Can the Liberal Order be Sustained? Nations, Network Effects, and the Erosion of Global Institutions

A growing retreat from multilateralism is threatening to upend the institutions that underpin the liberal international order. This article applies network theory to this crisis in global governance, arguing that policymakers can strengthen these institutions by leveraging network effect pressures. Network effects arise when networks of actors—say language speakers or users of a social media platform—interact and the value one user derives from the network increases as other users join the network (e.g., the more people who speak your language, the more useful it is because there are more people with whom you can communicate). Crucially, network effect pressures produce what is called ‘lock-in’—a situation in which actors are unable to exit the network without incurring high costs and as a result become locked into the network. For example, because of their powerful network effect pressures, users of Facebook and the English language cannot easily exit these networks.

International organizations such as the UN, the WTO, the IMF, etc., are networks of sovereign states that likewise produce network effect pressures. As such, intensifying their network effect pressure can lock countries more firmly into these institutions. To that end, this article proposes a suite of strategies policymakers may use to manipulate the network effect pressures generated by international organizations to strengthen these institutions and the multilateral treaties that establish them—an approach the article calls treaty hacking. The article offers a toolkit from which policymakers can draw to bolster the liberal order in the face of growing global instability and change.