- Competition among the great powers is hindering the ability of multilateral cooperation to solve acute problems. The last true, successful multilateral agreement was probably the WTO's Uruguay Round in 1994.
- The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated the failure of a multilateral response.
- "Minilateral" groups, like the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) have received much attention recently, but they are not suited to global crises that require rapid action.
- "Task Force Diplomacy," an approach that grew out of the pandemic, can be a useful approach for novel, acute global crises
- Some features of Task Force Diplomacy include an urgent, concrete goal; 1–2 countries willing to take the lead; voluntary membership that is economically and regionally diverse; the inclusion of multilateral organizations when appropriate; senior official engagement in the effort; and the division of the problem into smaller pieces that each partner can tackle.
In an era of increasing great power competition between China, the United States, and Russia, multilateral cooperation to solve global problems has become measurably more difficult. Slow multilateral responses are particularly problematic in the face of acute problems requiring a strong, immediate response, as the failure of a comprehensive response to the recent global COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated. The evolving “minilateral” structures can aid in a response but are not flexible or comprehensive enough to coordinate a global response to many problems. Ad hoc voluntary coalitions of willing and capable states and organizations—“Task Forces”—sprang up to lead the COVID-19 response. This “Task Force Diplomacy” model proved to be a viable supplement to existing multilateral, minilateral, and bilateral groupings.
Based on personal observations working on global cooperation aimed at addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a lifetime working on global and regional challenges, this is a first-cut effort to reflect on lessons learned that others can take as a starting point to move forward and embellish as we deal with mechanisms to address new fast-moving challenges in an evolving world characterized by great power competition. The intention is not to reinvent the international structure — indeed, the default response to global problems should remain multilateral, comprehensive cooperation — but rather to present a systemization of ways to deal with serious acute problems in which multilateral responses prove inadequate.