The gains of Copenhagen will be fleeting unless the world’s nations create a Global Environmental Organization to enforce them.
International organizations are a familiar—as well as worthy, dull, and sometimes faintly annoying—part of the twenty-first-century’s geopolitical landscape. How strange, then, to recall the gigantic aspirations of their twentieth-century creators. Describing the Bretton Woods conference, which led to the IMF and World Bank (and foreshadowed the UN and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis described its goal as nothing less than to “prevent any new war”—and still more dramatically, to eliminate the causes of war by a combination of international law, economic integration, safeguards against Depression-style trade protectionism, and a security council of great-power members, who would be willing to stand united against new aggressor powers.
These ambitions were a bit much. War has not been prevented, nor have the causes of potential wars disappeared. And at 65 years of age, the post-war international organizations more often get complaints and abuse than applause. Some comes from the right, directed most often against the UN. Left-wing activists admire the UN, but often pour into the streets in protest any time the WTO, the IMF, or the World Bank comes to town. And nobody seems to think the financial institutions work as they should.
But in most cases the record is better than we think. The UN has hardly abolished war, but it has done more than most of us realize—smoothing out arguments, creating consensus, and enforcing agreements on a wide array of issues, from training a Haitian police force to allocating radio spectrum space, conducting vaccination campaigns in Guinea, and monitoring sanctions on Iran. The very existence of a standing forum where countries can debate and sometimes settle differences is a world-historical achievement. Likewise, the economic institutions are imperfect—the IMF has needed an update for two decades—but they nonetheless provide loans to poor countries that need them, keep trade flowing in crisis, and define basic goals for labor policy. And perhaps the founders’ highest aspirations weren’t wholly naïve: Whatever the connection may be, the post-World War II years have been the longest period of unbroken peace among great powers in the historical record.
Their real failure is elsewhere—not in politics or economics, but environmental policy. Here the problem is not that institutions are antiquated and need an update; nor that they make decisions that the right or left doesn’t like. It’s that they do not exist. The closest approximation to an international environmental institution, the United Nations Environmental Programme, is structurally unable to resolve disputes or even enforce existing agreements, and it has only a modest ability to facilitate negotiations on new issues. Major environmental problems therefore go unaddressed, and existing environmental agreements often fail. And bad as they are today, the problems with international environmental policy will take on genuinely global dimensions in the next decade. Should the world’s scientists and diplomats succeed later this year in designing a Copenhagen Process agreement capable of limiting greenhouse emissions and slowing or halting climate change, they are likely to find the existing institutions and law too weak to make it work.
If international environmental policy—both the climate-change agreement and its smaller predecessors—are to succeed, governments need to think about institutions as well as policy. We need an international institution capable of organizing today’s miscellany of multilateral environmental agreements and the climate-change treaty into a coherent body of policy and law, one that can ensure countries understand their obligations, ensure compliance, and so ensure that environmental agreements achieve their goals. Without such an institution, the gains of Copenhagen are likely to be fleeting.
Multilateralism in any major field, be it politics, finance, trade, labor, or development, has four concepts at its heart. First, countries will be more effective acting together—whether they hope to prevent conflicts, take advantage of shared interests, or meet common threats—than acting apart. Second, they act together more easily in crisis and stress when they have worked together for years on mundane matters. Third, acting together is easiest when it rests on agreed rules and procedures. And finally, these rules are more often respected when they are overseen by strong, impartial institutions than when each government is free to determine the others’ compliance.
None of these concepts is hard-wired into the minds of nations. Rather, it’s the opposite: Most countries like autonomy for themselves and rules for everyone else. But most have also accepted the role international organizations have come to play in policy as inevitable. The oldest, in fact, have succeeded so well that today we barely notice them. These are the nineteenth-century institutions created by Victorian diplomats and governments, such as the International Telecommunications Union, founded in 1865, which ensured telegraph compatibility and survives today in the UN to avoid snarls in submarine cables. An international conference in 1875 standardized weights and measures, using the French-designed metric system; another in 1884 defined today’s international time zones and dateline, balancing France’s metric triumph by using Britain’s Greenwich Mean Time to synchronize the world’s clocks. And though many believe today’s WTO created global patent and copyright rules, agreements on these intellectual property rights concepts date to 1883 and 1886.
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