Do international institutions make the world a safer place?


As the world finds itself in transition from a unipolar, US-dominated system to a multipolar structure with several poles, there is a widespread assumption that international organizations, or "global governance", is crucial for this transition and its aftermath to take place in a peaceful manner. Countless IR analysts therefore spend their days studying ways to make global governance more effective. Many proposals emerge every year to reform the UN Security Council, to expand NATO, and to "democratize" the World Bank and the IMF, always assuming that effective global governance will make the world more stable. The fact that two rising giants, China and India, are located in an area largely void of international institutions, creates even more urgency to strengthen global governance and somehow integrate them. Yet, is this assumption correct? While global governance institutions may intuitively seem like an agent for peace,  what is the logic behind it?

Realists and the fallacy of institutions

Realists, who think of the world as an anarchic place, do not necessarily dislike global governance. Yet, they regard its impact as limited, as international institutions are, according to them, a dependent reflection of the participating states' power and thus unable to alter a state's behavior. The independent variable that explains war and peace are not institutions, but balance of power. The most powerful states in a system create and shape international institutions, which are then primarily used to "act out" these power relationships. States may build alliances and decide to cooperate, but they will change their strategy when it seems convenient. Today's friend, after all, may be tomorrow's enemy. Finally, in a realist world, states are obsessed with relative-gains logic, and they only cooperate if they benefit more than the other side, which makes long-term cooperation difficult. Institutions, in short, do not make the world a more peaceful place.

Liberal institutionalists' beloved institutions

Liberal institutionalists, on the other hand, argue that institutions do in fact cause stability and peace among nations. While they agree that nations would cheat if they went unpunished, they stress that institutions create a powerful mechanism that convinces nations to opt for long-term cooperation rather than focusing on short-term gain and cheating the other. The effectiveness of an institution can thus be measured in its ability to coerce its members to cooperate and refrain from misbehaving. Contrary to what realists' believe, institutions thus become an independent factor that can impact state behavior, which is not just a mere reflection of their power. While the underlying assumption remains the same (states want to maximize power), the institutions (i.e. the rules that make up the institution) alter the way states aim at maximizing their power, because the cost of cheating becomes too high- in both the economic and the security realms.  The so-called "shadow of the future", "issue-linkage", effective monitoring thanks to technology and reduced transaction costs make cooperation an attractive option for most states. According to liberal institutionalists, relative-gains logic is not as important as realists claim. Also, institutions may successfully address issues of distributive justice.

Whether relative-gains considerations matter or not is a tricky question. They certainly exist, as human beings (and states) naturally compare themselves to others, but the real question is in how far it influences state behavior. Realists say it is very important, liberalists argue that it is secondary once the cheating problem is solved and institutions enjoy the states' trust.

Collective security theory uses a related approach, envisioning a world in which aggressors are confronted automatically by the international community. Modern-day Wilsonians, such as Kofi Annan argue that states must not consider their national interest narrowly, but equate it to the wider interest of the global community. The first Gulf War, or the Yugoslav War are examples for such behavior, but they were not the product of international institutions, and collective security remains a normative concept.

So do international institutions influence states' behavior? A peek into the real world shows that both realists and liberalists have a point. Some institutions, such as the UN Security Council, are an obvious reflection of power in the post-WWII era. And in 2003, the Council was not able to prevent the United States from invading Iraq. Other institutions, such as the European Union, strongly affect the behavior of even the most powerful European states, such as Germany. UN peacekeeping operations have arguably had some stabilizing effect, although its record is mixed, and it is wholly unsuitable for conflict between great powers.

Realists argue that what is really needed to show that liberal institutionalists  have a point are historical cases of cooperation between states that promoted stability and that would not have occurred without the existence of international institutions. Yet, institutions may prevent conflict from emerging in the first place, so it is hard to tell when exactly they have prevented stability. The European Union has brought its members much closer together over the past decades, and there is little doubt that it had a stabilizing force, although it is difficult to prove this empirically. However, the mere fact that the creation of the European Community (EC, later renamed EU) was followed by the most peaceful era in Europe's history is unlikely to be coincidental. The same is true for the UN Security Council. Since its creation, there has not been any direct large-scale armed conflict between its members. This, however, could also be explained by the arrival of the nuclear age, which made wars between big powers unlikely. Finally, there is a myriad of regulatory interconnections, which make up the less visible of global governance. They help faciliate communication and trade between states, and they certainly increase the barriers --both domestic and international-- to go to war.

International institutions are thus very likely to make war less likely.  While we cannot say for sure to what extent international institutions affect international relations, they are, by far, the most promising element in our efforts to promote peace and stability.

Read also:

Emerging Powers and the Responsibility to Protect

Book review: “Temptations of the West: How to be modern in India, Pakistan and beyond” by Pankaj Mishra

Why we are underestimating today’s global order