, interviews, and original data collection. I recommend two books: Dan Honig’s Navigation by Judgment (Honig 2018), based on a novel database of more than fourteen thousand discrete development projects across nine aid agencies and eight paired case studies of development projects, and Catherine Weaver’s Hypocrisy Trap (Weaver 2008), based on interviews with World Bank officials. Reforming multilateralism requires that we know how the actors within these organizations think, operate, and cope. Their voices must be heard.
Third, build a collection of case studies about leadership in international organizations (Woods 2023). What kind of problems have leaders in these organizations encountered? How did they respond? And what was the outcome? Traditionally, social sciences have leaned toward structural and institutional analyses and have relegated the study of leadership to historians. This is because economists and political scientists view their scientific quest as searching for generalizable laws, and leadership is, by nature, idiosyncratic. It’s time to acknowledge that the real world is shaped by both structures and leaders. If we ignore the latter, we can never make sense of the current system, let alone reform it.
Academics and practitioners seldom interact. Often, the questions that matter to “the literature” are not those that keep decision-makers and practitioners awake at night. Meanwhile, practitioners are constantly consumed with maintaining operations and “firefighting,” making it difficult to think deeply about complex issues. Academics can benefit from knowing what practitioners care about, whereas practitioners can benefit from deep thinking and research. I applaud the organizers of this project for their assiduous efforts in bridging the gap between academics and practitioners and hope to see more of such cross-pollination in the years to come.
The author has no competing interests to disclose.
Yuen Yuen Ang is the Alfred Chandler Chair of Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University.
In a commentary, I also underscored the fact that in 2015, the largest lender to Sri Lanka was not China, but rather India (largest) and Japan (second-largest). Sri Lanka owes Japan almost four times as much in loans as it owes China, but this is not publicized or politicized (Ang 2018a).