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Academics call for more powers for international organisations

Organisations like the UN and the EU should be given more powers to combat transboundary problems. This is the message of a report published by the Swedish SNS Democracy Council, whose authors include Prof. Jan Aart Scholte of Leiden University. The researchers also wrote the following article.

Climate change, military conflicts, health pandemics, financial crises and refugee flows – the list of acute transboundary problems is a long one. International organisations like the UN, EU, IMF, WHO and WTO were created and developed to address global challenges such as these. But do they have all the necessary resources at their disposal?

To answer this question, this year’s report by the SNS Democracy Council (a Swedish non-profit organisation that advises international policymakers) has just been published: Global Governance: Fit for Purpose? It examines whether international organisations satisfy the necessary preconditions for combating global problems. Do international organisations hold the power required to develop and implement worldwide policies against global threats? Do they wield this power with sufficient effectiveness to reduce global problems? And do they possess legitimacy as political institutions in the eyes of citizens and policymakers?

The report explores these questions from a broad, comparative perspective, looking at international organisations in many different policy areas. It also provides an in-depth analysis of global and regional climate cooperation as an illustration.

The need for international cooperation is greater than ever

This report comes at a crucial time for global cooperation, which is being severely tested after 15 years of crises: from the financial crisis and migration crisis to Covid-19 and multiple crises in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These recurring crises show that the need for international cooperation is greater than ever. At the same time, the post-war world order is being challenged by populist movements, authoritarian leaders and rising geopolitical tensions.

In an attempt to seize the initiative, UN Secretary-General António Guterres presented his vision for future global cooperation and created a high-level group to develop concrete proposals for the UN Summit of the Future in September 2024. The Global Governance: Fit for Purpose? report speaks directly to ongoing debates in politics, the UN and civil society about the future of global cooperation.

There is a growing gap between the problems that international organisations have to address and the powers at their disposal

The main conclusion of the report is that existing international organisations have many of the skills required for solving global problems, but are not sufficiently equipped to tackle the major global challenges of today and tomorrow. If the world is to combat the transboundary problems of the future effectively, new investment in international cooperation will be needed.

The powers of international organisations increased considerably in past decades. The general trend was for international organisations to acquire greater powers, build stronger institutions, secured more resources and develop influential ideas. Over the past ten years, however, this trend has slowed down and in some cases has even gone into reverse. The member states have become less willing to accept binding rules and provide financial support to international organisations. There is a growing gap between the problems that these international organisations have to address and the powers at their disposal.

Having insufficient powers means that international organisations rarely achieve the required effectiveness

The effectiveness of international organisations is generally better than is often claimed. Despite the difficult conditions in world politics, these organisations are able to develop and implement policies with positive effects in areas such as security, trade, development, the environment and human rights. At the same time, however, having insufficient powers means that they rarely achieve the effectiveness required to fully address transboundary problems. For example, more coercive measures would put international organisations in a better position to ensure good compliance.

Confidence in international organisations is relatively intact

International organisations are not suffering from a general legitimacy crisis, despite the widespread criticism from anti-globalist populists in recent years. Confidence in international organisations is relatively intact – and at a level that often exceeds confidence in national governments. However, there are considerable differences between organisations, countries and social classes. For example, the WHO is accorded much more confidence than the IMF, and a particularly worrying fact is that citizens generally have less confidence in international organisations than policymakers.

Climate cooperation illustrates the problems

Global climate cooperation illustrates many of these patterns – not least the need for more far-reaching international powers. The UNFCCC is the principal organisation in global negotiations to control climate change. Yet despite the increasing climate problems and strong public support for climate action, the member states have so far not equipped the UNFCCC with the necessary powers for effective policy. The contrast with the EU’s binding legislation on climate neutrality by 2050 is striking. However, the EU accounts for only 10% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions and cannot solve the climate threat alone.

Better problem-solving calls for more international collaboration

Overall, the report shows that future international cooperation needs better preconditions in order to address transboundary challenges. The pathway to better problem solving lies in more international cooperation, not less. Without robust international organisations, there is a risk that global threats will be addressed with ineffective national solutions, or not at all.

The report outlines three possible reform strategies for the future: (i) upgrade existing cooperation by strengthening current international organisations with a proven track record; (ii) develop new modes of cooperation based on greater involvement of civil society and business; and (iii) transform global cooperation through a radical systemic change towards more supranational and decentralised structures.

Jan Aart Scholte, professor at Leiden University
Jonas Tallberg, professor at Stockholm University (chair)
Karin Bäckstrand, professor at Stockholm University
Thomas Sommerer, professor at the University of Potsdam

This article was originally published on the Swedish political news site Altinget (literally: ‘all things’). See  https://www.altinget.se/artikel/sverige-bor-ta-ledartrojan-i-forstarkningen-av-internationellt-samarbete

Global Transformations and Governance Challenges Conference

This report will be discussed during the annual Global Transformations and Governance Challenges Conference in The Hague on 7 - 9 June. You can be there! Please see here for more information and registration link.

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