After an unplanned descent into wearying illness, I find myself severely behind on the times. The month of June has been anything but slow at Turtle Bay and beyond, with multiple global flare-ups that I’ve wanted to cover. I plan on getting to most of those in due time, but for now, I want to take a look at a much the past few weeks from a much broader perspective. Further, I’d like to thank Sean Langberg for provoking this train of thought to the forefront of my mind at his excellent new blog.
The first week of June was spent, while simultaneously fighting off sickness, taking part in an annual event known as the G8 & G20 Youth Summits, as part of the American Delegation. There I was joined by peers from around the world, representing each of the states of the G20, and the European Union. Over the course of a week, I and seven others sequestered ourselves in a room in DC to discuss our various homeland’s opinion of issues of international law, and eventually hammered out a joint agreement of principles.
Serving as an undercurrent throughout the experience was the question of what purpose the various “Group of” bodies serve in the international sphere. The common consensus among those states from the G8 states was that smaller collaborations were the key to breaking through problems. Those from the wider G20 clearly believed that only greater representation at the table among those affected by decisions would prove effective in the long run. Both rolled their eyes at the inability of the United Nations to get anything done.
Their point seemed to be proven when the United Nations hosted the Rio+20 sustainable development summit on the 20th anniversary of the Rio Conference that fully launched the environmental movement among the international community. The conference failed to produce either the sweeping, binding commitments towards a green future that only the extremely optimistic had thought stood a chance, or any sort of new path forward at all.
And yet at the actual G8 and G20 summits, held weeks apart Camp David and in Mexico, there were also extremely few tangible outcomes at either. The hoped for breakthrough on Syria between the US and Russia failed to materialize, and those G20 states of the Global South can’t have been pleased with the excessive focus Europe received during Mexico. Both the G20 and Rio have been panned heavily for having too much in expectations and not enough in results, which begs the question: what good is having a seat at the table if nothing gets done still? And is there a model that’s able to actually live up to the pressures placed on it?
As a point of comparison between the two systems, one loose and one structured, the former is actually the older invention, dating back to before the Concert of Europe. The intergovernmental organization (IGO), with its state-based membership, governance by treaty, and dedicated set of civil servants working to serve the organization, above the fray of governments, is the younger on the international scene at almost two centuries old. Born of a novel approach to settling disputes over navigation in 1815, the Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine was the first to embody these ideals.
The idea was run with in the creation of the International Telegraph Union and found its calling in the League of Nations, seen by the last vestiges of the 19th century’s style of diplomacy as the hope for the future. Despite the failures of the League, this model has served as the basis for a wide range of IGOs, from the United Nations to NATO to relative newcomers such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Indeed, it’s striking that the last of these chose to follow in the footsteps of past organizations in its structure, considering the very Western history of the arrangement.
Despite the rise of formal IGOs, the determination of whether to have looser ties or more permanent structures is still fluid and based strongly on the preference of the states that make up the group and the purposes it seeks such a united front. For example, the age of decolonization saw the rise of the Group of 77, the confederation of developing states inside the United Nations that pushes the South’s agenda. Even this group, whose numbers now include 138 states, made sure to draw up a binding Charter at its founding, though eschewing forming a Secretariat.
This ambiguity is absent in the ad-Hoc “contact groups” that spring up around hot spots in international affairs. The 1990s saw the establishment of the Contact Group on the Balkans, whose influence lasted well into the Kosovo crisis. As the Arab Spring turned on Muammar Qaddafi, the Friends of Libya was established to coordinate an international response. And today, Kofi Annan announced that he is set to host a new “Action Group” on Syria this Friday in Geneva, the first confab at which China and Russia have agreed to attend. And yet even these very focused confluences find it difficult to achieve tangible goals or even aligned policies.
Paradoxically, as the world grows more closely interconnected, the states who have the power to affect wide-reaching change rely on each other for more things and are thus loathe to break ties or stress points at the expense of others. From climate change to counter-terrorism to human rights, the list of matters that link states inextricably seems to be growing, with attempts at prioritization among the US and its allies seemingly nonexistent, especially when compared to the comparative focus of China and Russia, who are more able to work via status quo arrangements. This inability to find points of consensus may be a less of a systemic issue and more of a strategic failure on the point of states, but is a reality nonetheless.
So how will things actually happen and move forward with all this gridlock? Surprisingly enough, Rio+20 may have the answer to that question. While various groups have panned the end result of the Rio Conference, as Mark Goldberg points out, what is almost more important is what happened on the sidelines. Various commitments and initiatives were undertaken and launched between the public and private sectors on the edges of Rio. Smaller NGOS and entrepreneurs like Uncharted Play were able to gain exposure they never would have to various power holders, be they government officials or representatives of larger corporations. It turns out things got done in Rio, just between people, not states.
This isn’t to make the mistake of claiming that states aren’t important as we progress; as the continuing primary actors in the international sphere, their action or inaction carries the most weight. However, the secondary and tertiary actors in the forms of international corporations and organizations of civilians have the ability to work around states at times to promote their own ideals and goals. The downsides of this, such as gathering of power by largely unaccountable corporations, are apparent, but the chance for positive influence being pushed upon decision-makers within governments can’t be ignored.
What’s more, states still require forums for leaders and representatives to come together to discuss issues that affect the interests of each and all. Open dialogue and communication of interests and red-lines are among the most under appreciated factors that allows for peace between states. Instances in history where states have tried to keep their neighbors or adversaries guessing, as Eisenhower did in the 50s with China, tend to backfire due to overreaction on either side. The United Nations Security Council, while also the target of efforts to have it expand its circle of Great Power states, constantly proves its worth by providing the only forum for the Permanent Five states to air their grievances and concerns related to their security to each other on a regular basis.
The international community and its various ills are too dynamic to have the luxury of a one-size fits all model of multilateralism. Some issues, such as tackling long-term poverty and hunger, require the permanent efforts of bodies such at the United Nations, a Group of 193. Some, like countering violent upheavals in the financial systems of the world, require the intervention of the Group of 20. Others will require the United States and China to sit down as a Group of 2 to work out issues bilaterally. And still others will require the citizenry of the world to attempt to work together in whatever ways possible as a Group of 7 Billion. In attempting to solve the problem of which permutation of states will best be able to save the world, we may just find that the answer is limitless.