Posted on 18 November 2010.
As I established in the first part of this series, in international organisations the deficiencies of decision-making structures and their disappointing results are mostly connected with problems of representation, participation, and accountability. In this context, questionable procedures of representation and participation end up accounting for what seem to be two recurring trends: swinging between endless political deliberations and “ad hoc” decisions behind closed doors by small committees and policies possibly swayed by ulterior motives; and erratic realisation of decisions. In other words, the weakening of legitimacy arising from the lack of convergence and consistency is itself largely the product of the flaws in participation and decision-making mechanisms. One of the most visible elements causing such flaws is the clientelistic approach of sovereign states.
International organisations are given essential support and assistance from member states aligned with their multilateral mission. There are, for instance, countries committed to multilateralism on a structural basis, as shown by the cases of the Nordic countries and Canada. Major democratic powers are also endorsing multilateral imperatives to a certain extent; otherwise, no progress would have been made in multilateral matters in the past few decades since the fall of the Soviet Union. But by and large, international organisations with generalist mandates have not been able to establish a strong constituency dedicated first and foremost to the unique dimensions of their task. Rather, they have mainly found clients to support their own interests. Consider how much bickering takes place over how to allocate even medium-ranking positions within the UN. This is just one of many mundane examples of clientelism in these institutions.
Another crucial example is the effect of the various modes of organisational membership. The discriminatory veto powers have made the IMF, the World Bank, and the United Nations Security Council a nearly wholly-operated territory of the most developed and powerful nations, one that all too often caters primarily to their needs and interests. On the other hand, the one seat–one voice policy has allowed the General Assembly to become one of the preferred forums and instruments of the developing countries. In the process, it is the inclusive and universal qualities of their message that are likely to disappear, making the UN more a tool for powerful nations than a platform for world issues.
Instead of universalizing particular interests, the clientelist tendency of states contributes to the particularisation of universal interests. In undermining the claim to universalism of generalist international organisations, this inclination undermines a crucial piece of their legitimacy. Moreover, this kind of malfunction is somewhat expected to engender further normative, political, and institutional disenchantment and unravelling. It is difficult to reverse since it has a penchant for feeding on itself. A client, by definition, is not really concerned with integration and inclusiveness, with possible benefits attached to long-term investments involving the commitment to public good. Rather, its prime objective tends to be the fulfilment of its exclusive and immediate interests.
Clientelistic state behaviour stems to a certain extent from the powerlessness of international organisations to transmit and secure trust and reliability in their power to deliver the public goods that they are mandated to deliver, to give enough insurance to buy patience and borrow time. Facing uncertainty in long-term strategy, it only makes sense to go for a client status and focus on the search for short-term gain. With the intention of reversing this breakdown, international organisations may sometimes look for additional cooperation, which can in theory be used as leverage in pursuing their mandate. This, however, has also the potential of starting clientelist demands growing again. New supporters exact their price while old clients raise the stakes. As a result, most of the time the recovery attempt entrenches more than ever the particularisation and segmentation of interests and increases the difficulty of breaking this vicious cycle. An organisation that fits the views and interests of developed countries is likely to be seen positively by them, and runs the risk of being badly rated and perceived as a foe by developing countries, and vice versa. Adversarial understandings of this sort based on segmented vested interests can never transmit confidence, considering that the more an organisation is associated with initiatives perceived as favouring one group over another, the more the legitimacy of its policies is under stress, and the more its legitimacy as an institution is questioned and weakened.
The custom-designed aspects of international organisations are not peculiar to them. States and national governments themselves face the challenge of having to homogenize particular interests. Even when functioning properly, (for example when integrated and producing public goods reasonably well) they never succeed completely in this enterprise. Their decisions and actions are seldom able to generate fully fledged consent. In this sense, they too are bound by clients and detractors in their national realm. However, due to the imitative status of international organisations vis-à-vis states, the tendency to custom-tailor policies to client interests becomes one of the main hindrances to their legitimacy. Instead of placing multilateral qualities at their core, on which their legitimacy primarily depends, this tendency leaves such qualities at their periphery, hence giving way to the low level of multilateral institutionalisation of international organisations. The lack of proportionality between international organisations’ charters and the means at their disposal to accomplish the mandates and goals specified in these charters provides a good illustration of the low level of institutionalisation.
