Powerful Productivity

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. Photo by NATO.

Why some international organizations solve problems — and others don’t

This guest column is written by recurring “Securities” guest star Michael Magnani. Michael is a Political Risk Researcher based in NYC and graduated from NYU’s Center for Global Affairs with a concentration in Transnational Security. His first column was Principal Problems and his second was Loose BRICS.

Last month, I excoriated BRICS — the catchy acronym and annual conference for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — as a Potemkin entity devoid of any real agency. BRICS is hardly alone, for there is an alphabet soup of international pseudo-organizations and confabs (IPEF, APEC, G20, AU, RCEP, SCO, and CTSO come to mind) which do nothing more than have world leaders rub shoulders, engage in a photo op and argue over the wording of a closing memorandum no country will abide by anyway.

No international institution comes closer to nihilism though than COP, the “Congress of the Parties” and the technical name for the annual UN Climate Change Conference. The 28th gathering will run in December of this year and is hosted by the United Arab Emirates. In those 28 years, climate change has undoubtably gotten worse while COP has at best produced hollow agreements that countries regularly shirk (the one big breakthrough in climate negotiations, the Paris Climate Treaty at COP21, has done little to stanch global carbon emissions despite trying to create emissions accountability). To add to all the usual hypocrisy of attendees sandwiching their doomsday speeches with flights in and out on their private jets, COP this year is being chaired by an OPEC member state that relies on oil and gas for one-third of its GDP. Photo op, indeed.

If we were to dive into these international organizations and conferences and explain why they are largely ineffective in achieving their stated goals, this piece would rival the length of the Maastricht Treaty (look up a picture of that one). Instead, it is fruitful to highlight two that are actually effective and why: NATO and the European Union.

NATO is the most successful military alliance since the Allies in World War II, growing from 12 founding members in 1949 to 31 members now (32 pending Sweden’s accession). Part of this longevity has been NATO’s successful ability to repeatedly re-invent and adapt itself in the face of obsolescence and accusations of strategy drift. Following the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, many analysts considered the purpose of the organization fulfilled and the alliance a deadweight during the so-called peace dividend of the 1990s. Instead, NATO pivoted to a peacekeeping role in the smoldering Yugoslav Wars while also adding former Eastern Bloc states as members (the repercussions of the latter are still being debated today).

Following 9/11, the U.S. invoked NATO’s Article V mutual defense provision — a first for the alliance that pushed it to a new level of coordination and activity. Over the course of the next twenty years, it became involved in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency missions in places such as Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. More recently, NATO has pivoted back to great power conflict in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the rise of China. These recent events, particularly the former, have led to the largest shift in NATO policy since the alliance’s inception. Massive increases in defense spending and production, coupled with the invitation of the historically neutral Finland and Sweden, have heightened NATO’s influence.

There are still those that believe NATO is merely a listless bureaucracy in Brussels trying to find its purpose (French President Emmanuel Macron described its ‘brain death’ back in 2019). Yet, NATO is more vital than ever, particularly in light of so many other feckless international institutions. The reason is as simple as it is hard to acquire: agency. ‘An attack on one is an attack on all’ is not just a catchy marketing line in Article V, it’s an actual power regarding the use of force from 31 countries to the organization.

That power is backed up by multiple organizations within NATO: an integrated command structure involving the militaries and governments of all member states; a multinational, rapid-response corps that integrates military units from various member states and increases interoperability; extensive battlefield training and cyberwarfare programs; as well as one of the great equalizers in the form of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (commonly dubbed battlegroups).

These eight battlegroups (formerly four before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) are stationed in the Baltics and various Eastern European countries and are meant to augment and enhance the defense of member states bordering Russia with personnel and materiel from member states who are not situated alongside the organization’s eastern front. They demonstrate that a distant country such as Canada takes the defense of fellow member Latvia seriously, and indeed so seriously that Canadian soldiers have led NATO’s presence in Latvia since 2014.

NATO is a military alliance with real power, which is one reason that so many missions keep getting assigned to it. It owes its success and longevity to a variety of factors, including its ability to recreate itself and redefine its mission, the hard power capabilities of member states that comprise it, and chiefly, the agency offered to it from member states. And while NATO’s annual summit between heads of state offer plenty of bluster, politicking and the occasional cringe photo-op (the infamous blue carpet rollout comes to mind), principal- and staff-level negotiations have a history for fruitfulness that is entirely lacking in COP, BRICS and other international summits.

There just aren’t that many other international organizations with the treaty scaffolding and delegation of responsibility that allows them to accomplished their objectives. The only other one that comes close — and is arguably more impactful given its wider remit — is the European Union (EU).

Like NATO, the EU has had an uncanny ability to reinvent (and expand) itself, especially in times of crisis, from a six-nation agreement to create a unified market for coal and steel in the wake of the destruction of World War II to inventing new institutions and improving them in response to the Iron Curtain, the Yugoslav Wars, the Greek debt crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The EU, for all its malaise and the hate it receives, is the third largest economy in the world in both nominal and PPP terms. Its system, while bureaucratic given the union’s construction (again, please look at the size of the Maastricht Treaty), is a bold statement built on shared ideals, a free-flowing economic zone and a common currency that incentivizes membership and holds sway in international affairs. It’s an organization (and let’s be frank, a whole family of organizations) that has real power and agency to affect the world.

All of this isn’t to say that these two international organizations are perfect, but both were forged with serious challenges in mind that forced the development of strong institutions. NATO was designed to protect against the risk of Soviet expansion, while what would become the EU was designed to fuse the long-warring states of Europe together into a peaceful confederation.

The world is filled with large global challenges from climate change and public health crises to international terrorism and transnational crime syndicates. Yet, we could spoon through that giant bowl of alphabet soup of international organizations, conferences and economic agreements looking for an entity with the real power to address these challenges. The success of NATO and the EU should be a beacon that international organizations with the right delegations of power and resources can affect large improvements for all of humanity.

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That’s it, folks. Have questions, comments, or ideas? This newsletter is sent from my email, so you can just click reply.