As the range of actors, issues and levels of negotiation at the COP26 meeting in Glasgow demonstrates, the defining feature of global governance today is pluralism. Geopolitics, including swings in US global leadership and surging US–China competition, are part of the picture, but do not adequately explain the complexity of contemporary multilateralism. Deeper, systemic forces are at work – the birth pains of a more plural global system. This article identifies and examines four dimensions of pluralism: multipolarity, multiple issues, multi-level governance, and multiple stakeholders. The effect is that all states – including middle and small states – must be more active, more agile, more self-reliant, more willing to lead, and more oriented towards issues than ideology. The article illustrates the four dimensions through reviews of multilateral responses to COVID-19, cyber attacks, and mass migration, before asking how states and non-state actors can effectively manage a more plural system of governance. Three capacities for success are discussed: to act early and decisively by finding partners and fora for success; to embrace adhocracy internally and externally; and to rebalance effectiveness and trust through greater technocratic expertise, transboundary scientific cooperation, and a more inclusive diplomacy.
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