Of course, charters and the mandates and objectives they dictate have rhetorical, and normative mission-establishing functions that go beyond any plans that they should ever be entirely realised. This is especially true for the wide mandate of international organisations such as the United Nations (global security and prosperity) and the World Bank (eradication of poverty), much as it is for those delineated by the constitutions, declarations of rights, and principles on which most modern nations are based. Moreover, the mandate of an international organisation does not necessarily imply that it falls exclusively to that organisation to achieve the designated goals. Their implementation is part of a systematic effort in which states, developed and developing countries, corporations, and individuals have a role to play. Considering this role, some argue that the responsibility of international organisations is mainly to occupy the interstices between the contributions of these other actors. Others hold that the disparity between the budgets allocated to international organisations and the need to rationalise costs speaks in favour of a more balanced view on the institutionalisation of international organisations.
Regardless of the plausibility of these arguments, it remains the fact that if the charters and mandates of international institutions are really going to be taken sincerely, the means provided to accomplish them need to be adequate, even if in a modestly realistic way. There is a limit under which the lack of resources prevents any attempt from being successful. In the end, the low level of institutionalisation that characterises international organisations is demonstrated in the fact that, rather than being global institutions with a globally effectual operational reach, they lean towards being headquarters organisations. In this context, the head is likely to be remote from the rest of the organisation and its activities on the ground.
At times, the two barely identify each other as parts of the same entity. As internal deficiencies usually result in meagre power projection, this condition largely accounts for the poor cohesion of decision-making processes and inconsistent carrying out of operations in the field. As a consequence, what international institutions have built so far “… is less a thick multidirectional web or matrix than a thin network with a relatively meagre normative, operational, and political grip on or “pull power” over developed and developing countries.”
Do member states, the most powerful ones in particular, feel duty-bound to take on missions internationally to satisfy a sense of solidarity and responsibility beyond their borders, while never really expecting or seeking significant, actual results or improvements? One wonders if the apparent shortage of resources might be rooted in the many conditions that states put on any political commitment to multilateral initiatives. If this is one accepts that this might be the case, then perhaps the somewhat low level of institutionalisation of international organisations, and of the international integration and socialisation that go with institutionalisation, can be explained in connection with the availability of various essential material sources and forms of legitimacy that occupy the international system and the dilemmas of action they create.
Then, it could be said that while the difficulties in transcendence within the decision making processes of international organizations constitutes the main reason, it is also often the case they are not given the appropriate legal means and most importantly the resources to carry out their missions. In many cases the United Nations is told to keep the peace, but its soldiers are not allowed to fire their weapons, instead physically standing between two opposing sides. What should UN peacekeepers do when civil war breaks out? The International Monetary Fund is asked to solve financial crises but is not given powers to regulate borrowers before such crises break out and also not given sufficient resources to play the role of lender of last resort once they do. What should the IMF do to prevent financial crises in the first place? While national governments can tax and/or compel their citizens to generate the resources required to provide public goods, international organisations obviously lack such mechanisms that are essential to accomplishing this task. As a result, their resources will often be inadequate.
By their nature, the key feature of international public goods (or bads) is that benefits (or costs) are not limited to a single nation or only to a group of nations. In this sense, the efficient provision of public goods requires that the marginal cost of their production should equal the sum of the marginal benefits to all those that consume them. While in principle, the shares in the costs of providing a public good should reflect individual demands for them, there are problems in having nations who are consumers of international public goods actually reveal and pay for their true demands.
If exclusion is difficult or impossible, net-consumer nations will have an incentive to understate their needs in order to free-ride. In a domestic context, these problems are tackled in democratic societies by having voters choose representatives whose tax and spending preferences match their own. Since the state has the ability to enforce its decisions, consumers have an incentive to reveal their preferences more openly. But in an international setting, when such enforcement is not possible, efficient provision is particularly problematic. To be sure, as the existence of international organisations and agreements attests, these problems do not mean that a semi-working cooperation will be completely unattainable (since there are a variety of mechanisms states can possibly use to persuade others to comply using petty game-theory induced strategies) but rather implies that cooperation and resources for public goods are likely to be less than preferable.
