Sunday, November 23, 2014

What International Community?

NEW YORK – Whenever something bad happens – Iran moving closer to acquiring nuclear weapons, North Korea firing another missile, civilian deaths reaching another grim milestone in Syria’s civil war, satellites revealing an alarming rate of polar-ice melt – some official or observer will call upon the international community to act. There is only one problem: there is no “international community.”

Part of the reason stems from the absence of any mechanism for “the world” to come together. The United Nations General Assembly comes closest, but little can be expected from an organization that equates the United States or China with, say, Fiji or Guinea-Bissau.

To be fair, those who founded the UN after World War II created the Security Council as the venue in which major powers would meet to determine the world’s fate. But even that has not worked out as planned, partly because the world of 2013 bears little resemblance to that of 1945. How else could one explain that Britain and France, but not Germany, Japan, or India, are permanent, veto-wielding members?

Alas, there is no agreement on how to update the Security Council. Efforts like the G-20 are welcome, but they lack authority and capacity, in addition to suffering from excessive size. The result is “multilateralism’s dilemma”:  the inclusion of more actors increases an organization’s legitimacy at the expense of its utility.

No amount of UN reform could make things fundamentally different. Today’s major powers do not agree on the rules that ought to govern the world, much less on the penalties for breaking them. Even where there is accord in principle, there is little agreement in practice. The result is a world that is messier and more dangerous than it should be.

Consider climate change. Burning fossil fuels is having a measurable impact on the earth’s temperature. But reducing carbon emissions has proved impossible, because such a commitment could constrain GDP growth (anathema to developed countries mired in economic malaise) and impede access to energy and electricity for billions of people in developing countries, which is unacceptable to China and India.

Stopping the spread of nuclear weapons would seem a more promising issue for global collaboration. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) limits the right to possess nuclear weapons to the Security Council’s five permanent members, and then only temporarily.

But agreement is thinner than it appears. The NPT allows countries the right to develop nuclear energy for purposes such as electricity generation, a loophole that allows governments to build most of what is necessary to produce the fuel for a nuclear weapon.

The inspection regime created in 1957 under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is a gentlemen’s agreement; inspectors can inspect only those facilities that are made known to them by the government in question. Governments (such as Iran’s) can and do carry out illegal nuclear activities in secret sites that international inspectors either do not know about or cannot enter. At least as important, there is no agreement on what to do when a country violates the NPT, as Iran and North Korea (which withdrew from the treaty in 2003) have done.

More international cooperation exists in the economic realm. There has been real progress toward reducing tariff barriers; the World Trade Organization has also established a dispute-resolution mechanism for its 159 members. But progress on expanding free trade at the global level has stalled, as many countries disagree on the treatment of agricultural goods, the elimination of subsidies, and trade in services.

Meanwhile, cooperation in the realm of cyberspace is just getting started – with difficulty. The US is most concerned about cyber security and the protection of intellectual property and infrastructure. Authoritarian governments are more concerned about information security – the ability to control what is available on the Internet in order to maintain political and social stability. There is no agreement on what, if anything, constitutes an appropriate target for espionage. The prevalence of non-state actors is further complicating efforts.

Another area where there is less international community than meets the eye is human suffering. Governments that attack their own people on a large scale, or allow such attacks to be carried out, expose themselves to the threat of outside intervention. This “Responsibility to Protect,” or R2P, was enshrined by the UN in 2005.

But many governments are concerned that R2P raises expectations that they will act, which could prove costly in terms of lives, military expenditure, and commercial priorities. Some governments are also worried that R2P could be turned on them. Russian and Chinese reticence about pressuring governments that deserve censure and sanction stems partly from such concerns; the absence of consensus on Syria is just one result.

In short, those looking to the international community to deal with the world’s problems will be disappointed. This is not reason for despair or grounds for acting unilaterally. But so long as “international community” is more hope than reality, multilateralism will have to become more varied.

In the trade area, this implies regional and bilateral accords. On climate change, it makes sense to seek “mini-agreements” that set minimum common standards for fuel efficiency, slow deforestation, or limit the largest economies’ carbon output.

In these and other areas, governments will need to rally around regional undertakings, form coalitions of the relevant or willing, or simply seek understandings among countries to do their best to adopt common policies. Such approaches may lack the reach and legitimacy of formal global undertakings, but they do have the advantage of getting something done.

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    1. CommentedParrain Boursorama

      It is instructive that Professor Rogoff cites Harmston. The value of gold is more discussed than the value of bread but there is no doubt which one is the more important and it is not the value of the mineral. Malthusian limits will devalue gold in the long run.

    2. CommentedStephen Mack

      Should any reader of Mr. Haass' essay be at all surprised that he couches his argument in the notion of a failed 'International Community', posed as a question? Or that the answer to the current conundrum of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, by the current monster Assad, demands swift action by American Power?
      Mr. Haass has impeccable credentials as both architect and apologist for American 'Middle East Policy'. The ad hoc post WWII policy in the region is crumbling, which precipitated this self-serving meditation on failure, in service to the Hegemon. This leads him into the rhetorical cul-de-sac of the use of American power, of course, covered by the fig leaf of Western Humanitarian Intervention with our European client states acting as virtuous fellow political actors.
      The singularity of American power, the corrupt notion and practice of our Exceptionalism, on the world stage, fairly jumps off the page, so badly disguised as a meditation on the failed 'International Community'.

    3. CommentedEdward Ponderer

      This is really the issue that destroyed the League of Nations, and in regard to nuclear proliferation in particular, had given Albert Einstein grave doubts about the usefulness of the then new United Nations -- now aged, but unfortunately not like a fine wine.

      Einstein's point was that to be worthwhile, a world government -- and it had to be a world government -- had to have greater authority and military strength than any individual government, or cartel of governments (be it the defunct Warsaw Pact, NATO, or in terms of economic clout, OPEC).

      However, Einstein's ideal required a realization that he foresaw from the standpoint of nuclear proliferation and potential brinkmanship. This, as well as seeing to an extent the importance of a world organization in maintaining the international economy (though trying to work within the practical ideological impasse at the time between the Free Enterprise and Communist systems of the period). -- This realization is the inevitability of today's globalization.

      Really this is now on all fronts -- the larger ones noted by Mr. Haass as well as many smaller ones that are growing in importance (unfortunately along the lines of Murphy's Law). Interdependence of parts should naturally lead to a type of altruism between them and natural supremacy of all towards the interests of the corporate whole (the attitude, so-to-speak, that we hope that our liver, kidney, and heart hold). But that big human brain of ours carries with it a big ego -- and multiplied into national entities, it has proven and continues to prove an unnatural horror. We do the unthinkably stupid for the sake of "national honor," puffed-up "standard of living," and just plain prejudice. And now, in an entangles complex of ever-growing strangling vines, we are heading into a chaotic nightmare to outdo any of history. But it doesn't have to be that way!

      Recognizing that the real enemy of Humanity is not this particular movement, or that particular pariah state, or such-and-such disdained ideology, but rather "the Devil himself"--Ego, we can finally work to turn the matter around. We can work the right integral education route through Unesco, and institute--by will of both the Security Council and the General Assembly--a war on Ego through the international media. Let us be sold on the intrinsic value of mutual responsibility rather than selling us cars, cosmetics, and the "next newest thing" ditto mark of a cell phone model.

      Globalization by its countless countless nonlinear inter-scale couplings, must inevitably lead to chaos. But that chaos need not be destructive, but rather grasped as the great new internal communication network of Humanity providing exactly the means necessary to provide its homeostasis with itself and the planet. Heaven help an individual if his or her heart changes its beat pattern from its chaotic complexity to a simple sine wave -- for the next step is the flat EKG of cardiac arrest.

      May the day soon come when the representatives at the UN and the billions that they represent, drink a toast to a new Humanity that may never need to see the inside of an emergency room again!

    4. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      This is a very important article pulling the very thin remaining veil off any notion or idea that an "international community", "international governing body" exists.
      On the other hand it is clear such an organization is and absolute necessity, and the article brings into focus quite a few reasons for this necessity.
      What everybody agrees on today is that we live in a global, interconnected world.
      Most people also agree that each individual and nation has become dependent on everybody else.
      And although the article has a side comment on the US, China compared to Fiji and Guinea-Bissau, we have seen in recent years how small, seemingly unimportant countries, markets can cause world-wide havoc, crisis.
      There is still a great abyss in between our recognition that we live in an integral system, and how we still try to connect, basically still using the existing interconnections for self benefit, to exploit every possibility for our own sake, building, progressing at the expense of others.
      Politics, economics, finances still remain polarized, we still think there are "more important" and "less important" nations, regions or people, still profits, resources are accumulated very unequally, agreements are very much weighted towards the "elite" nations, and so on.
      This kind of attitude, thinking is totally opposite to the general balance and homeostasis that is the necessary foundation of the survival of any integral system.
      For this reason it is critically important that humanity builds a completely new, global governing body, consisting of people who are capable of seeing the system as a single, integral network, capable of advising more local governing bodies on issues that have global implications, leaving only the truly local decisions to local authorities.
      This is a natural necessity, simply adapting to the system we exist in.
      It would not be some kind of a new "ism", or trying to build a more "ethical", "equal" human society for the sake of some political or philosophical ideology.
      We simply have to recognize the system we evolved into and adapt to it as any other species that wants to survive.
      Beyond survival the advantages, positive implications are immeasurable: a harmonious, peaceful human society that instead of destructive, wasteful competition mutually complements each other increasing efficacy and productivity to unprecedented levels, freeing up vast material and human resources for peaceful applications, for construction instead of destruction, and so on.
      A truly integral human society with a wise systemic global leadership would be in a win-win situation with sustainable, predictable future instead of today's unpredictable, highly volatile one, and a quality of life that is unprecedented.

    5. CommentedPaul A. Myers

      Climate change would best be addressed by a carbon tax. Possibly there could be broad international agreement on a very small initial tax with an established timetable to increase the tax to provide some predictability. Possibly the benefits of future trade agreements could be limited to those countries that buy into the international carbon tax regime.

      The need for a carbon tax will probably become clearer year-by-year.

    6. CommentedThomas Hale

      Couldn't agree more. Our new book GRIDLOCK outlines the common trends that block agreement across many of these issue areas: increasing multipolarity, institutional inertia, harder problems, and fragmentation.

    7. CommentedPatrick Lietz

      The international community is just a euphemism for an alliance led by the US. The size of this community is waning commensurately with the decline of US might. It should also be noted that the global growth pie is shrinking dramatically and that there is now less space for achieving win-wins during international negotiations.

      In fact, many indicators point to a global zero sum game, thus reducing most nations' willingness to cooperate. We are, in my opinion, slipping down that slippery slope towards protectionism and increased hostility between nation states, each fighting to preserve their own wealth and capabilities at the expense of others.

      Unfortunately, that situation will not change until the global growth motor is starting up again to lift everybody's boat. Most will probably agree with me that the resumption of sustained growth is unlikely to return within the next decade.