Policy Professionals and Scholars Consider the Fate of Multilateral Institutions Amid Great Power Competition

Policy Professionals and Scholars Consider the Fate of Multilateral Institutions Amid Great Power Competition

The fourth installment of Shorenstein APARC’s fall seminar series examined the future of multilateral institutions in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, focusing on the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.
L to R: Laura Stone, Matthew Goodman, Michael McFaul L to R: Laura Stone, Matthew Goodman, Michael McFaul Michael Breger

From the League of Nations to the United Nations, multilateral institutions have come to define the landscape of modern international relations. Large and diverse groupings like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) have served as a venue for facilitating regional collaboration. Yet, as the world enters a new era of great power competition between the United States and China, many question the relevance of these institutions and multilateralism more broadly. The declining quality and quantity of multilateral deliverables and the increasing prevalence of so-called “minilaterals'' has spurred numerous scholarly inquiries into the future relevance of groups like APEC.

On December 5, in the wake of the APEC 2023 convening in San Francisco, the China Program at Shorenstein APARC presented “The Future of Multilateral Institutions in the Era of Great Power Competition,” the concluding session in the Center's autumn 2023 seminar series on APEC's role in facilitating regional cooperation.

The speakers included Matthew P. Goodman, a distinguished fellow for global economic policy and Director of the Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and Michael McFaul, director at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Professor of International Studies in the Department of Political Science, and the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. APARC China Policy Fellow Laura Stone moderated the conversation.

The panel opened with a discussion of how, in the past, APEC was deemed especially relevant and productive as it generated agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), fostered cooperation on initiatives aimed at encouraging women’s participation in the economy, and facilitated some of the first regional sustainability policy protocols.

Goodman provided background context of the current debate around APEC’s relevance, stating that “advancing APEC’s agenda is very hard and always has been […] you are dealing with 21 diverse economies.” The upside, said Goodman, is that the convergence of representatives of multiple countries holds significant influence. “[APEC] is very powerful when it comes to sharing best practices and interacting with the business community, something hardwired into APEC via the business advisory council.”

Goodman sees multiple positive outcomes from this year’s convening in San Francisco, such as coordination on the Alliance for Just Energy Transformation (AJET), food security initiatives, women's empowerment initiatives, and “lots of sustainability work, with a specific mandate of tripling energy capacity […] This sets an agenda and creates a mandate for bureaucracies.”

McFaul elaborated on Goodman’s analysis by providing anecdotal context from his time serving in the Obama administration, stating that “Obama was committed to multilateralism, particularly in Asia, and his theory was that multilaterals are a way for us to advance economic security and U.S. interests.”

McFaul proceeded to describe some of the outcomes of this approach, including the TPP, the Open Government Partnership (OGP), and nonproliferation efforts, stating that the early Obama era represented “a moment focused on multilaterals, and was needed to manage the financial catastrophe of 2008.”

“What we see in 2023 is weak tea in comparison to 2009, yet compared to how things were going over the last few years, this year represents a great achievement.”

For McFaul, APEC 2023 was a success because there was “no hollering, no walkouts, and no drama, but the actual deliverables were modest. The Golden Gate Declaration is better than nothing, but it is not great.”

McFaul described some of the leaders' meetings as the pivotal aspects of the 2023 convening, emphasizing that, more broadly, multilateral events create opportunities for meaningful bilateral meetings. “We need to create opportunities for Biden and Xi to meet, even if these confabs produce only modest outcomes, just to get them in the room is a success,” he said.

McFaul also remarked on the strong showing of the United States as a host, stating that “APEC is an opportunity for the hosts to highlight who we are, and we did a good job showing off San Francisco and Silicon Valley […] the traffic of various world leaders to Stanford and Silicon Valley is a deliverable unto itself.”

After the event, APARC Visiting Scholar Michael Beeman, former assistant U.S. trade representative for Japan, Korea, and APEC at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, weighed in on APARC’s fall series and noted key takeaways from APEC 2023. According to Beeman, APARC’s series effectively highlighted the rich and diverse economic engagement still taking place among APEC's 21 members, coming against the backdrop of increasing regional tensions.

For Beeman, an important takeaway is the fact that “APEC members still meet over a hundred times a year at the technical level to engage, learn, and cooperate. This underscores APEC's value as a stabilizing and positive force, albeit one with less ambition than in prior decades.”

Like Goodman and McFaul, Beeman sees APEC 2023 as a modest success, indicating that “bilateral meetings like the one between Presidents Biden and Xi on the margins of APEC often overshadow the formal APEC announcements, and this year was no different. With new, high-level political commitments for APEC increasingly difficult to come by, the official APEC announcements were predictably modest.”

As for the outcomes of the convening, Beeman considers the most important to be a renewed leader-level commitment to supporting and furthering APEC's pursuit of economic cooperation, most of which takes place at the technical level. “APEC would be well served to more understandably demonstrate how its diverse work can improve the lives of people in the region,” he said.

Despite the relative decline of multilateralism in an era defined by geopolitical rivalry, the analysts agreed that the existing mechanisms are efficient in fostering cooperation between leaders and providing frameworks for high-level deliverables that drive progress in individual member states’ bureaucracies. While the dynamism of these groupings has diminished, they still play  a significant role in the geopolitical arena.

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