The Global Ideological Conflict and the Liberal Multilateral Institutions

To understand the potential changes in the preferences and working of the multilateral institutional system it is imperative to understand the domestic and international ideological changes
Representational Image
Representational Image


The hegemony of Western Liberal International Order, embedded in international competitive cooperation within the framework of global multilateral institutions, is in peril. After the demise of the USSR the states close to Russia were left with no option but to join the Western-led liberal multilateral institutions but the trend is now changing.

The global policy-making space of the USA, the architecture and mover of the current international liberal order has increasingly been shrunk down in the institutions like the IMF and WTO due to the ideological heterogeneity of the member states.

Moreover, China-led global initiatives like The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and China’s foreign policy proposition of non-interference in domestic politics are more appealing to the nations that feel intimidated due to the interference in their domestic politics and dictations by the Western-led Global Institutions.

Thus, the growing global ideological conflicts provide a useful context for the understanding of the working and future of global multilateral intuitions.

Erik Voeten in his book Ideology & International Institutions argues that the present international order is glued around the underlying hidden ideological agendas of the powerful western nations.

Consequently, the multilateral institutions are shaped around the domestic ideologies of the powerful western nations that amplify the pursuit of their more ideological goals and these institutions act as a bulwark against the ideological challenges to their liberal international order.

Thus, in order to understand the potential changes in the preferences and working of the multilateral institutional system it is imperative to understand the domestic and international ideological changes and conflicts that are currently taking place around the globe; however, the global ideological conflicts, though, stem from conflicting ideas but those ideas shall not been seen as detached from the particularistic interests of the nations.

The author has developed a spatial model framework grounded in a low-dimensional ideological space to understand the principled and particularistic interests of the states at the global multilateral institutions.  Under this framework, every nation begins negotiations with their ideal ideological position and they show reluctance to deviate from their ideal positions unless the settlement outweighs the ideological concessions.

But, at the same time, the relative weights of the powerful nations play a pivotal role in  the negotiating process and sometimes force the weak nations to accept the terms and conditions that are unfavorable and contrary to their ideological position.

Furthermore, the powerful western nations sometimes undermine the rules and regulations of the multilateral institutions, that reflect their own ideological underpinnings, if only it serve their particularistic interests and there is a lack of strategic constraints in place. 

For example, during the Trump administration, the USA did not usually pursue general principled interests but entered into bilateral agreements that best advanced their particularistic interests over principled notions. 

The author further argues that there are the distributional consequences of the global cooperation conditioned on the interdependency among nations, their ideal positions and relative power.

Through spatial framework the author illustrates how multilateral agreements work and in what situations nations are ready to provide political concessions on their ideal positions, when they are reluctant to do so and ready go alone; and, how the dependency of weaker nations on the powerful nations render the former’s approval to join these institutions superficially voluntary.

Moreover, given the relative power of the big nations how they use liberal institutions to amplify the isolation of “illiberal states” and then force them to submit before the ambit of the former’s ideological umbrella.  Thus, the power asymmetry leads weak nations to continue their allegiance towards these institutions despite adverse political concessions until some other powerful nation/s provide them new alternatives that are ideologically and politically less demanding.

The author also challenges the traditional rationalist justification for the member nations to delegate their authority to the multilateral institutions, international courts, and independent agencies. The traditional rationalist approach maintains that decision-making is a complex process and needs technical, scientific, and legal expertise that most nations lack.

However, the author has examined this assertion in the context of the distributive ideological conflict between the states and concludes that the demand and supply of expertise are rarely neutral amid global conflicts as these intuitions primarily advance a variant of the liberal worldview of their major sponsors.

Moreover, the transnational regulators, judges, arbitrators, and scientists constrain the supply of expertise, limit the competition, and thus exert influence over the outcomes. Matters that need not only diffusion of information but also interpretation give these institutions more power over states while finding a common interpretation that has distributional consequences; the leverage of transnational and international experts over government is thus derived less from the asymmetric access to the information than from their perceived impartiality and “fair interpretational capabilities.”

Similarly, the case of trade and finance is no different. The dominance of powerful nations at the originations like the WTO and IMF is already criticized by economists by calling them Club-like agreements that create special, privileged groups that undermine the aspirations of non-discriminatory global trade and finance. Thus, the motivation for creation of AIIB lie in part in China’s dissatisfaction with the liberal ideology championed by the World Bank. Moreover, the USA’s effort to demand adequate and prompt compensation in case of foreign investment appropriation does not go well with the Left-wing governments; they do not only justify investment appropriation but considered it desirable because of their ideological stand of nationalization of industries and collective means of production.

The book offers a framework that would help political and economic analysts think through familiar theoretical issues regarding international cooperation while highlighting the centrality of the distributive ideological conflict.

However, the author has not gone too far and has recognised that sometimes it is the particularistic interest of the states that undermines the ideological stand as many a times ideologically conflicting states forge unusual alliances and reveal the same voting pattern at the UN Security Council such as that of the USA and Saudi Arabia.

But, the author has left some vital questions unanswered like the U-turn of the Trump administration on various global issues, its withdrawal from many international agreements and China’s apparently passionate commitment towards those agreements despite having an ideologically divergent stand from those liberal multilateral institutions.

The low-dimensional ideological space provides an interesting framework to understand the various facets of the working of the global multilateral institutions but a multi-dimensional framework that can incorporate the various facets of international politics and economics would be a more pragmatic approach.

ISHFAQ AHMAD THAKU, Teaches at Department of Commerce, University of Kashmir

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