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Last December, the eyes of all those with a stake in international affairs turned to Europe. First they looked to Geneva, for signs that the long-running Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) would get back on track after years of stalemate. Then observers turned to Copenhagen, hoping to see a binding and comprehensive agreement reflecting a commitment on the part of the world’s governments to address the pressing global challenge of climate change. They were to be sorely disappointed. Inscribed on the faces of those struggling to reach agreements was a deep frustration with multilateral processes that were proving incapable of delivery. Instead of agreement, the images playing out on television screens and in newspapers around the world were of fractiousness and division, due in part to the large number of participants and contentiousness of the issues faced; of anger, on the part of all those who felt marginalized by the process; and of concern, from those looking for signs that the world still has the capacity to reach accords when it really matters.

The failure of these meetings to produce formal agreements—or even specific paths to reaching agreements in the future—despite the high stakes and the political capital that had been invested in advance left many questioning the ability of the world’s leaders to meet global challenges, shedding a spotlight on the institutions and fora that were established for the purpose of achieving multilateral solutions to the most pressing collective problems of the 21st century.

Why did these meetings fail? Many had assumed that the most significant economic crisis since the Great Depression and the overwhelming scientific and circumstantial evidence of damaging changes to our climate would compel world leaders to set aside their differences and reach meaningful agreements. But it did not happen. It is not that the problems are not big enough or urgent enough. The failure to reach agreements can best be seen as part of a long-term trend toward increased complexity in the world that makes it nearly impossible to reach traditional multilateral binding accords, combined with a waning of faith on the part of many countries in multilateralism and multilateral institutions.

Publication Citation

Jennifer A. Hillman, Saving Multilateralism: Renovating the House of Global Economic Governance for the 21st Century (Brussels Forum Paper Series, March 2010)