Rethinking International Institutions

OXFORD – When the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions were established nearly seven decades ago in the aftermath of World War II, economic and political power was concentrated in the hands of a few “victor” countries, making it relatively easy to reach consensus on how to restore international order. But, since then, global governance has become increasingly muddled, impeding progress in areas of worldwide concern.

Not only do more than 190 countries now belong to the UN; publicly funded international institutions have proliferated, with not one multilateral institution having been shuttered since WWII. The result is an inefficient and confusing amalgam of overlapping mandates.

Meanwhile, significant portions of the international system lack sufficient funding to deliver meaningful progress in critical areas – a problem that will only worsen as the needs and expectations of an ever-expanding global population grow. In this context, progress on global issues like climate change, cybercrime, income inequality, and the chronic burden of disease are proving elusive.

To be sure, the efforts of many publicly funded bodies have a real and lasting positive impact on the world. Indeed, international institutions have spearheaded breakthroughs in a wide range of areas, including health, finance, economics, human rights, and peacekeeping. But such institutions are largely perceived as inaccessible, inefficient, and opaque, leading national governments to neglect them. As their legitimacy and funding diminish, so does their effectiveness.