The current multilateral trade negotiations under the auspices of the World Trade Organization (WTO) are approaching the moment of truth. The major gridlock among key players, such as Japan, the United States, the European Union and Brazil seems, however, difficult to be unlocked at the series of ministerial meetings in Geneva this week — a widely perceived real deadline for a political breakthrough. This multilateral stalemate is not a new phenomenon. No international institution today is immune from criticism of its inability to make prompt decisions.

Along with ever growing cutting-edge international competition, a great degree of transparency brought about by an information revolution that enables people to know what their competitors are doing elsewhere spurs a country on to be a winner by advancing its interests in a way that reflects its distinct culture. The structure of the game is no longer as simple as “the developed nations vs. the Group of 77.” One hundred and fifty WTO members assert themselves individually and collectively by forming different groupings, wherever they find common interests.

Furthermore, the present-day world is characterized by enormous diversity and complexity. Issues are so closely intertwined that no single policy goal can be achieved without being influenced — in many cases adversely — by other policies, and no single policy can be implemented without influencing — also often adversely — other policy goals. To protect and promote their own interests, experts have established cross-border networks with like-minded people — multinational enterprises, scholars, nongovernmental organizations, and the like.

Trade experts in the WTO advocate “mainstreaming trade” in their national policies, whereas development experts in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development insist on “mainstreaming development.” If you visit an environment agency of any country, you will certainly hear them talk about “mainstreaming environment.”

How could we mainstream everything? No single person or unit is nearly as much in control as it would like to be by comprehending all the complexities so that it can provide holistic solutions that promise maximum benefit to all.

The idea of the world government has faded away even from the minds of the most optimistic utopians. The new international governance system requires horizontal, not hierarchical, systems of interactions among autonomous networks. In this “flat world,” it is the “enlightened individuals” who play a key role in finding solutions through these interactions.

The problem, however, is that we are still in a transitional phase from an old international governance system to a new one. Individuals do not know what “enlightened self-interest” is all about. People are still skeptical about the workability of this “new” system as there is no assurance that correct and responsible decisions will always be made through interactions without center of gravity.

The success of liberal economic internationalism, backed by economic and technological globalization, has outpaced the evolution of the minds and cultures of humans who invented the concept. In this context, we need to think whether the sovereign state is apt to today’s world in transition.

The sovereign states were quick to establish their own international networks, such as the United Nations or the WTO, but their decisions are closely scrutinized by their people represented by the lawmakers’ branch of the member states. Parliamentarians are, by definition, driven by national interests, that are not necessarily compatible with international interests. Clashes between the emerging modern horizontal networks and existing old vertical silos still arise, delaying all decisions.

At the WTO negotiation table, I often hear my counterparts claim they cannot accept specific proposals — however reasonable and internationally desirable they may sound — because they cannot sell them to their “constituencies.” This accelerates the temptation to strike bilateral trade deals, a danger that undermines the credibility of multilateral system, with the the developing world paying the price.

There is no magic wand to fill the gap overnight. Ordinary citizens will continue to have to rely on the sovereign states for their security (both physical and social), whereas they increasingly look to cross-border networks for their economic and environmental interests. The introduction of a majority voting system in the international bodies would not be a solution, as it is a concept within the old paradigm.

The best solution would be to let the government representatives of major powers, such as the U.S., Japan and Europe assume dual responsibilities — one to represent national interests and another to serve as constructive architects of a new international order with, of course, the help of heads of international institutions as catalysts.

It is “enlightened national interests” to which negotiators are encouraged to adhere to save multilateralism and to bridge old and new paradigms, thereby contributing to the transition — however long it might take — to a new international order. After all, liberal economic internationalism is based on deep trust in the good will and capabilities of free individuals.

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