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Multilateralism's Secret Sauce

Historically, successes like the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference have been much rarer than international gatherings that produce either inaction or recrimination. The key is to focus on what can be measured, rather than on whom to blame.

PRINCETON – One clear lesson from last month’s damp squib of a climate summit in Glasgow is that multilateralism is difficult to pull off. This has always been the case. Many of history’s biggest international pow-wows ended in failure, not least the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the 1933 London World Economic Conference, and pretty much every G7 or G20 meeting. Big successes like the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference and the April 2009 G20 meeting in London were exceptions that prove the rule.

Does the latter meeting, convened amid the global economic turmoil triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers the previous September, offer a blueprint for improving international summits? One takeaway is that whatever emergency is meant to be addressed, participants need to define their objectives precisely. The lack of a clear vision – or at least a basic understanding of the goal – will inevitably produce failure. Reflecting on the world’s collective inability to provide solutions to the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes suggested that a workable plan could be produced only by “a single power or like-minded group of powers.”

Blame games also tend to produce failure. Nowadays, pretty much every global issue invites debate about who is originally responsible. Consider refugees. The European Union blames Belarus and Russia for funneling Middle Eastern migrants to its borders, whereas Russia argues that it is Britain and America who destabilized the Middle East in 2003 (or was it in 1991, or even 1919?). The same dynamic applies to COVID-19. Since the virus emerged in China, shouldn’t China pay? The Trump administration thought so and even issued that demand in international fora.

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