Gordon Brown: A New Multilateralism

11:57 07.02.2024 •

These are interesting assessments of the global situation, set out in an article for ‘Foreign Policy’ magazine by a former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

A ship in stormy seas needs steady anchors, and today there are none. The world used to be anchored by U.S. hegemony. Those unipolar days are now behind us. But after a unipolar age comes a multipolar age, which requires a multipolar anchor. This anchor — and the stability it provides — must be built on reformed multilateral institutions. Indeed, such an overhaul of the global architecture is the only way to repair a global liberal order that is now neither global nor liberal nor orderly — and to overcome a geopolitical recession that has given us a global no man’s land of ungoverned spaces.

A multilateral reform agenda is all the more important because alternative world orders envisaged by commentators are hardly inclusive and thus not viable. A U.S.-led free trade zone is likely to be opposed not only by those excluded from it but by the more protectionist U.S. Congress.

Washington has yet to fully comprehend the sheer scope and power of three seismic geopolitical shifts — what Chinese President Xi Jinping calls “great changes unseen in a century” — that are creating a fractured and fragmented world in which Pax Americana is no more.

The first seismic shift is, of course, recognized by U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, at least as far as it affects the White House’s domestic ambitions. Neoliberal economics, dominant for three decades, bequeathed a globalization that was open but not sufficiently inclusive. That economic order, in which half the world enjoyed higher living standards but many in the United States and the West stagnated, is being replaced by neo-mercantilist economics as states redefine their economic self-interest in terms of security protection. Resilience now trumps the old desire for efficiency; guaranteed supply trumps cost; and “just in case” matters more than “just in time.” Where once economics drove politics, politics is now driving economics — as evidenced by the trade, technology, investment, and data protectionism gripping the globe.

The second shift is not so well understood in Washington. Policymakers have failed to wake up to the full implications as the 30-year-old certainties of a unipolar world are giving way to the uncertainties of a multipolar world. This is not, of course, a world that can be described as “multipolar” in the narrow sense that three or more countries have equal power and status — and some writers have therefore concluded that there is still a “partial unipolarity.” Rather, multipolarity means a world of multiple and competing centers of power, with huge implications for future U.S. relationships around the globe. We have seen this at work in dramatic form in the resistance of half the world — most non-Western countries — to supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia. Only around 30 are imposing sanctions against Moscow.

Yet another more menacing measure of multipolarity reflecting the growing group of multiplayers, as described in Ashley J. Tellis’s book Striking Asymmetries, is the possible proliferation of nuclear weapons. If Iran secures a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Egypt will all likely seek to go nuclear. And as China’s nuclear weapons arsenal expands from around 400 warheads to more than 1,500 by 2035, South Korea and Japan will need more definitive assurances from the United States if they are not to become nuclear weapon states in their own right.

Multipolarity means a world of multiple and competing centers of power, with huge implications for future U.S. relationships around the globe.

Mainly as a result of the move away from neoliberalism and unipolarity, from one hegemon and one hegemonic world-view, a third seismic shift is underway. The hyperglobalization that characterized much of the last 20 years is being superseded by a new kind of globalization. It is not deglobalization, for trade is still growing (not at twice the rate of the world economy, as before, but keeping pace with it). In fact, global merchandise trade hit record levels in 2022. Global exports of digital services reached $3.8 trillion in 2022, or 54 percent of total export services.  

This resurgent nationalism is expressed in an even more aggressive way. More and more governments and peoples are thinking in terms of a struggle between “us and them”: insiders versus outsiders.

The geopolitical fallout from these seismic changes gives us a world in flux — or worse, one that is fracturing and in danger of breaking up. The old global architecture that gave us fixed allegiances and unbreakable alliances is under strain. A new global pathway is being laid, and old alliances are being reassessed, with the notable exception of an expanded NATO through which the United States has, to its credit, brought trans-Atlantic security cooperation back to life. The G-7, not the G-20, is now seen by Sullivan as the “steering committee of the free world.” But that leaves a G-180+ feeling unimpressed and unrepresented. And with other long-enduring relationships under strain, the geopolitical landscape is strewn with ragged, overlapping, and competing arrangements. Without any new plan to bring people together, we face a decade of disorder before the cement will set.

Already countries released from the unipolar straitjacket are enjoying and making a virtue of their distance from the great powers, practicing what the Singapore-based scholar Danny Quah calls “Third Nation agency” — not only breaking free from traditional loyalties and partnerships but creating new and often transitory alliances.

It is not just in the interests of Africa, the Middle East, and Europe to promote a more stable multilateralism. To be more effective globally, the United States must start by losing its bias against the international institutions it created and has led. Why? Because the lure of the old version of Pax Americana is no longer strong enough to entice the rest of the world to respond to U.S. power.

I have found over the years that even when reforms have been urgently needed to recognize, for example, the rising economic strength of emerging countries on the boards of the IMF and World Bank and to recapitalize these institutions, the United States has had a habit of dragging its feet. Too often, Washington has been silent as calls have grown even from its closest allies such as the U.K. to update global institutions or end stalemates at the U.N., and the reason for this is almost certainly the survival of a unipolar mindset long after it has become anachronistic and even naive. Today, the United States lacks the power it had in the past to direct these unreformed institutions through the back door when, as most members are painfully aware, the institutions cannot flourish without fundamental reforms upfront.

Consider this: It is because the United States is too often trapped in the old mindset of the unipolar era that it walked away from the very trade agreement — the Trans-Pacific Partnership — that the Obama administration forged to contain China. It is indeed an irony that the group the United States envisioned to exclude China is now under pressure to bring China on board. It makes sense for an America that has pivoted to the Pacific to be part of the continent’s biggest trade partnership; however, it continues to give the impression that it will not join any club it does not create and control.

The international architecture assembled in the 1940s must be reimagined for the needs of the 2020s, when in a more economically integrated economy, a more socially interconnected and geopolitically interdependent world, every country’s independence is qualified by global interdependence. We may not be able to build a wholly new Parthenon, but we must find a way to avoid camping out in the ruins of an Acropolis. To avoid that, change must follow, Gordon Brown stresses.


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