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Shaping the next multilateral order

An op-ed written by Christian Dussey and Peter Cunningham

The institutions which will shape the new international system will owe it to their people

Today, the multilateral system as we know it is under threat [1]. What is assured, though, is that to survive, multilateralism in the future will have to answer the aspirations of people and meet the needs of mankind as a whole. In fact, multilateralism itself is far from obsolete – but the institutions that serve it are old. 


In a recent article, international relations scholar G. John Ikenberry [2] depicts the evolution of the international project over the past seven decades. He interprets present times as a transition period to a new multilateral order. Yet, in current uncertain times it is not easy to predict which form it may take. Until now, multilateralism was seen as a “methodology or machinery for responding to the opportunities and dangers of modernity”. It has responded to traditional state power structures. From now on, the global system needs to evolve to be capable of better serving humanity. Global threats are taking almost an existential dimension: climate, security-related or socio-economic. These threats transcend the boundaries of traditional institutions. Geopolitical shifts and growing transnational networks of businesses, civil society and political alliances indicate that people aspire to a deep global reorganisation of powers, ideologies and human activity.   


So how can we transform our current institutions to strengthen our collective ability to respond to global threats, and foster a new form of multilateralism that keeps its promises? U. N. Secretary-general António Guterres’s vision to create a more agile, efficient and accountable organisation shows one of the ways ahead: an organisation that can engage with the ‘chess-board’ of traditional powers and institutions, and the web of interconnected threats and opportunities [3].


At the GCSP, we believe it is essential to adapt the existing systems in order to better respond to present and future challenges. We think that a shared understanding and common values – the ingredients that draw together networks – are at the core of agile institutions. For the past 30 years, we have helped transform individuals and organisations, equipping them with the mind-sets, skill-sets and tool-sets necessary for keeping the world safer.


The GCSP’s Geneva Leadership Alliance is a partnership with the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) dedicated to advancing the effectiveness of leadership in public, private, and civil society organisations to achieve collective outcomes. Through our work with several international organisations and governments over the past three years, we have observed that there continues to be a lack of strategic prioritisation and investment to develop and better prepare current and future leaders at all levels.


What do we mean by leadership capability? Let us share some examples of leadership challenges that we find are common across many of the organisations we engage with, and that we believe organisations are not preparing people well enough for:


  • Leading and influencing teams and organisations of very diverse people doing complex work are challenging and require specific mind-sets and skills.


  • The tendency to give priority to subject-matter expertise over leadership capability is often widespread. Many organisations are now recognising that this imbalance needs to be addressed, especially as their activity is getting more complex and funding sources become scarcer.


  • Interrupting ways of working that are ineffective, questioning them, exploring alternatives and adapting, is a complex endeavour.


  • There is an over focus on procedures and processes and often not enough clarity on ‘what’ the desired outcomes should be.


  • The desire and ability to view issues from perspectives outside of one’s own silo and develop new understandings of prevailing challenges is often lacking.


  • Judgement about when, what and how an organisation needs to adapt is hampered by the inability to read an often turbulent landscape and understand the wider eco-system an organisation is part of.


  • The fear of negatively impacting sources of funding and public perception leads to leadership decisions based on ‘protection & preservation’ rather than on ‘foresight and adaptation’.


Effective and efficient multi-layered organisations require individuals who can anticipate, adapt and be resilient. These individuals need critical thinking, imaginative and innovative problem-solving skills and attitudes. They represent the fundamental component of the “machinery” of the international system. Ultimately, institutions in a position to contribute to shaping the new international system will need to create spaces and opportunities for their people to thrive, to work well in high-performing diverse teams, to engage across institutional and cultural boundaries and build trust with wider constituents. 


There is a huge potential to harness the collective intelligence of ‘the machinery’: indeed the people are the engine of the machine.  However, they need to be able to adapt while also maintaining systems and structures – and at times, redesign these structures. If multilateral organisations are to survive, they will owe it to their people.


Ambassador Christian Dussey, GCSP Director

Peter Cunningham, Co-Director GCSP’s Geneva Leadership Alliance


[1] Outgoing President of the United Nations General Assembly Miroslav Lajčák 

[2] G. John Ikenberry; The end of liberal international order?, International Affairs, Volume 94, Issue 1, 1 January 2018, Pages 7–23

[3] Anne-Marie Slaughter : the Chessboard and the Web, Yale University Press, 2017