The Cataclysmic Great Power Challenge Everyone Saw Coming

August 28, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Americas

The Cataclysmic Great Power Challenge Everyone Saw Coming

Violent extremism, migration, pandemics, and climate change are among the burgeoning list of fundamental challenges that will require transnational cooperation and collaboration.


In 1944 and 1945, the consensus among the great powers of the day (the war victors), and more definitive and determined U.S. leadership led to the Bretton Woods and San Francisco meetings. These landmark gatherings incited the creation of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the United Nations. While seemingly unique circumstances propelled the need for and establishment of these new multilateral frameworks, it is now time for a thorough rethink of these institutions.

Lessons of trade clashes and depression, wars with great human and pecuniary costs, the ever-looming danger of unchecked authoritarian figures, and the utility of strong shared principles among sovereign states informed the construction of these institutions. Those hard-won historical lessons are no less relevant today: Indeed, democratic norms are increasingly under threat and dangerous authoritarian figures are rapidly gaining power through the use of more subversive tactics. Moreover, violent extremism, migration, pandemics, and climate change are among the burgeoning list of fundamental challenges that will require transnational cooperation and collaboration.


Still, three-quarters of a century have passed since Bretton Woods. And the very institutions that were formerly hailed and applauded for creating a bold new multilateral infrastructure have become less relevant and therefore, less effective.

Citizens and governments alike are jaundiced looking at the decaying multilateral skyline. Global institutions need a deliberate and large-scale renovation; it is now time to construct a new architecture and usher in a more modern and streamlined multilateral skyline. Some institutions need to be replaced or thoroughly morphed into new ones. Some need to be pruned. The most effective and nimble ones need to be scaled up or have their model applied to more current and pressing mandates.

The American people cannot let their collective and burgeoning distrust of public and multilateral institutions or the enormity of the challenges that they now face—pandemics, fragile states, migration and climate change—dissuade them from refashioning institutions to be more effective. Instead, they must build new and efficient institutions that can deliver for people—all people.

Take the area of global development: The UN formed the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) with significant civil society input. However, the UN lacks the political will necessary to implement the SDGs nor can it mobilize adequate resources to implement its lofty SDG aspirations.

Meanwhile, consider an organization with far more significant resources, the World Bank. As Galit Sarfaty observed in Values in Translation, the institutional culture of the World Bank has doggedly skirted human rights considerations that are absolutely critical to achieve socially inclusive development. Transboundary threats cannot be solved by nations acting alone; institutions like the World Bank are essential to addressing global challenges but only if and when those institutions are holistic and people-centered in their approaches.

In the area of human rights, the world must look beyond the UN Human Rights Council (crafted fifteen years ago to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights). While the Council has a peer review mechanism aimed at all UN members, its imbalanced treatment of countries is highly problematic: For example, there is minimal scrutiny on China as it commits atrocities against Uighurs. And again, the UN Human Rights Council lacks the resources it needs to assist countries and societies to improve civil and economic rights. 

International law specialist Anthony Arend and a group of scholars called for new San Francisco moment and the coronavirus pandemic recently prompted global health practitioners Mark Dybul and Deus Bazira to recently call for a second Bretton Woods summit. It’s high time. 

But a Bretton Woods II should be more than a summit of governments. It should be an urgent dialogue between states, businesses, experts, and populations affected by the problems to be addressed (like disease, climate-induced migration and gender inequality). Dialogue between states must be harnessed as a means to unite, rather than further divide nations.

If undertaken, then a Bretton Woods II could perhaps build on the model of public-private partnerships like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and Gavi (the Vaccine Alliance). These partnerships address the acute needs of longstanding and emerging epidemics, build more resilient health systems, and ensure broader access to healthcare to impoverished, scorned or marginalized groups. Modern multilateral decisionmaking should build upon these same principles: They should incentivize countries to invest in their own reforms, craft accountable and transparent governance systems, and require evidenced-based results on public health, human rights, and development.

The U.S. presidential election may offer the world a particularly seasoned and collaborative leader and respected ally of like-minded nations just as this bold renovation is most needed. Among the first tasks of the next U.S. administration should be to prompt a bold rethinking of the multilateral infrastructure. In an increasingly globalized world, the doctrine of isolationism is not only naïve but deeply dangerous. The United States can ignite a new era of global institutions—not only to create a more modern multilateral skyline but to ensure a safer world for us all.

Sohini Chatterjee is on the faculty at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs and serves as Legal Advisor for Independent International Legal Advocates and Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Mark P. Lagon is on the faculty at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and served as U.S. Ambassador-At-Large to Combat Trafficking in Persons and President of Freedom House. 

Image: Reuters