Come Together

Come Together

The world has been in a state of economic turmoil since 2008, and there’s a good chance that things will get worse. Germany’s economic slowdown is generating new doubt about Europe’s already troubled efforts to deal with its debt crisis. And if Europe’s crisis spirals, a devastating global downturn may follow.

The burgeoning emergency will have all sorts of political implications, but some of the most consequential may be for the architecture of global governance. Perhaps surprisingly, the global economic crisis has to this point strengthened key international institutions. The most obvious beneficiaries are the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European institutions, including the European Central Bank and the new European Financial Stability Facility.

The IMF received billions of dollars in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and now occupies a place in international deliberations that its leaders could only have dreamed of in 2006. Leading voices are arguing that IMF instruments could serve as a new global reserve currency. Meanwhile, Europe appears likely to grant some of its institutions more power over member states’ budgetary and fiscal policy. This week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel advocated "real economic government for the euro zone," with much more central control of member-state budgets.

It’s not intuitive that severe turbulence would empower rather than weaken international organizations. Crises have, in the past, shattered institutions. Most obviously, the Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II effectively put an end to the League of Nations. The consensus and goodwill that the league relied on dried up quickly in the face of international turmoil. Similarly, the nearly constant crises of the Cold War often neutered the United Nations and rendered other key institutions, including the International Court of Justice, mostly ineffective.

So why has the brutal economic crisis empowered rather than eviscerated instruments like the EU and the IMF? Part of the answer may be that leaders are casting about for solutions in all directions. They’re pulling every policy lever they have, including multilateral ones.

But it’s also possible that we have reached the point at which the world is more centripetal than centrifugal. The messy, halting, and fragmented project of global governance may have advanced far enough now that conflict, crisis, and the intense pressure of events lead not to the flying apart or hollowing out of existing institutions but to their consolidation. When crises hit, policymakers are pulled toward more international governance rather than less — sometimes in spite of themselves. The reality of interdependence may finally have insinuated itself into the instincts of policymakers.

This centripetal dynamic, it’s important to acknowledge, does not reflect particularly strong performances by existing institutions. As its own internal evaluation acknowledges, the IMF mostly failed to anticipate the 2008 financial crisis. Similarly, the European Union does not receive high marks for its actions during the ongoing debt crisis. European policymakers working through EU institutions have consistently opted for piecemeal solutions that delay — but never resolve — the underlying problem.

Multilateral instruments are getting more power and responsibility not necessarily because they’ve earned it, but because there seems to be no other option. Global institutionalization, at least in the economic realm, may now be a one-way ratchet: the only real options are keeping the status quo (which virtually everyone agrees is untenable) or ceding more power to the center.

In the security realm, the picture is more complicated. But here as well there’s strong evidence that the world is turning centripetal. When Britain, France, and the United States decided on action in Libya, they drew on almost every multilateral resource at hand, including the United Nations, NATO, the Arab League, and the International Criminal Court. For better or worse, the Security Council is a key forum for developing the international response to the Arab world’s turmoil. Encouraged by the G-8, the World Bank and the IMF offered to help solidify peaceful political transitions in Egypt and Tunisia.

It would be easy to dismiss today’s security multilateralism as the particular product of Europe’s consultative predilections and an Obama administration keen to distance itself from the George W. Bush administration’s unilateralism. But consider how the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq War — the most significant recent security shocks — affected the U.N. and NATO. The United States, of course, opted for a largely unilateral response in Afghanistan. It only sought the most minimal authorization from the Security Council for action in Afghanistan. In Iraq, of course, it ended up with no authorization at all. And as the Security Council clashed over that conflict, plenty of pundits and politicians argued that the Bush administration had dealt the organization a death blow.  

Far from it. The Security Council resumed its work and set about authorizing several major peacekeeping operations, including in Sudan, Ivory Coast, and Haiti. The last years of the Bush administration were some of the council’s busiest. In the end, an American administration deeply skeptical of "global governance" — a term John Bolton abhors — did very little to reduce the prominence of the organization. The U.N. is as active and central today as it was before the 9/11 attacks. Indeed,  it’s remarkable how little the Iraq experience, despite all the heated rhetoric, did to undermine the organization.

The case is even stronger that the 9/11 security shock pushed the NATO alliance toward greater reach and authority. Afghanistan has become NATO’s most ambitious undertaking ever, with dozens of alliance members participating. The operation has introduced all kinds of well-documented strains, but it has also forced the alliance to operate jointly in a combat environment. The experience has turned an alliance that had been focused on Europe and its environs into one that thinks globally.

But there are no guarantees. Institutional fragmentation could still happen; a reshaping or even dissolution of the eurozone — which would entail major consequences for the EU itself — remains possible. A fissure could emerge on the IMF’s executive board — perhaps over further European bailouts — that would paralyze the institution. Skeptics have been predicting the crack-up of NATO for years, and there are indeed sharp differences within the alliance. A future U.S.-China clash over the South China Sea might fracture any number of major international organizations. More broadly, the BRICS may still challenge the existing international architecture much more directly than they have to this point. There’s nothing inevitable about the advance of international institutions.

And make no mistake: A centripetal world is not necessarily a better or more harmonious one. But it’s one in which policymakers instinctively reach for solutions that involve and rely on international institutions. This is a victory for those who have long argued that institutionalized cooperation is the only path forward. But it’s also a daunting challenge. More reliance and authority for these institutions will mean much more public scrutiny. The days when international organizations could work quietly in the shadows are ending.