By Richard S. Williamson

The international system remains relatively unchanged since Western allies, led by the United States, created the post-World War II international architecture to contain communism and create conditions for prosperity and peace – especially their prosperity and peace.  Now we face a different reality: Western powers are experiencing economic crisis, China and India are on pace to rank among the top three economies by 2050, and rising economies will potentially rival the G-8 in the decades to come.  In spite of these recalibrations to the world’s economic equilibrium, most rising powers continue to participate in multilateral organizations as outsiders or, at best, marginal actors.  If multilateral institutions no longer correspond to the reality of international affairs, how will this impact their influence in the decades to come?

The United States has benefited from the array of international multilateral institutions.  They can provide a broad acceptance, or legitimacy, for actions.  They provide a means for buy-in and burden-sharing.  The dialogue, deliberations, and debate, while often cumbersome and time-consuming, can result in better informed and improved decisions.  And it is my experience serving in ambassadorships to United Nations bodies in New York, Vienna, and Geneva that usually the United States can prevail on matters important to it if we put in the time, diplomacy, and encouragement required.  When a vital national interest is at stake, as was at play in Kosovo and Iraq, the United States can and will circumvent the encumbrances of the UN.

Furthermore, multilateral institutions have a reach that enables them to play a critical role in norm-setting, whether in international civil aviation or counter-terrorism.

Combined, these elements provide a measure of predictability which benefits the less mighty and the mighty.  The practices, processes, and procedures of multilateral institutions provide comfort to the less strong that the mighty will take into account past practices, norms, and others’ perspectives.  The great elephant will not trample the grass willy nilly.  Yes, the United States and others reserve the right to act unilaterally when they must in their vital national self-interest, but that will be the exception.  Normal events will be handled within the guardrails established and accepted.  The less mighty feel less need to form alliances to oppose or constrain the mighty.  Both sides of that equation benefit.

But as the power within these institutions increasingly fails to reflect power in the real world, they will lose legitimacy.  Respect and adherence to these institutions and their restraints will weaken and circumvention practices will increase.

So far China and other rising economies are not engaging in a direct assault or an open rejection of the established architecture.  But they are keeping their options open.

In spite of posturing by rising powers, many experts have speculated that as rising powers like China gain more influence, they will not overturn the current system’s rules and principles, but instead seek to gain more authority within the existing order.

Another potential course of action for a rising power is to engage with the existing international system while seeking over time to revise the architecture.

In response to calls for China to become a responsible stakeholder, Bates Gill and Michael Schiffer have pointed out that Beijing may reasonably conclude that the international community is populated by irresponsible stakeholders – and that there is little advantage in acquiescing to existing structures unless they are adapted to fit China’s policy preferences.

Rising powers may seek to design new arrangements that take account of their growing interests, just as Washington helped create the United Nations after it walked away from the League of Nations after World War I.  Over time incremental actions could make the current architecture obsolete – a more dramatic outcome than a mere bending of norms.

There are indications that incremental institutional changes already are underway; note the creation of new energy institutions by states dissatisfied by existing regimes.

The United States is not in decline.  But our traditional allies in Europe face an ongoing economic and political crisis, less appetite to meet their obligations in NATO, and less capacity to meet other responsibilities.  Meanwhile, with the rapid rise of China and other dynamic economies such as India, Brazil, and Turkey, the relative preeminence of the United States is changing.  New ways and means will develop to account for these newer influential voices and their interests.

That’s the reality.  How we think through these developments, and our willingness to lead in shaping the changing world, will determine our own capacity to project our power, protect our interests, and advance our values.

Ambassador Richard S. Williamson served in various senior positions in the Reagan White House and the State Department and he has served in four ambassadorships.  He currently is a Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.