Gridlock: the growing breakdown of global cooperation

Economic and political shifts in large part attributable to the successes of the post-war multilateral order are now amongst the factors grinding that system into gridlock.

Thomas Hale David Held Kevin Young
24 May 2013

The Doha round of trade negotiations is deadlocked, despite eight successful multilateral trade rounds before it.  Climate negotiators have met for two decades without finding a way to stem global emissions.  The UN is paralyzed in the face of growing insecurities across the world, the latest dramatic example being Syria.  Each of these phenomena could be treated as if it was independent, and an explanation sought for the peculiarities of its causes.  Yet, such a perspective would fail to show what they, along with numerous other instances of breakdown in international negotiations, have in common.


Global cooperation is gridlocked across a range of issue areas. The reasons for this are not the result of any single underlying causal structure, but rather of several underlying dynamics that work together.  Global cooperation today is failing not simply because it is very difficult to solve many global problems – indeed it is – but because previous phases of global cooperation have been incredibly successful, producing unintended consequences that have overwhelmed the problem-solving capacities of the very institutions that created them.  It is hard to see how this situation can be unravelled, given failures of contemporary global leadership, the weaknesses of NGOs in converting popular campaigns into institutional change and reform, and the domestic political landscapes of the most powerful countries.

A golden era of governed globalization

In order to understand why gridlock has come about it is important to understand how it was that the post-Second World War era facilitated, in many respects, a successful form of ‘governed globalization’ that contributed to relative peace and prosperity across the world over several decades.  This period was marked by peace between the great powers, although there were many proxy wars fought out in the global South. This relative stability created the conditions for what now can be regarded as an unprecedented period of prosperity that characterized the 1950s onward.  Although it is by no means the sole cause, the UN is central to this story, helping to create conditions under which decolonization and successive waves of democratization could take root, profoundly altering world politics.

While the economic record of the postwar years varies by country, many experienced significant economic growth and living standards rose rapidly across significant parts of the world. By the late 1980s a variety of East Asian countries were beginning to grow at an unprecedented speed, and by the late 1990s countries such as China, India and Brazil had gained significant economic momentum, a process that continues to this day. 

Meanwhile, the institutionalization of international cooperation proceeded at an equally impressive pace. In 1909, 37 intergovernmental organizations existed; in 2011, the number of institutions and their various off-shoots had grown to 7608 (Union of International Associations 2011). There was substantial growth in the number of international treaties in force, as well as the number of international regimes, formal and informal. At the same time, new kinds of institutional arrangements have emerged alongside formal intergovernmental bodies, including a variety of types of transnational governance arrangements such as networks of government officials, public-private partnerships, as well as exclusively private/corporate bodies.

Postwar institutions created the conditions under which a multitude of actors could benefit from forming multinational companies, investing abroad, developing global production chains, and engaging with a plethora of other social and economic processes associated with globalization. These conditions, combined with the expansionary logic of capitalism and basic technological innovation, changed the nature of the world economy, radically increasing dependence on people and countries from every corner of the world. This interdependence, in turn, created demand for further institutionalization, which states seeking the benefits of cooperation provided, beginning the cycle anew.

This is not to say that international institutions were the only cause of the dynamic form of globalization experienced over the last few decades. Changes in the nature of global capitalism, including breakthroughs in transportation and information technology, are obviously critical drivers of interdependence. However, all of these changes were allowed to thrive and develop because they took place in a relatively open, peaceful, liberal, institutionalized world order. By preventing World War Three and another Great Depression, the multilateral order arguably did just as much for interdependence as microprocessors or email (see Mueller 1990; O’Neal and Russett 1997).

Beyond the special privileges of the great powers

Self-reinforcing interdependence has now progressed to the point where it has altered our ability to engage in further global cooperation. That is, economic and political shifts in large part attributable to the successes of the post-war multilateral order are now amongst the factors grinding that system into gridlock. Because of the remarkable success of global cooperation in the postwar order, human interconnectedness weighs much more heavily on politics than it did in 1945. The need for international cooperation has never been higher. Yet the “supply” side of the equation, institutionalized multilateral cooperation, has stalled.  In areas such as nuclear proliferation, the explosion of small arms sales, terrorism, failed states, global economic imbalances, financial market instability, global poverty and inequality, biodiversity losses, water deficits and climate change, multilateral and transnational cooperation is now increasingly ineffective or threadbare.  Gridlock is not unique to one issue domain, but appears to be becoming a general feature of global governance: cooperation seems to be increasingly difficult and deficient at precisely the time when it is needed most.

It is possible to identify four reasons for this blockage, four pathways to gridlock: rising multipolarity, institutional inertia, harder problems, and institutional fragmentation. Each pathway can be thought of as a growing trend that embodies a specific mix of causal mechanisms. Each of these are explained briefly below.

Growing multipolarity. The absolute number of states has increased by 300 percent in the last 70 years, meaning that the most basic transaction costs of global governance have grown. More importantly, the number of states that “matter” on a given issue—that is, the states without whose cooperation a global problem cannot be adequately addressed—has expanded by similar proportions. At Bretton Woods in 1945, the rules of the world economy could essentially be written by the United States with some consultation with the UK and other European allies. In the aftermath of the 2008-2009 crisis, the G-20 has become the principal forum for global economic management, not because the established powers desired to be more inclusive, but because they could not solve the problem on their own. However, a consequence of this progress is now that many more countries, representing a diverse range of interests, must agree in order for global cooperation to occur.

