Global Governance
Will International Institutions Disappear in the Future?

It is generally accepted that humanity cannot live without institutions, and if the UN, or any other international structures, have outlived their usefulness, then you just need to create new ones. Or wait until they emerge as a result of a global rebalance of power, writes Timofei Bordachev, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club.

International institutions are not a panacea that can help solve all the serious problems of world politics and economics. They are, first and foremost, a product of the existing balance of power and the willingness of states to recognise this balance as the basis for relatively long-lived peaceful relations. If the objective balance of power begins to change, as we have observed over the past decade and a half, then the conditions under which powers create institutions will become the subject of a new round of bargaining. Institutions, as bureaucratic organisations, have nothing to do with the dynamics and content of such bargaining, in real international politics. The task of those who value the fate of the UN or any other organisation, is to wait for results, and hope that they contain elements of justice for the less powerful participants in international politics.

A few days ago, the anniversary week of the UN General Assembly took place in New York, this time associated with the 75th anniversary of the establishment of this organisation. All speeches by the heads of state and government — a traditional feature of such events — were conducted as video messages. What US politicians did not do to shirk America’s responsibilities as the country which hosts the UN headquarters, making it into an instrument of its own selfish foreign policy, was done by the coronavirus pandemic — none of the leaders of the world’s great, medium or small powers came to New York.

The tone of the speeches and the very atmosphere of the Assembly directed focus at the deep crisis facing the UN and, in principle, international governance itself. With rare exceptions, the statements that were heard from the screens were unilateral declarations of intentions and interests; in no way did they address how to solve common problems. The fact that the speech of the Russian President clearly stood out from this array only underlines the general nature of the event, which reflected the hopelessness that was the leitmotif of discussions, whether within international institutions or about their fate.

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Andrey Kortunov
Tensions in Syria continued to escalate throughout 2019. Hostilities were stepped up again throughout the country and the conflict’s total toll approached a million. A new wave of Syrian refugees swept through Turkey and flooded Europe. Russia blocked US and British resolutions on enforcing peace on Damascus in the UN Security Council nine times.

This hopelessness contrasts with the heightened expectations of the real value of institutions that have emerged since the end of the Cold War. The belief of the last leader of the USSR and a few other idealists that a more just world order was possible, as well as the successes of regional efforts at integration (primarily European ones), led to the spreading of a dangerous delusion. The essence of the myth that arose in the late 1980s and early 1990s is that the institutions themselves have a corrective effect on the foreign policy of states and, moreover, compel them to pursue the right path. This is not so, the maximum that institutions are capable of doing is making some specific foreign policy behaviour relatively predictable, and even then, as we see, this ability collapses under the pressure of domestic political factors.

In all other respects, institutions have never been anything but a way in which strong states disguise their selfish intentions and dress up their implementation with notions of the “common good”. It is no coincidence that even within the framework of the most advanced institution of regional cooperation, European integration, the acts of primary legislation are adopted during an Intergovernmental Conference, in which representatives of supranational functional agencies, such as the European Commission, are not even allowed to participate. The details of such acts are determined according to the interests and balance of power of the states participating in the integration process. And this, it’s said, is an example of the most successful international institution of our time.

There is only one criterion for determining which countries are permanent members of the UN Security Council — they were the winners in the most recent world war. This right underscored their military invincibility — these arsenals of nuclear weapons will for a long time make insurmountable the power gap between the “five” and other members of the international community. They have no other grounds for occupying an exceptional position.

This is precisely why any claims to join this group from either those who were defeated in 1945 or who do not have comparable military capabilities look ridiculous and will remain on the periphery of real world politics. The nuclear power of the five permanent members of the Security Council, at the same time, serves as a guarantee that no other power can demonstrate revolutionary behaviour and thus become the initiator of a new world war. At the same time, to no lesser extent, numerous nuclear weapons deter their owners from revolutionary behaviour — therefore, in modern world politics, even at the highest level, there are only revisionists. And these include persons who would like to reform the rules of the game, but in no way to create fundamentally new ones. This factor is the only stable element in the entire modern palette of international politics.

But at the same time, there is no doubt that the leading military powers do not need the UN and the Security Council in order to control each other’s behaviour. This body was created as an opportunity to summarily suppress any attempts to “stick out” by the rest of the international community — nothing more. Therefore, in the long term, it is not the very fact of being in the Security Council on a permanent basis that matters, but the reasons why this is so. And these reasons are unlikely to change in the coming decades. The contribution of such an institution as the UN is minimal here or even tends to zero. In the event of the hypothetical disappearance of this organisation, the reasons why the UK, China, Russia, the United States or France will not fight each other will not disappear. The same is their desire to prevent the emergence of competitors that are equal in strength. Therefore, we have no reason to think that without the Security Council and the “veto”, relations between the “five” will collapse into the underworld of general conflict.

The fact that, for the sake of its national interests, the United States destroyed Iraq, and Russia saved Syria, despite their opinions regarding each other, has not become the basis for a big war between them.

The UN system arose as a result of a compromise between morality and strength. In 1939, Edward Carr wrote about the need to minimise the likelihood of a repetition of a revolutionary situation. But now, as we have seen, the military factor is the guarantor against returning to 1914 or 1939. More importantly, states’ restrained and relatively moral behaviour is not a product of their participation in international institutions. Whether it arises or does not arise only depends on external factors and limitations. The most compelling foundation for the rationality of the state is the ability to get countermeasures if its behaviour turns out to be threatening.

The predecessor of the UN in the role of a universal international organisation, the League of Nations, was consumed by the flames of World War II, due to the selfishness of the victors in 1918 and the revolutionary desire of the defeated nations to achieve revenge. At a new turn in history, after the end of the era of the Liberal World Order in 2020, we cannot say with confidence that the decisions adopted 75 years ago are still effective. It is generally accepted that humanity cannot live without institutions, and if the UN, or any other international structures, have outlived their usefulness, then you just need to create new ones. Or wait until they emerge as a result of a global rebalance of power. But just as European integration cannot be considered the ultimate form of survival for the countries participating in it, global security institutions should not be viewed by us as a complete image of the future.

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We could say that moving the UN from New York to another place is the same as trying to move a cemetery. First, it is too expensive; second, it is technically highly complicated; and, third, no active resident support is likely.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.