Do We Face the End of International Institutions?

Those institutions that helped smooth out the consequences of industrialisation and the destruction of traditional society in Europe in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries are being pushed aside by new forms of human interaction. In international politics, the institutions we know have also become a response to the challenges of the general and destructive nature of war. But now the world of national states is facing new challenges and has new opportunities. Therefore, the existing institutions will also be replaced in 20-30 years by organisations that we do not even know yet, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.

International institutions are the most significant achievement of the second half of the 20th century, just like the institutions of social policy within states were the colossal success of its first decades, significantly mitigating the negative consequences of industrialisation. Over the course of several decades, institutions expanded to become for states a fairly acceptable way to systematise their relations and achieve relative predictability with respect to foreign policy for each other. That is why institutions, especially since the end of the Cold War, have become so popular as a universal way to solve interstate problems, and their analytical assessment has become often mixed with insufficiently critical admiration.

But now these institutions are undoubtedly becoming a relic of a passing historical era, even though some national institutions were created almost 150 years ago. Sooner or later this had to happen, simply by virtue of the unstoppable process of evolution of social relations, both at the national and international levels. However, when it comes to international institutions, it is much more difficult to expose the longevity of established practices than at the intra-social level – the problem of war and peace is at stake.

The natural fear of remaining completely unarmed in the face of the destructive energy of state egoism is an extremely serious obstacle to a critical attitude towards the institutional interaction of states as such. In order to overcome this fear, at the level of an academic discussion, very serious arguments are required. Therefore, now, in addition to the criticism that has been formed in relation to institutions, the realistic theory of international relations seems to add arguments addressing the very nature of this phenomenon within international politics. From my point of view, the main reason for the inevitable bankruptcy of international institutions in the near future is that over several decades of their prosperity, they could not overcome their fatal dependence on the balance of power of their participants and, if they succeeded, they developed a collective egoism, significantly superior to that of which individual states are capable. Attempts to preserve international institutions in their current form can only further discredit the very idea of the systematic cooperation of states in solving the most important challenges to all problems.

These problems are not becoming less pressing. Moreover, the dramatic events of 2020 drew everyone’s attention to the issue of international institutions, since their role and place in solving the most important security challenges at the global and regional level turned out to be negligible. This diagnosis applies equally to the United Nations, paralysed by fundamental differences between its leaders, to the European Union, the World Health Organisation, and those institutional decisions in which Russia is participating in the area of the former Soviet Union.

Guided not only by fear of the unknown, but also by the experience of international politics until the middle of the 20th century, we can confidently assert that there is no alternative to these and other institutions. But these statements are based on the experience of solving important problems of the last century, no matter how dramatic these problems are. Or, what is even more widespread, the belief that the immutability of institutionalising international politics is associated with the absence of recognised alternatives.

However, any practice is only good as long as it does not start creating more problems than positive results. In this case, cooperation between states within institutions retains, of course, its function of reducing transaction costs. Moreover, in full accordance with the logic of liberal institutionalism, they increase, albeit slightly, the interconnectedness of states and the relative predictability of their intentions. But the more institutions fail to keep up with the dynamics of the internal balance of power, the greater the dissatisfaction of the participants becomes.

The change in the balance of power within pan-European structures after the unification of Germany turned out to be so prolific that its consequences cannot compensate for any of the private benefits received from the project by the weaker countries. And we are not talking about small and insignificant states, although there are dissatisfied ones among them. The first example in the history of integration of the post-Brexit UK is connected precisely with the fact that its basic interests and values proved impossible to ensure that it would remain within the framework of the institution of the European Union. Now large EU countries such as Italy or Spain are fully aware of the unfair attitude towards their interests. A sharp shift in power capabilities in favour of China and the response from the United States led to paralysis, for example, of the World Health Organisation. On the eve of the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing was able to establish such significant control over the WHO that other participants must either support it or decide to destroy the international institution in its entirety.

The arguments which stem from the realistic tradition of the science of international relations, that institutions cannot provide a sufficiently reliable way to achieve peace, were fully explained by John Mearsheimer in his seminal work The False Promise of International Institutions, published in 1994. The author consistently and elegantly destroys the bastions built around the idea of institutions by liberal theory, as well as by the theory of collective security, although he recognises the possibility that states cooperate and in some cases do this through formal organisations. The main focus of realistic theory is on the issue of the insignificant influence of institutions on the behaviour of states, which remain invariably predatory in nature. At the same time, they are being defeated both by the ideas of collective security and the critical theory that institutions change this nature, as well as the more cautious theses of institutionalists who believe that although the nature of foreign policy behaviour remains unchanged, institutions create the means of restraining destructive manifestations.

