To Fix the World, Strengthen Institutions

October 8, 2015

Sally Painter is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Board of Directors and COO of Blue Star Strategies. Views expressed are her own.

By any standard, the challenges the world faces in 2015 are immense. In Europe, the influx of refugees from Syria tests the cohesion of the European Union and its commitment to open borders. In Ukraine, a fledgling democracy seeks to join the West, even as a revisionist Russia does its best to prevent such an outcome. In the Middle East, the Syrian civil war rages on with no end in sight, and the Islamic State maintains its bloody hold on power. Across the globe, developing countries face massive economic inequities and public health crises, problems that will only be exacerbated by climate change.

All of these challenges are global in nature, and none can fall to one country alone. At this year’s General Assembly, the halls of the UN resonated with rhetoric about the need for collective action. Yet for many in the United States, the natural response to such overwhelming challenges is to turn inward. The United States should avoid this isolationist temptation. To truly solve these problems, the U.S. must actively engage in the world: not through unilateral action or brute force, but by working cooperatively to reform the international institutions that underpin the global order.

70 years ago, the United States did just that. In the wake of World War II—a conflict that came to America’s shores despite the isolationist politics of the late 1930s—American leaders from Harry Truman on down did the hard work of forging a new international order. They understood that a new system of international cooperation was needed to deter future wars, ensure a stable world economy, prevent nuclear proliferation, and rebuild a world shattered by war. They worked with their European and Asian counterparts to create new international institutions, including the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. They began recovery programs like the Marshall Plan, to rebuild and stabilize war-torn economies. These institutions and initiatives laid the foundation for today’s international system, making the United States and the world more secure.

Today, that institutional order is in desperate need of repair. Too often, the United Nations remains powerless to resolve the world’s most pressing security issues, due to weak enforcement mechanisms and an outdated governance structure. The Security Council is the most obvious embodiment of these problems. The composition of the Council’s five permanent members—the U.S., Russia, China, France, and the UK—reflects the power politics of 1945, not 2015. More significantly, the reality of veto power has consistently impeded action on the world’s most dire crises—especially Syria, where Russia has repeatedly blocked resolutions against the Assad regime.

Institutional weakness is also a matter of political will, or lack thereof. Across Europe, the fabric of institutional unity is fraying, beset by growing nationalist politics and short-term economic thinking. Anti-EU politics have taken a strong hold in Greece and Britain, taking both countries to the brink of exit from the union and facilitating the rise of Euroskeptic politicians like Alexis Tsipras and Jeremy Corbyn. The increasingly authoritarian rule of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and his hardheaded refusal to accommodate Syrian refugees, threatens the EU’s cohesion and openly flouts the vision of a Europe whole and free.

Threats to European unity come from without as well as within. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has made common cause with nationalist opposition parties in Europe, seeking to undermine European sanctions against Russia. Meanwhile, his not-so-secret war in Ukraine has halted Ukraine’s prospects of joining the EU and NATO, even as Russia’s unchecked aggression raises new concerns that NATO will not come to the defense of its existing members.

Isolation and unilateralism would make each of these problems worse, not better. And refusing to reform the world’s institutions would only embolden rising powers to create their own to challenge the West. China and Russia have already started down this path, with organizations like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Eurasian Economic Union, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization clearly designed to counterbalance Western institutions.

The West should not cede the initiative to Russia and China. Rather, it should lead the charge in adapting the world’s institutions to the 21st century.

That effort should begin with the United Nations. The Security Council needs the most serious reform: countries like Japan, India, Germany, and Brazil have earned their seat at the table, and establishing some limitations on veto power, such as a supermajority override provision or an exception in cases of mass atrocities, could make the institution more effective. Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg: the UN as a whole needs drastic reform to enforce its peacemaking and humanitarian mandate more effectively. For years, reformers have cried out for a UN rapid reaction force that could swiftly deploy to halt humanitarian crises. The memory of the UN’s botched response to Rwanda makes this need plain, but other countries have echoed the call, most recently Mali last October. Still, nothing has been done on this front.

Last year’s Ebola outbreak was another example of an institutional failure to cope with a sudden crisis. World Bank president Jim Kim admitted that the global response to the epidemic “failed miserably” and subsequently called for a $20 billion global health fund to react to such emergencies in the future. Funding shortages have plagued other humanitarian agencies as well. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), for instance, faces annual deficits in every area of its operations, which are especially critical this year as the Syrian refugee crisis reaches enormous proportions.

Of course, international institutions should also be equipped to prevent crises, not merely react to them. On that note, two frontiers will be especially crucial in the future: cybersecurity and climate change. Cyber attacks from Russia, North Korea, and China have already done serious damage to U.S. infrastructure, and there is an urgent need to define the limits of acceptable behavior in cyberspace. Precious little has been done to codify cyber norms, but the United States could serve as a leader on this issue, driving the conversation at the UN toward concrete legal standards that would prevent cyber warfare and punish bad actors. The U.S. also has an obligation to combat climate change, which it has too long ignored. Ever since the U.S. failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, it has weakened its leadership position on this issue, but the coming UN climate summit in Paris presents a new opportunity for the U.S. to lead the institutional fight against climate change.

These are just a few areas where the United States and the West can use institutions to pursue their interests effectively. The answer to inefficient institutions is not a retreat to unilateralism, but a concerted effort to reform those institutions and make them operate more effectively. Isolationism and unilateralism provide only false comfort, for the prime challenges of the 21st century cannot be solved by going it alone. When facing up to the world’s challenges, today’s leaders would do well to remember the example of their predecessors 70 years ago, who understood that international cooperation was the only way to restore the global order.