Daniel W. Drezner

I happen to have Mr. Ikenberry right here…..

I happen to have Mr. Ikenberry right here…..

David Brooks’ column today looks at the lessons that the swine flu outbreak have for the future of global governance: 

So how do we deal with [transnational problems]? Do we build centralized global institutions that are strong enough to respond to transnational threats? Or do we rely on diverse and decentralized communities and nation-states?

A couple of years ago, G. John Ikenberry of Princeton wrote a superb paper making the case for the centralized response. He argued that America should help build a series of multinational institutions to address global problems. The great powers should construct an “infrastructure of international cooperation … creating shared capacities to respond to a wide variety of contingencies.”

If you apply that logic to the swine flu, you could say that the world should beef up the World Health Organization to give it the power to analyze the spread of the disease, decide when and where quarantines are necessary and organize a single global response….

The response to swine flu suggests that a decentralized approach is best. This crisis is only days old, yet we’ve already seen a bottom-up, highly aggressive response….

If the response were coordinated by a global agency, those local officials would not be so empowered. Power would be wielded by officials from nations that are far away and emotionally aloof from ground zero. The institution would have to poll its members, negotiate internal differences and proceed, as all multinationals do, at the pace of the most recalcitrant stragglers.

Second, the decentralized approach is more credible. It is a fact of human nature that in times of crisis, people like to feel protected by one of their own. They will only trust people who share their historical experience, who understand their cultural assumptions about disease and the threat of outsiders and who have the legitimacy to make brutal choices. If some authority is going to restrict freedom, it should be somebody elected by the people, not a stranger.

Finally, the decentralized approach has coped reasonably well with uncertainty. It is clear from the response, so far, that there is an informal network of scientists who have met over the years and come to certain shared understandings about things like quarantining and rates of infection. It is also clear that there is a ton they don’t understand.

A single global response would produce a uniform approach. A decentralized response fosters experimentation.

Reading this, my first thought was, "wait a minute… Brooks’ characterization of Ikenberry’s poition ("Power would be wielded by officials from nations that are far away and emotionally aloof from ground zero.") doesn’t sound like Ikenberry’s stuff. 

If you look at the Ikenberry paper that Brooks cites, he proposes, "a strategy in which the United States leads the way in the creation and operation of a loose rule-based international order. The United States provides public goods and solves global collection action problems (emphasis added)."  That doesn’t sound terribly centralized to me.  Indeed, my hunch would be that Ikenberry would find centralized and decentralized responses to complement rather than substitute for each other. 

Don’t trust me on this, however.  I asked John Ikenberry this morning what he thought about Brooks’ argument.  Here’s his response in full: 

The problem with David’s analysis is that he thinks the two strategies – national and international – are alternatives. We need both. National governments need to strengthen their capacities to monitor and respond. International capacities – at least the sorts that I propose – are meant to reinforce and assist national governments. This international capacity is particularly important in cases where nations have weak capacities to respond on their own or where coordinated action is the only way to tackle the threat. When it comes to transnational threats like health pandemics everyone everywhere is vulnerable to the weakest link (i.e. weakest nation) in the system, and so no nation can be left behind.

This is not a new idea – it is the idea that underlay America’s strategy of order building after WWII. Jacob Viner, a leading international economist of that era, captured the logic in 1942 as it relates to global markets: "There is wide agreement today that major depressions, mass unemployment, are social evils, and that it is the obligation of governments. . . to prevent them." Moreover, he said, there is "wide agreement also that it is extraordinarily difficult, if not outright impossible, for any country to cope alone with the problems of cyclical booms and depressions. . . while there is good prospect that with international cooperation. . . the problem of the business cycle and of mass unemployment can be largely solved." What Viner says about economic cooperation in the 1940s is even more the case for the diffuse, shifting, and uncertain threats of our era. States need collective capacities to they can make good on their own national obligations to respond.

[You’ve been dreaming of this kind of Annie Hall/Marshall McLuhan moment for a while, haven’t you?–ed.  Yes.  Yes I have.]

UPDATE:  Anne Applebaum offers a more focused critique of the World Health Organization — and its critics — in her column today.