Each week seems to bring bad news for international cooperation. The United States regularly threatens to exit or renegotiate many of the international pacts that political elites consider foundational to international trade, as with NAFTA and the TPP; security, as with the recent Iran deal; and the environment, as with the Paris climate accord.
And that’s just the United States. In the European Union, arguably the most successful modern example of cross-border cooperation, Britain is heading for the door; other countries (including Hungary or Poland) flout the democratic, liberal principles on which the organization was founded; and the euro is under threat. And members of the World Trade Organization have been in a stalemate about the terms of a new round of trade liberalization for nearly the past 20 years.
All this may seem as if we are living through uniquely dire times for international cooperation.
But before we panic about the collapse of the global order, it’s worth instead asking how international organizations in the past, and in different contexts, have responded to similar challenges. To do that, we need to look not just at the ones we’re most familiar with, like the European Union, NAFTA, and the WTO, but also at similar organizations around the world.
International organizations always face challenges
Organizations promoting economic and political cooperation have surfaced around the world since the early 1900s. And nearly every one of them, at some point in its history, faced a fundamental challenge.
These organizations’ performance always varies, depending on the structure of the group and the conditions within member states. It’s difficult to evaluate the extent to which countries comply with international agreements, although we know that countries often shrug off those rules. But such associations always confront trials.
For example, a national leader might emerge who is hostile to the organization’s goals. An economic shock can shake the members’ priorities, spurring them to turn inward. A country can embrace values that seem opposed to the preconditions of membership. Competition from similar groups can potentially threaten the organization’s purpose and member nations’ commitments.
So how have other global organizations adapted to similar circumstances?
International organizations can rise from their own deathbeds
In a recent article, I show that regardless of design and setup, a lot of international organizations have been through long periods of inertia. Sometimes they formally dissolved or simply stopped operating. Among economic associations, around 10 percent died off at some indefinite or definite point, while nearly 40 percent drifted along as “zombies” for at least some period.
So how did these organizations pull themselves back from the brink? Many had to adapt their missions pretty drastically to survive the shocks.
For most, the key was dedicated cooperation between the organization’s bureaucracy — that is, the secretary general, the staff, and the various other administrative organs — and a member state that took the initiative in steering the organization through the crisis. This was not necessarily the group’s most powerful country. Any country (and even, on occasion, a private actor) motivated to be entrepreneurial can pull the group back from the brink and shift its focus to more purposeful areas of cooperation.
Take, for example, the period around World War II. Some proposed international groups, like the International Trade Organization, never got off the ground. Others did die off. The most notable was the League of Nations. The United States never joined, and the organization limped along after Germany withdrew in 1933. Once the war started, many of the League’s top officials relocated from Geneva to the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. But without U.S. backing and with such a great distance between those officials and the Western European countries, the organization never managed to recover.
But others managed to persist until they could craft a new purpose. Consider the International Labor Organization, which like the League fled its previous headquarters in Geneva during the war. The ILO relocated to McGill University in Montreal and worked with the Canadian government to establish a new set of aims that shifted away from the emancipation of workers, in favor of broader goals of social justice.
Even postwar organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, set up to reconstruct war-torn Europe but upstaged by the Marshall Plan, drifted for years before finding revised missions.
It’s also helpful to look beyond the Western world. For instance, in Latin America, Mercosur, designed to promote trade in South America, functioned reasonably well before economic crises hit first Brazil in 1999, then Argentina in 2001. At that point, trade among members faltered and never recovered.
Outside the West, many organizations set up with the goal of establishing economic or political cooperation never succeeded. In Asia, for instance, both the Association of Southeast Asia and the Southeast Asian Treaty Organizations collapsed. And in Africa, most countries belong to at least five different overlapping integration organizations, most of which do not have particularly good records of promoting trade. However, while some died off, others — like ECOWAS in Africa and the Gulf Cooperation Council in the Middle East — found a way to divert their resources toward cooperation in the area of security, some very successfully.
What does this mean for our current climate?
International institutions are almost always dynamic, changing along with their members’ priorities and economic conditions. The fact that dominant powers like the United States and Britain seem to be retreating from major international bodies could open a door for other countries to step in and — with the help of the organization’s staff — find other productive forms of cooperation.
Of course, much depends on the agendas of the countries that step into the leadership vacuum. Countries sometimes take the helm of flagging international associations and steer them toward their own ends, for patronage, perks, political benefits, or building fiefdoms, or to dominate their own regions.
If governments wish to form coalitions that preserve the liberal order, they need to take the lead in finding fruitful directions for lasting cooperation.
Julia Gray is an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. Her first book, The Company States Keep: International Economic Organizations and Investor Perceptions (Cambridge University Press, 2013), won the 2014 Lepgold Prize.