A More Collegial, but Constrained, Multilateral System

November 10, 2020

Most of us will not miss Trump’s bombast or disregard for convention and traditional allies. Trump, though, did not create the political climate at home or abroad on his own. He was a product of it, and added octane to it. As a losing candidate, he nonetheless garnered 48 percent of the popular vote. And though his administration will soon be history, the global environment and its underlying trends remain. Large swaths of people, particularly in the United States and Western Europe, see themselves as victims of today’s globalization and resent it. Authoritarian, populist governments that use this and other reasons to justify their xenophobia remain in power in many countries. Reshoring and decoupling, trends already in progress given the increased prevalence of machine learning and automation, are cemented by the COVID-19 pandemic and the contested ascendancy of China. 

Biden has espoused traditional, outward-oriented foreign policy positions. He will bring the United States back into the Paris Agreement. This commitment to sound environmental management, though, could also mean canceling approval for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would deliver more Canadian oil to U.S. markets. 

A Biden administration could bring the United States back into the Trans-Pacific Partnerships—now the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—but almost certainly on the condition that some clauses in the original agreement, which restricted small countries’ abilities to boost innovation, be brought back in force. U.S. interests, driven by big technology firms, are not likely to relent in driving home their advantage via bilateral and plurilateral trade agreements.

The United States will value alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and multilateral institutions such as the WTO more than it has done for the past four years. But given the current climate of indifference to internationalism in the United States and elsewhere, what this means beyond friendlier rhetoric is not clear. For a small, open economy such as Canada, it means weighing the gains from a more collegial, albeit constrained, multilateral system against losses on important bilateral issues. On balance, this is good because rules of the game and stability in bilateral relations and multilateral processes beat the alternatives.

This article originally appeared on Council on Foreign Relations.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

Rohinton P. Medhora is president of the Centre for International Governance Innovation.