Emerging Narratives and the Future of Multilateralism

By Amrita Narlikar - 22 April 2021
Emerging Narratives and the Future of Multilateralism

Amrita Narlikar explores the advantages and disadvantages of two competing narratives - to resuscitate and reinforce, or to restructure - on the future of multilateralism.

Read the pronouncements that come out of Brussels, Geneva, and New York, and you might well be forgiven for wondering if the last four years were just a bad dream. After years of taking a severe beating not only directly from the former President of the United States (US), Donald J. Trump himself, but also populists in other countries, multilateralism seems to have acquired a fresh lease of life. In a series of executive orders signed immediately after taking up office, President Biden not only reinstated the US back into the Paris Agreement, but also halted the withdrawal of his country from the World Health Organization (WHO). After months of delay, the World Trade Organization (WTO) finally got its new Director General in Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; while her appointment had been opposed by the Trump administration, the Biden team contributed to a smooth way out of persistent deadlock. Observing all these developments, the great and the good of the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. This was reflected in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in February this year: “The prospects for multilateralism are much better now than they were two years ago. This has very much to do with the fact that Joe Biden is now the President of the United States of America”. In fact, as I argue in this article, the relief may be rather premature: the troubles of multilateralism are far from over.

There are two competing narratives on multilateralism emerging. The divisions on these are evident even in the transatlantic relationship, though the fault-lines do not fall exactly or neatly between Europe and the US. How this contestation plays out – not only in the transatlantic partnership, but also across the different world regions – will be crucial in determining the future of the multilateral order.

My analysis proceeds in three parts. I first provide a brief overview on the importance of narratives, and how they can make a critical difference in shaping multilateralism itself, and also its ownership and implementation by multiple stakeholders. In the second step, I outline two competing narratives: one seeks only minimal reform; the other, albeit still in early stages of development, suggests a route of major restructuring. Both narratives have their respective advantages and limitations. I discuss these and their policy implications in the third section.

Why and How Narratives Matter

Pioneering a new and rapidly developing field of Narrative Economics, Robert Shiller defines a narrative as “a simple story or easily expressed explanation of events that many people want to bring up in conversation or on news or social media because it can be used to stimulate the concerns or emotions of others, and/ or because it appears to advance self-interest.” (1)

“Narratives” are related to several other concepts (including identities, norms, framing) all of which have attracted different levels of attention from diverse academic disciplines. Paul Collier offers a useful way of categorizing these, and writes: “Culture is constituted by mental frameworks i.e. beliefs, and social networks. There are three types of beliefs: identities (which “influence preferences”), narratives (which “influence how causal relationships are (mis)understood”), and norms (which “determine self-imposed constraints”).” (2)

Narratives matter because they can serve as “major vectors of rapid change in culture, in zeitgeist, and ultimately in economic behavior.” (3) Sitting between higher-order questions of world-views, identities, and norms on the one hand, and more tactical issues of framing on the other, narratives are a powerful and pliable tool for policy intervention. (4)

Narratives – true or false – do not materialize out of thin air. Politicians, scholars, policy-makers, journalists, “influencers” and concerned citizens serve as instigators of stories that help people make sense of “facts”. For “winning” narratives to emerge from such stories, dissemination is important; in the case of international politics, this requires building inter-state coalitions and working in multi-stakeholder networks that engage with multiple layers of society. Moreover, narratives solely on the universal public good are unlikely to win, especially under conditions of economic or other forms of hardship; rather, successful narratives will usually persuade people also at the individual and local levels. Narratives fixated solely on meticulous technical detail – even if rooted in scientific evidence – are unlikely to find resonance beyond the “global elite”; it is only by bringing in different actors, and having some emotional appeal, can they emerge as winning narratives.

Some examples may be useful to illustrate how narratives can make a difference. Recall, for instance, the attraction of  “America First” and “Make American great again”, which contributed to Trump’s popularity and electoral success. French President Macron’s counter-narrative of “let’s make our planet great again” was politically correct, but contributed to discontent within his own country, epitomized by the Yellow Vests’ protests. The protests should not have come as a surprise: for individuals who would be hit by mitigation measures, the promise of possible gain for future generations (conditional on other countries also doing their parts) offered cold comfort for serious economic hardships that they would have to endure in their own lifetimes. Had Macron’s narrative paid attention to not only making the planet great, but also improving the lives of the French electorate, it might have been more successful. Or, illustrating the limitations of factual (and somewhat stodgy) narratives, recall the Brexit referendum. Even though the economic case to remain in the EU was solid, the “exit” narrative with its passionate commitment to “take back control” turned out to be the more persuasive one. (5)

Get the narrative on multilateralism right, and we have the possibility to harness international cooperation for global peace and prosperity; get it wrong, and we risk disengagement, fragmentation, decline in welfare across countries, conflict, and war.

Competing Narratives on Multilateralism

Luckily for all of us, the debate on multilateralism, and how to reform it, is rich and vibrant. But it is deeply polarized.

The polarization derives in good measure from the stresses that the system has endured, and continues to suffer from. The “China shock” had already thrown sand in the workings of the system, even as member countries of different multilateral organizations struggled to better accommodate the new balance of power; finding the pace of reform too slow, the rising powers sometimes attempted to create parallel international institutions. The “Trump shock” exacerbated previous problems; while the US had been signaling that it was no longer willing to act as the world’s policeman, (6) the severity of public critique and disengagement from multilateral institutions went much further during the Trump years. Coming from the world’s leading power, which had served as a founder and guarantor of the post-war multilateral order, such attacks on the system were especially damaging. The COVID shock has shed a harsh new light on weaknesses that the system had accumulated.

At a human level, response to such acute stress would be a fight-or-flight response; in the debate on multilateralism, this has translated into two divergent narratives. One narrative asks that we resuscitate and reinforce the system; the other pushes for a fundamental restructuring.

Narrative 1: Resuscitate and Reinforce

A narrative of reviving existing multilateral institutions points to the many global problems that the world faces, which even the most powerful states cannot handle on their own. Containing global pandemics and mitigating climate change are tasks that require global cooperation. The world needs more multilateralism, not less.

This narrative is cognizant of the shocks that the system has faced. But the explanation for ineffective handling of these challenges, as per this narrative, lies not in the institutions of multilateralism but in the member-states. It points to Trump’s trade wars as an example of abuse of the system by its most powerful member. The holding up of the appointment/ reappointment of the WTO’s Appellate Body members by the US is another example. If multilateralism is to function effectively against such misuses of power, then its institutions need to be strengthened.

Tempting though it is to assume that this is a narrative of naïveté (given that it seems to attribute the primary blame for multilateralism’s problems to Trump), many variants of it are not. Take the case of arguments on vaccine access; advocates of this narrative point to the urgency of vaccinating populations nationally and globally in order to make their own electorates safe locally. Putting one’s interests first, according to this narrative, is not only morally repugnant but also rationally unviable. Angela Merkel’s speech at the Munich Security Conference used precisely such an argument:

“… if the virus is not defeated all over the world, then none of us will be safe, no one can truly be kept safe from the virus. We will be confronted with mutations time and again. The equitable and swift distribution of vaccines to everyone in the world is therefore one of our main tasks. During the recent G7 meeting, Germany pledged an additional 1.5 billion euro for the ACT-Accelerator and, in particular, for the COVAX vaccine facility. We’ve therefore now made pledges to the tune of 2.5 billion dollars for this programme; and we’ve done so out of conviction.”

The universal embrace that this narrative offers is still rooted in the hope that had driven the multilateralist outreach of the post-1989. While its optimism is now more cautious in light of the growing influence of authoritarian states, it continues to advocate cooperation with systemic competitors and rivals. Merkel’s MSC speech reflected this: “On the one hand, China is a systemic competitor. On the other, we need China to help resolve global problems, for instance those relating to biodiversity or climate change mitigation.” Sabine Weyand, Director General, EU Trade, similarly defended the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) in a similar way: “There is no alternative to engagement and that is what we need to do here.”.

The strongest support for this narrative is usually found in Eurocrat circles in Brussels, and trade/ UN circles in Geneva and New York. Big businesses too point to the attraction of international markets, and emphasize the importance of sustaining and increasing trade and investment flows amidst worldwide concerns of a post-pandemic recovery. Within governments, ministries mandated to deal with trade, finance, and development issues tend to have sympathy with this narrative. Epistemically, this narrative draws succour from the writings especially of trade lawyers and economists.

Recommendations resulting from the resuscitation and reinforce narrative involve increasing funding for multilateral organizations (such as the WHO) and ensuring smooth trade flows worldwide (by re-energising the WTO). And while seldom shy of referencing values, this narrative uses a narrower frame (e.g. usually linking trade and investment agreements to labour and environmental standards). Overall, even with such references thrown in, the narrative remains a pragmatic one that seeks to avoid rocking the boat in a precarious sea.