However, in addition to those gaps in the argumentation of opponents, which are indicated by modern realistic theory in its fullest presentation, I believe it is important to turn to questions of systemic nature by way of experiment. First, about the origin of institutions and the associated “original sin” of the dependence of institutions on the balance of power capabilities of their participants. Second, it is the question of the implications of enhanced institutional cooperation at the regional level for international security. It is possible that it is precisely with the fact that these issues cannot be resolved by institutions, that face them in present conditions.

The stable relationship between the balance of power and the possibility of any lasting peaceful interaction of states was first explained in the book by Edward Carr, 20 Years Crisis (1939). A utopia of the relative harmony of the interests of those states that are important for international security is possible, in his opinion, only if the created order includes all forces that can contain the revolutionary behaviour capable of threatening the world. This could provide a “political change” in the international order, the opposite of the military change that the world has experienced twice in the last century.

The UN structure, which we now pin our hopes on, contains this principle at its core – the five strongest military powers are formally endowed with rights greater than all the others. But at the same time, none of the others has strength sufficient to start a global conflict.

However, with a growing variety of factors exerting power in international affairs, or, more precisely, the spheres where states enter into power relations with each other, bargaining between the main participants has become permanent and widespread. Moreover, powers that are smaller in their capabilities are joining it and it is no longer possible to stop them without resorting to massive force. Each of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council can, in a few minutes, solve the problem of Turkey or North Korea, for example, in international politics.

But in today’s diverse context, their strength begins to lose not only offensive, but also defensive capabilities in relation to their own interests and values. As a result, the UN, of course, saves us from the hell of a general nuclear conflict, but even the dominant oligarch countries and their collective body are not able to stop a specific bloody conflict in the South Caucasus or Pyongyang’s pivot towards its own nuclear potential. The principle of the balance of power, which underlies the global security institution, not only moves towards disorganisation as a result of bargaining among the main participants, but simply deprives the UN of any practical meaning. In turn, abandoning this principle will immediately turn the UN into the League of Nations, whose fate is well known.

As for the second argument against international institutions, the situation is even more dramatic. Deeper international cooperation at the regional level does not reduce, but increases the selfishness of behaviour of its participants. Moreover, the policy of such associations (EU, ASEAN, NATO) towards external players (Russia, the USA, Turkey) inevitably entails the compounding of selfishness. In his book Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (1932), Reinhold Niebuhr points to the phenomenon when in a group “the individual mind becomes the servant of the collective interest”.

A regional international institution, regardless of whether it is based, like in the EU, on the balance of power or, like ASEAN, on the equality of its members, is the result of a “contract” between member countries. This contract reflects the compromising of their national interests and there is no reason to take into account the interests of those states that do not participate in such a compromise. The EU’s policy towards its neighbours, be it Russia, Turkey or the United States, over the past 30 years has included a huge number of convincing examples of egoistic behaviour. Despite the fact that in some cases the EU member states at the individual level were ready to take into account the interests of the partner, when acting within the framework of the team, they inevitably obeyed the EU’s will. Their moral or even selfish interests are literally paralysed.

This observation leads us to the conclusion that what is important for the future of international relations – deepened regional cooperation, is not a convincing response to the disintegration of the system of world governance on a global scale. Moreover, the stronger such cooperation becomes, the more problems for international security it creates when it is carried out within the framework of traditional institutions and groups.

Due to the inevitability of the two challenges described above, which are rooted in their very nature, international institutions are now not part of the solution, but part of the problem created for the global order. At the intrasocial level, during the coronavirus pandemic, we saw amazing examples of people interacting outside institutions – mutual support, the creation of new networks in relation to specific problems that a person faces. These forms did not entail a return to archaic family values or a mafia-like network organisation.

Those institutions that helped smooth out the consequences of industrialisation and the destruction of traditional society in Europe in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries are being pushed aside by new forms of human interaction. In international politics, the institutions we know have also become a response to the challenges of the general and destructive nature of war. But now the world of national states is facing new challenges and has new opportunities. Therefore, the existing institutions will also be replaced in 20-30 years by organisations that we do not even know yet.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.