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Do stronger international institutions necessarily mean a weaker United States?

Question submitted by Aisling L, January 6, 2014

Answered by: Stewart M. Patrick, Senior Fellow and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program

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International institutions provide a platform for promoting, formalizing, and enforcing rules, norms, and regimes that regulate state behavior. As a leader in many of these fora, the United States is well positioned to promote its national interests through multilateral partnerships. Multilateral consensus is uniquely capable of legitimizing U.S. action and spreading burdens of leadership.

For example, the United Nations Security Council has played an important role in establishing sanctions on the Iranian nuclear program and harmonizing international policy on terrorist financing. Likewise, multilateral economic institutions—from the Group of Twenty to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization—advance important U.S. goals like fostering international financial stability, promoting global development, and resolving commercial disputes.

A similar logic applies to regional organizations such as the African Union, European Union, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and Organization of American States. In many cases, these regimes' strategic interests are aligned with the United States—whether in improving counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel or checking China's exaggerated claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea. Furthermore, if regional bodies strengthen to the point where they can act—either independently or with modest U.S. assistance—to prevent and respond to conflicts within their regions, the United States will be spared from burdensome new commitments in a time when its resources are already under significant stress.

International institutions need not dilute U.S. power. In fact, if used strategically, they could prove essential in the effort to protect and amplify it in a dramatically changing world.