Narrative 2: Restructure

The second narrative calls for a fundamental restructuring. Akin to the first narrative, it acknowledges the gravity of global problems that the world faces, and also recognizes the importance of collective action in resolving them. But rather than attribute the failures of multilateralism to its member-states, it points to defects of institutional design. More multilateralism in its current form will only exacerbate the problem. This does not mean giving up on multilateralism in principle. But the practices of multilateralism will need to be rebooted, and its institutions will need to be redesigned, before they can be entrusted with more authority.

The failures of multilateralism, as per this narrative, are many and run deep. The sins of omission and commission of the WHO in its handling of the COVID19 pandemic provide one example of the damage that flawed multilateralism can contribute to. (7) Rampant globalization, nurtured by the WTO and other international organizations and pursued as a panacea for all problems, has fostered global value chains that lack reliability. Production patterns based on high levels of economic integration have created opportunities for profit, but also allow for the “weaponization of interdependence”. (8) The multilateral order was not built for a system where the very ties of interdependence – which were supposed to bind countries together into prosperity and peace – could be misused by geopolitical rivals. The rules of multilateral engagement need to be rehauled and updated for a world of weaponized interdependence.

Unlike the first narrative, this narrative does not see an opposition between putting one’s own country first and multilateral cooperation. If anything, it sees a strong and robust base at home as a necessary condition for the practice of effective and legitimate multilateralism. (9) The Biden administration embodies this balance: for instance, it maintains its first priority remains “ensuring every American is vaccinated” while also committing to Covax. The US narrative (and policy) stand in dramatic contrast to Europe’s which has continued to export vaccines as part of its multilateral efforts, even in the face of severe vaccine shortages and (avoidable) deaths at home.

It is all too easy to dismiss this narrative as a crude pursuit of nothing more than narrow national interests. In fact, however, prominent variants of this narrative also entail a strong commitment to values. Values matter if one wants to build reliable supply chains for strategic products, which in turn requires deeper levels of integration with like-minded and trustworthy allies. And values in this narrative, in contrast to the first narrative, are conceptualized in much broader terms such as democracy and liberalism. See, for instance, President Biden’s speech:

“Our partnerships have endured and grown through the years because they are rooted in the richness of our shared democratic values.  They’re not transactional.  They’re not extractive.  They’re built on a vision of a future where every voice matters, where the rights of all are protected and the rule of law is upheld.” 

This attention to national interests, weaponized interdependence, and values together makes the second narrative very different from the first. While recognizing the importance of technical details, this narrative is deliberately engaged with political questions. Its stronger versions do not assume or require multilateral initiatives with universal memberships, nor does it push for a pick-and-choose transactional plurilateralism. Rather, it calls for alliances and partnerships of the like-minded, based on values that work hand-in-hand with interests.

Variants of this narrative live in political circles in national capitals. The Biden administration has embraced some of its traits. The Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Jens Stoltenberg, has been developing a similar narrative in recent years (e.g. by calling for a more “global approach” for the alliance that works “even more closely with our international partners to defend our values in a more competitive world. Partners near and far - like Finland and Sweden. But also Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea”. Within countries in the global north, the restructuring narrative finds greater resonance in ministries dealing with foreign affairs and defence. Its supporters include NGOs and activists concerned about human rights violations, freedom of the press, rule of law and so forth. Small and medium-sized businesses, which stand to gain from a tightening of multilateral trade rules that this narrative entails, can also be supportive; they tend to be less vociferous than big business though, which have reason to fight against the short-term costs that restructured value chains would bring for them.

Recommendations stemming from the restructure narrative involve a variable geometry approach. Here - sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit - is the idea of (gradual) strategic decoupling. While partially disengaging with competitors and rivals, this narrative requires deeper integration and partnerships with others that are more like-minded.

Advantages, Limitations, and Policy Implications

The first narrative of resuscitate and reinforce offers stability in times of crisis. Its conciliatory tone is especially tantalizing after four years of Trump’s onslaught on multilateralism. Its biggest weakness lies in its proclivity to the status quo. And although reform for the sake of it is in no one’s interests, there are too many players today who believe themselves to be ill-served by multilateralism. These include countries in the Indo-Pacific affected by China’s rise, different regions of the world concerned about new debt traps, companies that are no longer willing to tolerate repeated violations of IPRs, governments that are concerned about the security threats posed by economic and digital interdependence, and individuals who have endured incalculable (sometimes avoidable) personal loss of life and livelihood due to the pandemic. Minor reform of a multilateral system that has sometimes aided and abetted these developments, and been unable to guard against them at other times, will not satisfy these diverse stakeholders. Turning a blind eye to current violations and carrying on with business as usual will likely damage the system further (https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/the-european-union-cai-and-abyss/). Pumping in more money to strengthen multilateral institutions that are already facing a crisis of both legitimacy and effectiveness will end up producing an even greater backlash against multilateralism.

