The Ties that Bind? The Increasing Complexity and Indeterminacy of Inter-Governmental Organisations

The Ties that Bind? The Increasing Complexity and Indeterminacy of Inter-Governmental Organisations

The State-based system of international governance that evolved from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 is struggling in the face of contemporary realities.  Today, developments in technology permit instantaneous movement of capital and information, quick movement of goods, and the simultaneous presence of persons – whether as State agents, commercial actors, or private individuals – in different territories and time-zones.  


Shared vulnerabilities to transfrontier natural disasters or human-made hazards have many-fold increased and transformed from relatively simple co-dependencies to highly complicated inter-dependencies. Challenges ranging from global environmental changes to currency fluctuations to pandemics all exceed the effective control, much less regulation, of one State acting alone.  New phenomena like crypto-currencies and the Internet operate entirely or essentially outside the State system. 

Historically, the co-operation of States in response to shared interests mostly followed the affinities of shared beliefs, shared experience/history, shared culture/language, shared geography, or shared conditions (notably: threats); proximity was the driving factor.  


This blog is part of the research project Changing Orders: Shaping the Future and Securing Rights in a World in Transformation, funded by the Alex Trebek Forum for Dialogue as part of the initiative Smart Changes of a Better World.

At the end of World War Two, the Charter of the United Nations recognized this development and entrenched it in a global system of universal and regional organizations with the UN primus inter pares – made clear by the status and authority of the Security Council. But even then, in 1945, Chapter VIII of the Charter provided for “regional arrangements” for the maintenance of international peace and security. This was to say nothing of regional and other arrangements for social and economic development purposes and for the protection and promotion of human rights (the other two purposes of the United Nations).

Such IGOs had already been operating – well before the UN or its predecessor the League of Nations – for mutual benefits of services (like the International Telecommunications Union established in 1865 and the Universal Postal Union established in 1874) or concerns (like the Pan American Health Organization, 1902, and the International Labour Organisation, 1919).  In the post-WWII era, others rapidly emerged, like the League of Arab States (1945), the Organization of the American States (1948), the Council of Europe (1949), the European Communities (1957), and, with decolonization, the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union, 1963), L’Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (1970), and an enlarged (and slightly repurposed) Commonwealth of Nations (1949) etc.  Over time, a cascade of sub-regional IGOs emerged, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (1967), the Central European Initiative (1989), or the Southern African Development Community (1992), etc.  Of course, defence alliances with corresponding IGOs cannot be forgotten. 

In the early 21st century, it is clear that developments are raising questions about the efficacy of the Westphalian paradigm and, perhaps, alternatives to it.

Some IGOs were formed out of specific interests, like production and trade, including cartels like the International Tin Council (1947-1985), the International Coffee Organization (1963), or the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (1960). Some have been formed to promote aid and development, like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (1961).  Others have been created out of cultural or religious affinities – like the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (1996), the Turkic Council (2009), or the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (1969). Yet others responded to conditions, such as the Non-Aligned Movement (1961) or the LoméConvention arrangement (1975) for South-South economic co-operation, or the Conference (now Organisation) for Security and Co-operation in Europe (1975).  With varying support/secretariat arrangements, and whether or not treaty-based, the development of IGOs evolved.

So complex now is the web of IGOs that a good understanding of relationships requires the use of Venn diagrams and careful attention to nuances, including the changing dynamics within the “ROIGOs” (Regional and Other IGOs) themselves. 

Today, long-established IGOs are increasingly demonstrating dysfunction, fraying affinities if not dis-integrative tendencies exemplified by BREXIT, and displaying internal tensions and incoherence as interests diverge and new complexities draw States into separate or partial arrangements or new relations absent historical experience.  Some of these are hybrid with non-State corporate or civil society actors.  In the face of disorder, there have been some efforts driven by size and weight, notably the G20 (1999), constituting the preponderance of global production, trade, population and land area and aiming at financial stability.  But that coincidence and thin interest have made for uncomfortable bedfellows of uncertain legitimacy or commitment.  

The Swearing of the Oath of Ratification of the Treaty of Münster (The Peace of Westphalia), by Gerard Terborch (1648)

In the meantime, the global challenges are unrelenting, multiplying and demonstrating the evident shortcomings of the State-based system of global governance.  In the early 21st century, it is clear that developments are raising questions about the efficacy of the Westphalian paradigm and, perhaps, alternatives to it.  Increasing complexity is adding uncertainty and diminishing confidence.  The UN Security Council is in gridlock, the World Trade Organization (successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, 1949) has no functioning Appellate Body, and the European Union (successor to the European Communities) is deeply divided internally and, for the first time, losing a member.  In this context, some States are finding their best co-operation is ad hoc following rough notions of “like-mindedness,” irrespective of history or geography or much else in common.  Such is the case for the “Mountains Group” of informally co-operating States comprising Australia, Canada, Iceland, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland.  

At a time of great need for international co-operation, and amidst tremendous change, what order will emerge and what will be the character, values, efficacy and benefits of IGOs?  And who is shaping them, to which ends, and how will they work?   

The current configurations and operations of IGOs appear inadequate to the task.  For various reasons, they are failing to address the current bill of challenges. So States scramble in efforts to work trilaterally, quadrilaterally, etc. – informally – often struggling with a lack of leaders or with their inconstancy.  Advocacy for interests and values (assuming they are sensibly defined and articulated) depends more and more on each State, often working with non-traditional partners and based on specific issues, not necessarily or even mostly with the like-minded in the traditional sense.  Whatever the configuration and number of ROIGOs, it appears something different and better is needed.  Reflecting shifting configurations of power, the “system” seems in flux, and it may be a long time before humanity emerges on the other side with a new order that is fully reliable for the construction of sustainable peace, development and prosperity.  Yet in the face of such uncertainty, and because of it, we must try to shape such a system that serves our and others’ interests for survival and well-being in the near, medium and long terms.

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John Packer
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