What is the Future of Global Institutions and International Law?

by Walter Russel Mead

This is the question Peter Spiro poses in his response to God and Gold. While noting that I call for an ‘organic, Burkean evolution’, he wonders whether I’ve given full weight to the role these institutions need to play, not as utopian solvers of humanity’s many problems, but as ‘the arena for addressing the problems of global society.’

It’s a probing point and a thoughtful question. It would be even more probing and thoughtful if he asked me what I thought about global institutions as an institution rather than as the institution for addressing the problems of global society. That is, I think global institutions and international law will continue to develop as international society becomes more complex and the affairs of nations and peoples become more entangled – but I will be very surprised if this development becomes the predominant force in international life.

A tendency in world politics that I think the US media sometimes misses is the resistance to global institutions – not by the US, but by countries and cultures who feel that global institutions do not fully reflect their values and priorities. Thus East Asian countries since the currency crises of 1997 have been working to marginalize the World Bank and the IMF in favor of home grown organizations and networks. ASEAN, in southeast Asia, has increasingly displaced global institutions in the region. The African Union, with all its shortcomings, is where many Africans prefer to see African issues addressed; with the former colonial powers of France and Britain holding permanent seats on the Security Council, many Africans see the power of global institutions like the UN and the IMF as relics of the colonial era. Many Islamic countries are also looking for a growing role for regional groups (like the Gulf Cooperation Council of Arab countries on the Gulf) or groups like the Organization of Islamic Countries. The European Union has largely marginalized global institutions when it comes to issues affecting relations among its members; EU members in disputes with each other go to Brussels rather than to New York to seek solutions.

There’s another problem. Global institutions are and are likely to remain very inefficient and hard to reform. The veto system in the Security Council, the utter fecklessness of the General Assembly, the poor management of much of the UN bureaucracy, the demonstrated inability of global institutions so far to come to terms with problems ranging from Darfur to climate change: all this will reduce their influence into the future. I am not happy about this, and I fear that this means that many serious problems will not be addressed, but I think the most likely future is one in which global institutions continue to play a limited, frustrating and partial role.

Peter’s question about global institutions is part of a broader concern. He worries that I could be too state-centric both with respect to supra-national organizations like global institutions and sub-national or trans-national organizations based on tribal, religious or other cultural or issue-oriented groups found within the boundaries of a particular state or scattered across many states.

I guess I’d say in response that God and Gold isn’t as state-centric as Peter’s read would suggest. The emphasis on culture and civilization in the book goes well beyond the nation state. The analysis of relations between the Islamic world and the Anglo-American project, for example, isn’t limited to a state-to-state analysis. God and Gold highlights the importance of culture in world politics; this factor can operate at the level of states, but it operates at other levels too.


One Response

  1. Walter,

    Thanks for the helpful response. It’s useful to be reminded that Americans aren’t the only ones who resist global governance. But I wonder how effective that resistance is likely to be (have the East Asians succeeded in marginalizing the World Bank and IMF, for example)? On the human rights front, very few governments like to be told that they are violating international standards, and yet human rights regimes as a general matter seem to be picking up force. And the environment presents the clearest case in which global institutions are the only likely answer to big global problems.

    So I guess I’m a little more sanguine that international law will play an enhanced role going forward, even though the trend will be diffuse and nonlinear.

    As for state-centrism, it’s true that any analysis that incorporates culture and civilization is not only state-oriented. But the culture and civilization here still works along territorial lines. That’s where I see some possibility of change – that community will no longer map. If so, it has some much broader implications for the global dynmaic going forward.

    But I may be wrong! Thanks again for blogging with us this week!

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