Gridlock: From Self-reinforcing Interdependence to Second-order Cooperation Problems

Growing interdependence requires greater global cooperation, but across a range of issues multilateral policy making seems to have stalled. We argue that this growing gap between the need for global governance and the ability of intergovernmental institutions to provide it must be understood as a general and conjunctural state of the multilateral order, which we term gridlock. The causes of gridlock are diverse – rising multipolarity, institutional inertia, harder problems, increased complexity – but can be found across a range of global issue areas. Importantly, these drivers are, in part, products of previous, successful cooperation over the postwar period, and can therefore be understood as ‘second-order’ cooperation problems. We argue that a process of self-reinforcing interdependence has altered the nature of global politics over the past decades, and has therefore in part undermined the ability of multilateral institutions to sustain the very interdependence they have helped to create. This article lays out this argument with regard to three core areas of world politics: security, trade and finance.

Gridlock is a general condition of the multilateral system (not specific to a single issue area) and stems from structural trends in global politics like rising multipolarity, deepening interdependence and postwar international cooperation. One-off policy changes are therefore unlikely to solve the problem. Instead, long-term strategies are needed to make global governance fit for purpose.
To the extent that gridlock persists, policy makers will need to develop alternatives to formal multilateral institutions, even if these will often be second best. International organizations that bring together small groups of like-minded countries, regional associations, transgovernmental networks and private institutions will play a growing role in global politics.
Gridlock in global governance will decrease the ability of states to coordinate internationally, even as interdependence grows. The resulting ‘governance gap’ will make it difficult for policy makers to create and implement successful policies for the growing swathe of issues characterized by interdependence