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The Multilateralism Conundrum: International Economic Relations in the Post-Hegemonic Era

The Multilateralism Conundrum: International Economic Relations in the Post-Hegemonic Era

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This paper argues that the Doha Development Round and the WTO suffer from a broad systemic malaise that is besetting multilateralism.
This paper argues that the Doha Development Round and the WTO suffer from a broad systemic malaise that is besetting multilateralism.

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Published by: German Marshall Fund of the United States on Jul 07, 2011
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10/28/2012

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TRANSATLANTIC TASK FORCE ON TRADE
Working Paper 
The multilateralism conundrum:international economic relations in the post-hegemonic era
Guy de Jonquières
This working paper was prepared to serve as a basis for discussionat a meeting of the Transatlantic Task Force on Trade
 
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transatlantic task force on trade
 A
s this paper 
was being drated in mid-April, many experienced observers werereading the last rites on the Doha Development Agenda. Ater more than nine yearso negotiations, punctuated as much by violent disagreement and repeated break-downs as by a convergence o national positions, the world’s ninth trade round appeareddestined to become the rst to be consigned to oblivion.Even a miraculous last-minute resurrection, should one be possible, seemed unlikely to re-store the DDA to glowing health. At best, the most probable result would seem to be a mini-malist outcome that was intended to draw a line under the exercise and ell well short o thesubstantial improvements in market access and advances in rule-making that proponents o this round had originally hoped or.Such an outcome might avert the stigma o outright ailure o the negotiations. But it mightnot be enough to erase concerns that the DDA’s long and unhappy history also marks a trou- bling ailure o the World Trade Organisation as an institution. Far rom developing into thepre-eminent body or managing global economic integration, as it was once proclaimed by Peter Sutherland, its rst director-general, the WTO’s most pressing priority in the oresee-able uture may be to avoid the threat o its own marginalisation and the gradual erosion o the multilateral rules-based system over which it presides.No doubt, a period o post mortems is now in prospect. These have already been anticipatedin the numerous diagnoses and prescriptions advanced by trade policy experts since it rst became clear that the DDA was in trouble. Many o the proposals or breaking the logjamhave tended to ocus on procedural and mechanical changes in the WTO, notably abandon-ing the single undertaking in avour o selective plurilateral agreements among “coalitionso the willing”.Such changes might make the WTO motor run a little more smoothly. However, they can-not supply the uel needed to make it re on all cylinders that has been so conspicuously inshort supply during the round. Ater all, much o the DDA negotiations has in practice beenconducted in sub-groups composed o sel-selecting delegations –de acto plurilaterals – thathave been no more successul than specialised WTO committees or the ull membership innarrowing dierences.Those who continue, nonetheless, to vaunt the ecacy o the plurilateral ormat oten basetheir case on the success o the agreements on IT taris, telecommunications and nancialservices concluded in the 1990s. However, it is important to remember that all three agree-ments had other, powerul, underlying orces operating in their avour.The rst two responded to irresistible economic and technological changes that made lib-eralisation desirable or inevitable, while the coincidence o the 1997 Asian crisis with o thethird set o negotiations made their ailure unthinkable. While the plurilateral ormat may have acilitated these agreements, the evidence suggests that they succeeded as much ormore because o serendipitous timing and economic and market developments extraneousto the WTO as because o the procedures employed to negotiate them.That suggests that i plurilaterals are now to oer a way orward, it will be necessary rst toidentiy issues suciently compelling and urgent to persuade “willing” parties to coalescearound them. The least that can be said is that i such issues and willing parties exist today,they have yet to make themselves known.
 
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transatlantic task force on trade
 A central thesis o this paper is that the problems o the DDA and o the WTO, ar rom be-ing sui generis, are part o a broader systemic malaise – possibly even a crisis – besetting multilateralism more generally. The malaise stems rom proound shits in geopolitics andthe structure o the world economy that have accelerated during the lie o the DDA. It isagainst that background that consideration o any initiatives to re-invigorate internationaltrade policy needs to be set.That the malaise suraced rst in the WTO has, in the author’s view, less to do with the or-ganisation’s particular role or with the substance o its deliberations than with the act that itis in many respects the most highly-evolved o all multilateral bodies: through the breadth o its membership, its consensual decision-making system and, above all, through its capacity tomake and enorce common rules. Furthermore, as a relatively new institution, launched whenthe onward march o globalisation appeared to be sweeping all beore it, the WTO had excep-tionally high hopes invested in it. Its ailure to ull them made disappointment all the greater.Many o the symptoms o the WTO’s condition – diverging national priorities, unwilling-ness to compromise and obdurate assertion o narrow sel-interest over the collective good- have also become increasingly evident in other multilateral orums and organisations: inthe Group o 20, in the global climate change talks, in the European Union and in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. As ar as the G20 and the climate change talks are concerned, that should be no surprise: aterall, many o the most intractable dierences in those orums are between the same govern-ments that are also most deeply at odds in the WTO – notably the US, China, India and, to adegree, Brazil. No surprise, either, that kicking conficts and unresolved issues in the WTO“upstairs” to G20 summits has produced ne words but no substantive action.The disjuncture between the growth o global economic integration and the developmento eective international mechanisms to manage it is striking. That disjuncture is not new. As the concept note or this project recalls, as long ago as 1971 the Williams Commissionobserved that “the core o our present diculty is that government policies and practices,and international arrangements or collective decision-making, have not kept abreast o thehigh degree o international economic integration which has been achieved since WorldWar II.” Though the world economy is ar more highly integrated than our decades ago, thechallenge o achieving eective global governance is at least as great, i not greater, today.Why is this so? For an answer, it is necessary to re-trace history back to the mid-1940s.Though the world has changed dramatically since then, our concepts o multilateralism arestill heavily infuenced by the model that emerged during that period. To many minds, thatmodel, suitably modied and updated, remains broadly the basis on which the global govern-ance architecture o tomorrow should be patterned. Indeed, or many western observers, itrepresents the most highly developed system o ordering international relations.However, the post-World War II model was not the product o some smooth evolutionary process o constant renement. It was, rather, the result o a singular combination o circum-stances – some o them highly disruptive - that were in many ways extraordinary, that haveceased to obtain and that seem most unlikely to recur in the uture.
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First, a devastating global confict, rom which the US emerged not only victorious but in a position o overwhelming and unchallenged economic, nancial, military and diplomatic strength.

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