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Biden promises to embrace multilateralism again. World leaders agree.

Our research suggests the liberal order has staying power

- December 15, 2020

European leaders disagreed last week over many priorities — but issued an official statement to say the E.U. “looks forward to working with the United States” on pressing issues like the global covid-19 response, climate change and trade.

After four years of “America First,” the incoming Biden administration promises to make multilateral solutions once again a pillar of U.S. foreign policy. Under President Trump, the United States impeded the functioning of the World Trade Organization’s Appellate Body, abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), selected a critic of international financial institutions to lead the World Bank and blocked a proposal to strengthen the International Monetary Fund’s ability to financially support countries throughout the pandemic.

The Biden administration plans to undo many of these acts. But Trump revealed long-existing fault lines in the world economic order that won’t necessarily go away with his exit from office. The ongoing Brexit saga, for instance, suggests the Trump administration wasn’t alone in its criticism of economic multilateralism.

The Paris agreement survived the Trump administration. What happens now?

During the Trump administration, many countries continued to support global institutions, however. China, the E.U. and other countries agreed to a temporary workaround to the impasse at the WTO Appellate Body, while the remaining TPP participants forged ahead without the U.S. Other countries pledged additional contributions to the World Health Organization, and continued to support linchpins of global economic governance like the WTO, World Bank or the IMF.

Global leaders have been venting less about the global order

In a recently published article, in fact, we found explicit criticisms of the global economic order have been on the decline for the past 15 years and are now at an all-time low. Each year, leaders have an opportunity to speak for about 15 minutes during the General Debate of the U.N. General Assembly. Leaders sometimes use this opportunity to vent their criticisms of global economic institutions. For example, President Trump remarked in 2018 that: “the world trading system is in dire need of change. … While the United States and many other nations play by the rules, [some] countries use Government-run industrial planning and State-owned enterprises to rig the system in their favor.”

When we analyzed all 2,908 such speeches between 1970 and 2018, we found leaders rarely criticize the order in this way anymore. In our analysis, we tagged criticisms as statements of intent to abandon the global economic governance organizations, like the IMF and the World Bank, or broader challenges to underlying norms and practices and calls for their reform. Endorsements took the form of clear statements of support, or involved neutral statements that a country is cooperating with global institutions.

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As the figure below shows, despite a brief spike around the 2008 financial crisis, the heyday of critiques of the economic order was the 1975 to 2005 period. This reflects debates over the New International Economic Order in the 1970s and early 1980s, when some developing countries sought to shift the global economic system to aid developing economies grow faster and become less dependent on rich countries. At the time, the IMF, the World Bank and their controversial “structural adjustment programs” drew the ire of world leaders, while in the 1990s and early 2000s the world trade system attracted much negative attention.

But since 2016 — a period of rising populist forces around the world — we found only a minor increase in criticisms. Moreover, these criticisms were outweighed by an increase in endorsements. Very few leaders followed Trump in using their moment in the global spotlight to criticize global economic institutions.

What global leaders think of the United Nations
What global leaders think of the United Nations

These broad trends mask an important shift

Here’s what we think is happening. During the Cold War, the nature of contestation over the multilateral order was largely an insider-outsider conflict. Critiques came primarily from low-income countries that sought to overhaul the entire economic order.

In contrast, membership in the core global economic institutions has become near universal. What we’re seeing is insider contestation, as members argue over the rules of the game. Leaders of countries that are highly open to economic globalization are more likely to criticize established arrangements. But they rarely call for wholesale reforms or abandonment of these institutions.

Of course, there are exceptions. Our paper notes a number of leftist Latin American leaders with strong ideological objections to the liberal international order were strongly overrepresented among heads of state using the U.N. General Assembly platform to call for exits, including appeals by Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua), Fidel Castro (Cuba) and Evo Morales (Bolivia).

The defining feature of leader speeches in the U.N. in recent years is the relative silence about the international economic order and its institutions. Silence — while difficult to interpret — can also be a passive granting of legitimacy: It’s exceedingly rare for countries to abandon the system altogether, so attempts to delegitimate it in major international forums is a key avenue available to countries looking to challenge the established system.

But very few leaders take this route, which suggests the liberal order has become institutionalized. Decades of multilateral organizations spreading free-market policies around the world have increased the order’s perceived immutability and staying power. Many leaders around the world probably see the U.N., WTO and other elements of the liberal order as no longer up for debate — they take them for granted.

Trump got it wrong at the U.N. America can’t counteract China without global institutions.

The Biden administration’s views probably fit this consensus quite well. The incoming administration is unlikely to enthusiastically push for economic openness and neoliberal policies. Instead, the U.S. will continue to raise specific issues with specific institutions, such as the treatment of China in the WTO regime. But while all participants have their own concerns about global economic institutions, there is yet to emerge an alternative agenda for global economic governance that commands the support of a sufficient number of world leaders.

Indeed, the broad — if passive — acceptance of the liberal world order by most countries suggests the challenge ahead for the new U.S. foreign policy team isn’t so much about repairing the order, but rather stimulating excitement about it. Whether such an attempt will succeed may well depend on whether liberal multilateral institutions manage to deliver effective solutions to the ongoing major health, environmental and economic crises — a far from certain prospect.

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Alexander Kentikelenis (@Kentikelenis) is assistant professor of political economy and sociology at Bocconi University in Milan.

Erik Voeten (@ErikVoeten) is Peter F. Krogh Professor of Geopolitics and Justice in World Affairs at Georgetown University.