When was the last time the nations of the world reached a major accord? You’d have to go all the way back to 1994 and the World Trade Organization’s Uruguay Round. Forget the Paris Agreement, which contains no binding commitments to cut emissions. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals are commendable, but the deadline of 2030 to eliminate global poverty and other scourges is likely to pass with little notice. Even as the list of transnational challenges grows—pandemics, debt, climate change—the ability to arrive at collaborative solutions is at an ebb.
In the 21st century, the old multilateral institutions, many of them created in the wake of World War II, are beset by paralysis. The return of systemic rivalry—between a core group of liberal democracies on the one side and China and Russia on the other—has turned a swath of global bodies, from the U.N. Security Council to the ostensibly apolitical World Health Organization, into ugly battlegrounds of influence competition and mutual suspicion. As former U.N. and World Bank official Mark Malloch-Brown recently told Foreign Policy, “I worry that the political gridlock, and the gridlock on security issues, is so great that the U.N. is going to hibernate on politics, security, and human rights in the coming years.”