Multilateralism in the crisis – How can we save international cooperation?

Climate change, migration, fair trade – many major challenges facing humanity transcend national borders and can only be overcome through international cooperation. That is why multilateralism, i.e. several states working together and agreeing on common rules, is more important than ever today. But in many countries, populist and authoritarian forces that pursue short-term national interests without regard for other countries and the environment are in power. As a result, states are increasingly withdrawing from international treaties, failing to adhere to established rules and failing to find common answers to the pressing issues of our time. Since the inauguration of President Trump, who has insisted rigorously on an “America first” policy, the United States, for example, has turned away from the INF disarmament treaty with Russia, the international nuclear agreement with Iran and the Paris Climate Convention. But even in Germany, where both the government and the overwhelming majority of the population are clearly in favour of international cooperation to solve global problems, multilateral structures often meet with public scepticism or ignorance. For example, the G20, the coordination forum of the largest economic nations, is unpopular with many people and probably only a few know what tasks are performed by the United Nations (UN) or the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), for example. However, multilateral cooperation, from which all participants benefit, is an important building block for a fairer and liveable future. What can we do to save international collaboration?

1 What are the reasons for the rejection of multilateral cooperation?

Some economists see growing social inequality as the cause of the rise of nationalism. What must change in the national policies of countries for multilateral cooperation to have a future?

International organizations and forums are often criticized for inefficiency, lack of transparency and unequal opportunities to influence. How must international organizations and forums change so that trust in them grows and all states see added value in common solutions?

2 What can we do to strengthen international cooperation?

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has founded an “Alliance of Multilateralists”. What role should Germany play in international cooperation? Is Foreign Minister Maas’ idea of forging a “coalition of the willing” suitable for strengthening multilateral cooperation?

Due to the complexity of global challenges, finding and implementing multilateral solutions is generally a laborious and protracted undertaking that is inscrutable to large sections of the population. Populist politicians, on the other hand, often promise quick and straightforward solutions. How can one arouse the interest of the society in multilateral processes and provide a better understanding of the work of international organizations? What contribution can schools make to this?

Bertelsmann Stiftung (ed.) (2018): “The G20 is turning 20. Time to take stock of multilateralism”, Policy Brief 6/2018. Available at:

Gowan, Richard and Anthony Dworkin (2019): “Three crises and an opportunity: Europe’s stake in multilateralism”, European Council on Foreign Relations, Policy Brief September 2019. Available at:

Pisani-Ferry, Jean (2018). „Should We Give Up on Global Governance?“, Bruegel Policy Contribution, Issue No. 17, October 2018. Available at:

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Photo: (c) IfW Kiel/ Studio 23

Dennis Görlich is Head of the Global Challenges Center at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy and Research Director of the Global Solutions Initiative. His field of work includes multilateral institutions, in particular the G20.

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