Editorial:Rethinking International Institutions
By Pascal Lamy,-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.
Overcoming twenty-first-century challenges will require a comprehensive review and
renewal of international institutions. In its report Now for the Long Term, the
Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations – a group of experienced leaders and
scholars (including us) convened to help formulate responses to global challenges –
proposes mechanisms for undertaking this process.
For example, embedding sunset clauses in the governance structures of publicly
funded international institutions would ensure regular reviews of organizational
performance and purpose. Institutions that have fulfilled their mandate or proved
unable to respond effectively to changing demands should be shuttered, and their
resources redirected to more productive endeavors.
In order to escape that fate, existing institutions must adapt to shifting global
power dynamics. This means increasing representation not only for the major emerging
economies, such as China, India, and Brazil, but also for countries like Nigeria and
Indonesia, which together are home to more than 400 million people.
International affairs and international organizations largely operate under
mid-twentieth-century arrangements, which has two serious shortcomings. First,
countries with a diminishing stake retain disproportionate power. Second, global
decision-making now involves four times as many countries as it did in the immediate
post-war era, not to mention a plethora of non-governmental organizations and
civil-society groups, making for a messy – and often unproductive – process.
With the world’s problems becoming increasingly complex and interconnected, global
decision-making processes must be as streamlined and efficient as possible. When
numerous committees meet in parallel, the countries with the largest teams of
experts dominate proceedings, effectively locking most countries out of key
decisions and impeding meaningful dialogue.
In order to increase the productivity of global negotiations, the Oxford Martin
Commission recommends creating coalitions of motivated countries, together with
other actors, such as cities and businesses. As outcomes improve, international
bodies’ legitimacy would be strengthened, which over time would enhance countries’
willingness to delegate powers to them.
Moreover, the commission proposes creating voluntary platforms to facilitate the
creation of global treaties in vital areas. For example, a taxation and regulatory
exchange would help countries to tackle tax avoidance and harmonize corporate
taxation, while promoting information sharing and cooperation. Likewise, a
cyber-security data-sharing platform could prove vital to understanding, preventing,
and responding to cyber attacks.
As governments learn to collaborate with one another and with other actors, such as
businesses and civil-society groups, faith in the power of international cooperation
would be restored. In such an environment, breaking the gridlock on urgent global
issues would be far easier than it has become in the current atmosphere of
disillusionment and mistrust.
The simple fact is that with interconnectedness comes interdependence. In order to
protect the global commons, world leaders must pursue shared solutions as
inclusively and efficiently as possible – a process that can be accomplished only
through international institutions. Failure to do so would threaten the tremendous
progress that globalization has facilitated in recent decades.
The necessary changes will not happen overnight. But if governments, businesses, and
civil society work together, they are feasible – promising a more sustainable,
inclusive, and prosperous future for all.
Pascal Lamy, former Director General of the World Trade Organization, is Chair
of the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations. Ian Goldin is Director
of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford and Vice-Chair of the
Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations.