from The Internationalist, International Institutions and Global Governance Program and Council of Councils

International Cooperation: Still Alive and Kicking

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with the leaders of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) countries in Beijing, China, on November 10, 2014.

June 25, 2015

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with the leaders of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) countries in Beijing, China, on November 10, 2014.
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

The following is a guest post by Naomi Egelresearch associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program.

Earlier this month, the International Institutions and Global Governance program cohosted the Princeton Workshop on Global Governance, which brought together scholars and practitioners to assess geopolitics and global cooperation. The main takeaway: international cooperation may be messy and it may be taking new forms, but it’s not going anywhere.

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At first glance, global cooperation seems pretty dismal, as traditional international institutions, from the UN Security Council to the World Trade Organization (WTO), often remain gridlocked. The easy gains from international cooperation have mostly been realized, and many of today’s most pressing challenges—from combating climate change to protecting civilians in conflict zones—require difficult tradeoffs with little certainty of success. Combine this predicament with today’s geopolitical threats, including Russian aggression in Ukraine, the so-called Islamic State’s sweep through the Levant, and an increasingly ambitious China, and one might conclude that geopolitics has replaced global cooperation.

In fact, international cooperation is still chugging along—it just looks dramatically different than before. Although traditional intergovernmental institutions are stagnant, the cooperation landscape is increasingly crowded with ad-hoc and voluntary initiatives, many involving partnerships among states, the private sector, and civil society. Examples range from the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations to the International Partnership for Disarmament Verification. Cooperation between foreign ministries may be sluggish, but cooperation among technical agencies, from food safety regulators to mayors, is increasing. Even in climate change—often considered an area where international cooperation has failed miserably—carbon trading schemes between substate actors (like California and Quebec) and industry self-regulation have reduced some emissions.

Although such flexible partnerships have enabled the United States and others to circumvent stalled traditional international fora, these coalitions of the willing and capable leave out much of the world: the G20, for example, is often accused of making rules not only for its members, but for the other 173 UN member states. Most importantly, it is unclear whether most of these new arrangements will actually deliver results. There may be some cases where halting cooperation through traditional venues can better address the roots of a problem in a sustainable manner than quick, informal action. For example, the Millennium Development Goals—developed under the auspices of the United Nations and which thereby involve all UN member states—have led to great strides in improving livelihoods around the world.

Thus, as it vigorously pursues new forms of cooperation to overcome institutional blockages, the United States must carefully consider the tradeoffs associated with these initiatives. In addition to assessing the effectiveness of alternative arrangements, the United States must weigh the short-term consequences of inaction (through stalled venues) against long-term consequences of potentially undermining widely agreed norms (by discarding traditional venues). The trick, for the United States and its partners, is to find the right balance between different forms of cooperation.

Still, geopolitical challenges do not spell the end of international cooperation. Even during the Cold War, cooperation and institution-building continued, both within and between blocs. Today, China is more an aspirational than an actual global power. Though China and other rising powers may test the rules of traditional institutions and seek to build competitors (the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank being perhaps the most notable example), they have yet to provide a viable alternative to the post-World War II world order. In addition, many of their complaints about the ineffectiveness of international institutions are legitimate and may spur the United States and its partners to improve existing bodies. Moreover, China is heavily invested in the existing world order and increasingly seeks a greater role in existing institutions, from UN peacekeeping to the World Health Organization (WHO). In part, competition between the United States and China manifests itself as a competition for control of global cooperation. Russia, meanwhile, is a far cry from the Cold War Soviet Union. It is struggling for regional, rather than global influence. Though Moscow may block a more vigorous Security Council response in Syria, cooperation continues with (and sometimes without) Russia in multiple other areas, from terrorism to public health.

More on:

International Organizations

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Global Governance

United States

For its part, the United States, despite its frequently voiced support for a liberal world order, has been uneven in its support of formal international organizations, often bypassing them in favor of more flexible workarounds. Examples include the stand-alone Proliferation Security Initiative and preferential trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Particularly in challenges that require an urgent, targeted response, the United States (as well as other countries) has often found that ad-hoc coalitions of the willing and capable have been more effective than large deliberative bodies—an idea reinforced by the WHO’s failure in the face of the Ebola crisis. What is not yet clear is whether this institutional experimentation will predominantly strengthen or undermine the foundations of international order over the long term.

In sum, if we look only at traditional international institutions, global governance seems pitiful, particularly when faced with today’s geopolitical challenges. Yet this misses most of the action. Geopolitics will always be a global challenge and can make international cooperation, particularly in the security realm, difficult. But understanding international cooperation only through a lens of great power competition overlooks how both nonstate actors (such as civil society and private businesses) and substate actors (such as cities and provinces) are opening new doors for possible forms of global governance. Cooperation continues to thrive—just with less fanfare.

View the rapporteur report for more information on the workshop discussion.

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