Renewing Multilateralism with Cultural Values

Multilateralism appears more beleaguered than ever. But new outcroppings of civil society across the globe offer a powerful mandate for the renewal of multilateralism. The Covid-19 pandemic provides a unique window of opportunity that can pave the way for more inclusive institutions for long-term gains.

by JP Singh

Adobe Stock / Andrew Kazmierski

The current breakdown of multilateral institutions presages another end of history, though one wholly unlike that begun in November 1989 with the opening of the Berlin Wall. Instead of an expansive liberalism and rule-based international order, multilateral institutions seem to be crumbling – signifying the end of an era. National politics have taken sharp populist and authoritarian turns.

Let’s put doom and gloom aside as there is tremendous opportunity for the world today to fashion a new international order, one situated in cultural values shared by diverse peoples, leaders, and institutions. This opportunity rests on a countercultural narrative that connects global lives from the Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC, to Independence Square in Belarus and Greta Thunberg speaking at the UN with a resident in the Bahamas who witnessed Hurricane Dorian. From cobbled pavements to marbled political halls, these cultural values suggest a legitimacy for multilateral collective action that can be harnessed and institutionalized.

Contrast this global sharing of cultural values with the postwar multilateralism that arose from shared interests among a few countries and articulated through a global elite. In other words, the legitimacy of the old multilateralism was based on the calculations of a few, even though over time it gathered acceptance among national and international actors. A new or renewed multilateralism could have widespread acceptance. Yet, the global leaders necessary to make it possible have not stepped forward. If anything, the retreat of the US from – and the China’s intransigence to – the current, Western-dominated international liberal order suggests otherwise.

Cultural Values

Cultural values are weights or rank given to ideas and things, and collectively held. The old multilateralism may have appealed to nation-states’ interests to forge compromises, but underlying it were cultural values that arose from the European Enlightenment. This allowed national interests to speak to broader cultural relations. Exchange and openness were good. Formal rules at institutions staffed with technocrats were preferred over personalized authority.

The postwar order had pre-war precedents. Engineers, goaded by nation-states and global businesses, worked out the protocols that would interconnect telegraph lines across nation-states. An International Telegraph Union was founded in 1865 (the predecessor of the current ITU). The interwar League of Nations experiment was not successful. But global leaders met in Bretton Woods to call to life the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; and in Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, to give birth to the UN in 1944; and in Havana in 1948 where the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to came to life.

But the postwar multilateral order reveals exclusions and contradictions. Cultural values were filtered through national interests, and multilateral organizations reflected the prerog- atives of national elites. Most framers of the postwar order were also colonizers and racists. President Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of state Cordell Hull, whose ideas were very influential, believed that civilization belonged to the West. His two-volume memoirs have very little to say about movements of independence in the colonies. South Africa’s Jan Smuts, who helped create the UN, believed Blacks to be inferior. The first Director-General of UNESCO was Julian Huxley, a well-known eugenicist.

To subvert the words of Woodrow Wilson’s foundational internationalism from his Four- teen Points for peace in 1918, the covenants of the old multilateral order may not have offered “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at.” As we now know, Wilson himself was a staunch racist.

The Breakdown

Institutions, once created, need not remain exclusionary. Witness the story of most national constitutions. The references at the US Democratic Party’s July convention this year to the constitution’s promise of “a more perfect Union” brings that point home. The old multilateralism – termed the liberal international order – provided stability to a postwar and post-colonial world. It slowly began to cater to those excluded. Leaders from formerly colonized countries now head many of the 31 organizations in the UN system.

In addition, an expanding and progressive global civil society continues to bring forth issues that need difficult compromises from national and international leaders in multilateral institutions. These include the tasks of curbing carbon emissions, opening borders for refugees and immigrants, and regulating predatory corporations and tax evasions. While in the year 2020 multilateral agendas may seem stalled, there are numerous stories of successful multilateral outcomes that started with civil society: namely in such areas as climate change, human rights, health, education, security, and international development.

Nevertheless, the work of a “more perfect Union” at the multilateral order also produced a global civil war of sorts. As new powers came to the table and became more assertive, the old guard was threatened. The order crumbled as its chief architect, the US, exited organizations such as the World Health Organization and threatened those like the World Trade Organization and, sadly, even NATO, an organization made up of its closest allies. China, the other great power, meanwhile tries to bend international institutions to its will, for example, with its Belt and Road Initiative and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

The global is always locally felt and processed. Populist and authoritarian leaders in many democratic countries have capitalized on cultural anxieties at the local level generated by globalizing cultures and economies. The anti-multilateral characteristics of this populist mix include xenophobia and bias against minorities, as well as actions such as the closing of borders and the bashing on immigrants. They favor exiting international organizations and encouraging far-right extremist movements across borders. Leaders from countries such as Brazil, Hungry, India, Philippines, Poland, Turkey, UK, and US have been explicit in articulating one or more elements of this populist mix in their national politics. However, these elements can also be found in most democratic states among far-right and populist parties.

Way Forward

Suggestions for the next phase of multilateralism might seem foolhardy in the midst of such a rise of global populist politics. Yet, a powerful mandate situated in universally shared values exists for a new or renewed multilateralism. Global problems cannot fit in national bottles and global society cannot be shrunk back into parochial space. Global environmental accords may be hard to enforce but global civil society continues to gather force to push for their implementation. Despite Brexit or Trump’s nationalism, there is an increased appreciation of cultural diversity and oppression. Trump lost the popular vote in the 2016 elections, and the Brexit vote won by a narrow margin. For three-fourths of humanity in the developing world, neither knee-jerk nationalism nor acquiescence to marching orders from former colonial powers are acceptable. Most people have not given up on multilateral institutions. However, multilateral institutions and donors have had to adjust to the bottom-up pressure.

While the far right grows in many countries, so do moderate-middle and progressive forces. Witness the BLM protests or the tearing down of monuments, such as those memorializing American Civil War heroes from the Confederate South. Even post-Brexit Britain is scrambling to sign international accords to sustain its trading ties.

Moving forward, most states and societies in the developing world remain committed to a multilateral order. Their national and societal leaders must continue to strengthen multilateral networks and institutions. Second, rulemaking at the international level must learn to reflect or represent global civil society in order to strengthen its legitimacy. The rules must be inclusive. The days of the International Monetary Fund telling the world to swallow the hard pill of its structural adjustment policies are over. As is the time for economists whose mantras of economic efficiency ignored cultural anxieties and unemployment statistics. Increasingly, economists now pay attention to the effects of trade on jobs, and not just growth.

Cultural values are pluralistic, evolutionary, and contradictory. They are historical repertoires that are differentially recalled among groups. The emphasis on a singular value often reveals a reactionary or strategic political purpose. A notion of a Hindu India or a US that was once great are such notions. The battle today is between ever-strengthening multilateral values versus parochial populisms that have manipulated cultural anxieties and inequalities. Entrenched and threatened powers will not budge easily.

The renewal of a multilateral order seems like an epochal task. History teaches us that the steps are incremental. Nation-states arose in Europe from the Peace of Westphalia but several other treaties followed that strengthened the charter. The UN accord in 1945 could be traced back hundreds of years to the enunciation of a rules-based order and redefinition of national authority. Global conflicts and upheavals often provide windows of opportunity. After the Covid-19 and populist pandemics, the world can further strengthen the claims of universally shared cultural values both inside and outside of existing multilateral institutions.


J.P. Singh is Professor of International Commerce and Policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, and Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy. He is editor of the recent collection Cultural Values in Political Economy (Stanford, 2020).

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