Institutional inertia. The postwar order succeeded, in part, because it incentivized great power involvement in key institutions. From the UN Security Council, to the Bretton Woods institutions, to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, key pillars of the global order explicitly grant special privileges to the countries that were wealthy and powerful at the time of their creation. This hierarchy was necessary to secure the participation of the most important countries in global governance. Today, the gain from this trade-off has shrunk while the costs have grown. As power shifts from West to East, North to South, a broader range of participation is needed on nearly all global issues if they are to be dealt with effectively. At the same time, following decolonization, the end of the Cold War and economic development, the idea that some countries should hold more rights and privileges than others is increasingly (and rightly) regarded as morally bankrupt.  And yet, the architects of the postwar order did not, in most cases, design institutions that would organically adjust to fluctuations in national power. 

Harder problems. As independence has deepened, the types and scope of problems around which countries must cooperate has evolved. Problems are both now more extensive, implicating a broader range of countries and individuals within countries, and intensive, penetrating deep into the domestic policy space and daily life. Consider the example of trade. For much of the postwar era, trade negotiations focused on reducing tariff levels on manufactured products traded between industrialized countries. Now, however, negotiating a trade agreement requires also discussing a host of social, environmental, and cultural subjects - GMOs, intellectual property, health and environmental standards, biodiversity, labour standards—about which countries often disagree sharply.  In the area of environmental change a similar set of considerations applies. To clean up industrial smog or address ozone depletion required fairly discrete actions from a small number of top polluters.  By contrast, the threat of climate change and the efforts to mitigate it involve nearly all countries of the globe.  Yet, the divergence of voice and interest within both the developed and developing worlds, along with the sheer complexity of the incentives needed to achieve a low carbon economy, have made a global deal, thus far, impossible (Falkner et al. 2011; Victor 2011).

Fragmentation. The institution-builders of the 1940s began with, essentially, a blank slate. But efforts to cooperate internationally today occur in a dense institutional ecosystem shaped by path dependency. The exponential rise in both multilateral and transnational organizations has created a more complex multilevel and multi-actor system of global governance.  Within this dense web of institutions mandates can conflict, interventions are frequently uncoordinated, and all too typically scarce resources are subject to intense competition.  In this context, the proliferation of institutions tends to lead to dysfunctional fragmentation, reducing the ability of multilateral institutions to provide public goods. When funding and political will are scarce, countries need focal points to guide policy (Keohane and Martin 1995), which can help define the nature and form of cooperation. Yet, when international regimes overlap, these positive effects are weakened. Fragmented institutions, in turn, disaggregate resources and political will, while increasing transaction costs.

In stressing four pathways to gridlock we emphasize the manner in which contemporary global governance problems build up on each other, although different pathways can carry more significance in some domains than in others. The challenges now faced by the multilateral order are substantially different from those faced by the 1945 victors in the postwar settlement.  They are second-order cooperation problems arising from previous phases of success in global coordination.  Together, they now block and inhibit problem solving and reform at the global level. 

Climate change 

Gridlock exists across a range of different areas in global governance today, from security arrangements to trade and finance. This dynamic is, arguably, most evident in the realm of climate change. The diffusion of industrial production across the world—a process enabled by economic globalization—has created a situation in which the basic consumption of each individual directly affects the life chances of every other individual on the planet, as well as the life chances of future generations.

This is a powerful and entirely new form of global interdependence. Bluntly put, the future of our civilization depends on our ability to cooperate across borders. And yet, despite twenty years of multilateral negotiations under the UN, a global deal on climate change mitigation or adaptation remains elusive, with differences between developed countries, which have caused the problem, and developing countries, which will drive future emissions, forming the core barrier to progress. Unless we overcome gridlock in climate negotiations, as in other issue areas, we will be unable to continue to enjoy the peace and prosperity we have inherited from the postwar order.

There are, of course, several forces that might work against gridlock.  These include the potential of social movements to uproot existing political constraints, catalysed by IT innovation and the use of associated technology for coordination across borders; the capacity of existing institutions to adapt and accommodate factors such as emerging multipolarity (the shift from the G-5/7 to the G-20 is one example); and efforts at institutional reform which seek to alter the organizational structure of global governance (for example, proposals to reform the Security Council or to establish a financial transaction tax). 

Whether there is the political will or leadership to move beyond gridlock remains a pressing question.  Social movements find it difficult to convert protests into consolidated institutional change. At the same time, the political leadership of the great power blocs appears dogged by national concerns: Washington is sharply divided, Europe is preoccupied with the future of the Euro and China is absorbed by the challenge of sustaining economic growth as the prime vehicle of domestic legitimacy.  Against this background, the further deepening of gridlock and the continuing failure to address global collective action problems appears likely.

In the aftermath of the Second World War the institutional breakthroughs that occurred provided the momentum for decades of sustained economic growth and geopolitical stability sufficient for the transformation of the world economy, the shift from the Cold War to a multipolar order, and the rise of new communication and network societies. 

However, what worked then does not work as well now, as gridlock freezes problem solving capacity in global governance.  The search for a politics beyond gridlock, in theory and in practice, is a hugely significant task – nationally and globally – if global governance is to be once again both effective and fit for purpose.


This article summarizes some of the argument in a new book by the authors entitled, Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation is Failing When we Need it Most, Polity Press. It is published on May 28, 2013.

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