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Multilateralism and the Shifting Global Balance of Power
January 2010

Leading experts from a wide range of specialties recently weighed in on the future implications of shifting global power dynamics on international cooperation at a recent Stanley Foundation conference at Princeton University.

The global balance of power has been shifting with the rise of countries like China and India. Asia has become critically important to future peace and prosperity. And the solution to any contemporary problem requires the involvement of many different stakeholders: affected nations, nations contributing to problems, key powers, civil society, the private sector, etc.

The conference sponsors—the Stanley Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson School’s Project on the Future of Multilateralism, the International Institutions and Global Governance Program of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Centre for Global Governance Innovation—perceive a growing disjunction between our inherited multilateral institutions and the daunting scope and complexity of today’s global governance agenda. How will the world community deal with all the difficult problems on the agenda?

One answer is to acknowledge that international cooperation will be spread across multiple institutions, institutional types, and levels. The task will be to use these various multilateral pieces to the best effect, rather than trying to draw a clear organizational diagram for the international system. Experts have started calling this "messy multilateralism."

The key, then, is a clear understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of different multilateral mechanisms. If we know what an institution does best—and what it does less well—then their efforts can be combined in a complementary way.

With the Princeton conference taking place just a few weeks after the vexed UN climate change summit in Copenhagen, participants were mindful that despite intensified globalization and interdependence, there has not been a commensurate shift in international political dynamics.

I was reminded of President Obama’s address to the UN General Assembly last fall, in which he described this very problem:

Meeting in this hall, we come from many places, but we share a common future. No longer do we have the luxury of indulging our differences to the exclusion of the work that we must do together.

We have to hope that the world’s leaders overcome these differences and, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has put it, "turn commonality of interests into common action." Such cooperation is the best hope for a peaceful and prosperous future.

David Shorr   

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