The second narrative of restructuring overcomes the status quo orientation of the first; in addressing the flaws of the system, it takes the bull by the horns. In its hawkish version though, its problem lies in its swing in the opposite direction: major disruption. Skeptics argue that decoupling will produce a new cold war. Deep integration with like-minded parties will not suffice when dealing with problems like climate change and pandemics, which need all handson deck. (10) Talk of grandiose values may work, but walking this walk will be very difficult for most parties (including established democracies like the US and the EU, which have had their own share of problems in recent years).

The spatial dislocation between the two narratives is interesting. The old world of Europe still veers largely towards the first narrative of resuscitate and reinforce; somewhat expectedly, this is also the narrative that one hears frequently in international organizations. Under the previous and current US administrations, we have seen some shifts towards the second narrative of restructuring.

From the perspective of the “global south”, there is some irony to witness these developments in the US. After all, multiple actors in the regions of Asia, Africa, Middle East, and Latin America, have – sometimes since decades – been arguing that the multilateral system needs a major overhaul in order to become more inclusive, more transparent, more accountable, and better able to accommodate alternative goals (for instance, by balancing the pursuit of trade liberalisation with the goal of food security). This includes countries like Brazil, India, South Africa, and also other middle-income developing countries and least developed countries. Doubling the irony is the fact that while the US is calling for a major update of the rules – especially to enable multilateral institutions to cope better with China’s rise – China itself is also attempting to restructure the regional and global order. While not many members of the global south would readily embrace the minor tinkering envisaged by the resuscitate and reinforce narrative, skepticism towards the Chinese narrative is also rising. Those in the global north aiming to restructure multilateralism would be well-served to engage with like-minded state and non-state actors in the global south also seeking change. While the priorities of these diverse players will not align perfectly with the transatlantic partners, there are many potential overlaps and complementarities in values and interests that could contribute to a shared agenda of meaningful reform.

To overcome the polarisation of the debate, the solution may thus lie in using the restructuring narrative as a focal point. Such a version does not demand that all existing multilateral institutions be razed to the ground. But it does ask for a careful reconsideration of the very purpose of multilateralism. This purpose will probably involve a commitment to values such as liberalism, pluralism and democracy. But it cannot be imposed by the EU and the US on others; it requires engagement with other democracies as equal partners in these endeavours (including countries like India, which has its own powerful traditions of liberalism and pluralism that predate European ones).

A restructured multilateralism need not be a closed shop: countries that are willing to abide by its tightened rules would be welcome to join. For those that clearly adhere to fundamentally different values and pose a geopolitical/geoeconomic threat, entry will admittedly be difficult – perhaps even impossible. In such cases, dialogue will continue; to avoid sending mixed signals, however, side-deals involving deep integration such as the CAI will not.

A multilateral order built on the restructure narrative – even in its moderate version – will likely result in some decline in prosperity. Some decoupling would have to take place, but only step-by-step and in key strategic sectors, in sync with allies. The cost will also be a shattered dream of all humanity working together as one towards shared visions and goals. But these losses may well be compensated by gains in security, and survival of the values that make us who we are.



This was originally written for the Observer Research Foundation's Raisina Files, March 2021.

Amrita Narlikar is the President of the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA), and Professor at Hamburg University. She is also non-resident Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. 

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels



(1) Robert Shiller. ‘Narrative Economics.’ American Economic Review. 107: 4. Pp. 967–1004. 2017.

(2) Paul Collier. ‘The Cultural Foundations of Economic Failure: A Conceptual Toolkit.’ Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. Vol. 126, Part B. Pp. 5-24. 2016.

  Shiller (2017).

(3) Amrita Narlikar. Poverty Narratives and Power Paradoxes in International Trade Negotiations and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2020.

(4) Ibid.

(5) E.g. See interview with Barack Obama: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-obama-doctrine/471525/ .

(7) Anne Applebaum. When the World Stumbled: COVID-19 and the Failure of the International System, in Brand, H.  & Gavin, F. (Eds.), COVID-19 and World Order: The Future of Conflict, Competition and Cooperation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. 2020; also see Samir Saran https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/covid19-dr-who-gets-prescription-wrong-63708/ .

(8) Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman. Weaponized Interdependence: How Global Economic Networks shape State Coercion. International Security. Vol. 44, No. 1 (Summer 2019), pp. 42-79. 2019.

(9) Note that this differs from Trumpian isolationism.

(10) A counter to this critique however: preventing pandemics and mitigating climate change is in the interest of all states (including China), and so should not be treated as a “concession” in a bargaining game.

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