Granting organisations more power and resources obviously makes it more likely that they will be able to carry out its mission. Indeed, as was noted above paragraphs, nation states can in principle use democratic mechanisms like voting and the ability to raise resources through taxation to supply national public goods in appropriate amounts. But the closer international organisations come to acting like nation states, the more likely that their legitimacy will be questioned. Inevitably, this semi-supranational body built on the mechanisms of the nation state will be imperfect and vulnerable to criticism and thus the more powerful international organisations become the more opposition they will generate. This is why international organisations are vulnerable to charges that they lack legitimacy; the standards for legitimate governance are generally set by those of the nation state. Global governance is inevitably likely to be less democratic and thus less ‘legitimate’ than governance within a nation-state. In particular, international organisations derive their legitimacy in part from the notion that their members, national governments, accurately reflect the interests of the people they represent. But this notion can be questioned either when there are other international non-governmental actors with claims to represent certain interests or when national governments are seen as insufficiently representative, or insufficiently informed and competent. In addition, international organisations are often set up to focus on a single purpose such as health, or trade or finance. This focus is particularly vulnerable to accusations that other factors are not being given sufficient weight.
As long as missions remain fairly limited and international organisations are restricted in their means, these potential problems may not be of great consequence. But the more ambitious the goals and the more aggressive the means, the more vulnerable they will be to attacks on these democratic deficits. The problem is also less likely to adversely affect results as long as the international organisation participates in activities that are generally regarded to be ‘win-win’, providing benefits to all parties involved. But they are more likely to come to the forefront when issues are widely perceived as having major distributional implications among the members. This, then, is another dilemma facing global organisations: “If missions are expanded, and organizations given insufficient means, they are likely to fail (or fall short of optimal behaviour) and be criticized for ineffectiveness. However, the more extensive the means they are given, the more likely that their legitimacy will be questioned.” Similar to the relation between legitimacy and efficacy of decision making processes, the relation between material capabilities and legitimacy also seems to be negative in the context of international organizations.
Under the current conditions, the concept of legitimacy and existential requirements of international organizations appear to be at odds with one another. This is mainly due to the fact that international organizations receive their legitimacy from states, and that the boundaries of legitimate conduct is measured according to the qualitative standards of democratic decision making. By swimming against the current, international organizations can barely sustain themselves, which points out to a systemic need for their political influence to be augmented and decision making mechanisms strengthened, if they intend to survive on the long run.
Works Cited in the two articles:
Coicaud, Jean-Marc. “Reflections on international organisations and international legitimacy: constraints, pathologies, and possibilities” International Social Science Journal Volume 53, Issue 170, (2002) pp. 523 – 536
Finnemore, Martha “Legitimacy, Hypocrisy, and the Social Structure of Uni-polarity: Why Being a Unipole Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be,” World Politics, Vol. 61, No. 1 (January, 2009), pp. 58-85.
Grovogui, Siba N. “Post Colonialism: Power and legitimacy in the international order” in Dunne, Kurki and Smith (eds.) International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity Oxford University Press (New York: 2007) pp. 239-245
Keohane, Robert O. “Decisiveness and Accountability as Part of a Principled Response to Nonstate Threats” Ethics & International Affairs Volume 20, Issue 2, (2004) Pages 219 – 224
Kurth, J. “Humanitarian Intervention After Iraq: Legal Ideals Vs. Military Realities,” Orbis, Vol. 50, No 1 (Winter, 2006), pp. 87 – 101
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Lawrence, Robert Z. “International Organisations: The Challenge of Aligning Mission, Means and Legitimacy” World Economy vol. 31(11), November (2008) pp. 1455-1470,
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Willis, Katie. Theories and Practices of Development. Routhledge (New York: 2005)