Issue #14, Fall 2009


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.

International Organizations

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.

The most visible organizations, though different in many respects, share three characteristics. First, each oversees negotiations and agreements on a particular issue: the UN for diplomacy, security, and war; the World Bank and International Monetary Fund for development and financial stability; the International Labor Organization for labor standards; the WTO (an updated version of the 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) for negotiations and disputes over trade, defined expansively to include investment, services exchange, intellectual property, and subsidies as well as quotas, tariffs, and anti-dumping laws. Second, each has a structure designed to guarantee independence from and impartiality toward its members, including funding by mandatory membership dues rather than voluntary contributions, an independent staff, and a chief officer drawn from high-profile politics rather than bureaucracies. And third, each has a unique dispute mechanism. Each, with the partial exception of the ILO, has a way to deal with violations of agreements, and failures of implementation due to incapacity. The UN Security Council backs its resolutions with the threat of military force, the World Bank and IMF have real money to lend or deny, and the WTO’s quasi-judicial dispute panels hear cases and let the victorious members enforce their judgments through sanctions. Despite their successes, these organizations have limits. They are not substitutes for national governments, but ways to facilitate consensus and effective action by governments. The most cleverly designed organization cannot replace accord on fundamental interests and goals. During the Cold War, western and communist governments viewed one another as mortal rivals, and the UN Security Council became unworkable. And even with basically compatible interests and goals, the institution’s procedures must find an uneasy balance between legitimacy and realistic reflection of power.

International organizations struggle when small and weak countries see them as tools meant to legitimate decisions taken by big powers. The financial institutions—especially the IMF—are particularly vulnerable to this charge, since big rich countries provide their money and upper management while small poor countries get the loans. International organizations erode when they do not adapt to changes in real-world power. Here again the financial institutions run into trouble, retaining voting structures and appointments of top officials which assume the U.S. and Europe are still the sole centers of financial power, while emerging Asia—China in particular, but also South Korea and India—has attained great financial power. And international organizations fail completely when they base all decisions purely on numerical counts without regard to power. In this case, the big powers see them facilitating numerical mobbing by small-country governments hoping to extract concessions. This is why the American public tends to ignore the UN General Assembly.

No single formula can overcome all these shortcomings. The WTO, despite its troubles with the anti-globalization movement, is probably the best-designed of the group. Its difficulty in concluding the Doha Round of trade negotiations is well-publicized, reflecting the difficulty institutions have when their leading members are divided over complex and sensitive matters like agricultural reform. But this is hardly its only job. The WTO is quite successful in overseeing the implementation of its 20 existing trade agreements and in settling the dozens of disputes that arise among its members each year, including China’s compliance with industrial-subsidy rules, the legality of European agricultural policy, and Brazilian intellectual-property rights law. The organization’s dispute settlement bodies have heard arguments on 396 disputes and reached judgments that, almost all the time, the unhappy trade partners accept. And about every three years, each member of the WTO gets a grilling by the entire organization on its trade policies generally and compliance with agreements in particular.

And even if they have not fully achieved their creators’ hopes, international organizations deserve a bit of credit for something quite substantial: Since the Bretton Woods era, the world has seen a long, slow reduction of political tension, poverty, and risk of war among the big powers. The economic disaster of the Depression has never returned, despite the calamities of the 1970s and of the current global crisis. No great-power war has erupted in the half-century since the Korean War armistice—the longest period of peace among great powers in the historical record. One can suggest many explanations for this fact—greater economic interdependence, aging populations, wealth gained through technological change rather than control of land, decolonization, waning ideological conflict—but these changes can produce tension as well as consensus. It is credit to the genius of our postwar institutions that they provide ways to ease out the tensions while encouraging the consensus.

But there is still a gap between what exists and what we need, and it is in environmental policy.

Global Environmental Policy Is Busy…

Multilateral environmental agreements date, in misty forms, to the years after World War II. Early agreements from the 1940s and 1950s limited whaling, created fishing quotas, and attempted to protect migratory birds. More ambitious agreements followed in the 1960s and 1970s, often designed to protect “commons” areas, especially oceans and rivers, from pollutants. Ever since, governments, NGOs, and well-intentioned experts have been busy meeting, negotiating, publishing reports, and passing agreements. They have used a string of high-profile summits and reports—in particular the 1972 Conference on the Human Environment and the Rio summit in 1992, and the Bruntland Commission’s comprehensive 1987 report on commons protection, climate, oceans, biodiversity, and other environmental threats—to share information and lay out an environmental policy agenda.

With this in the background, governments have concluded a string of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), from the 1987 Montreal Protocol on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Antarctic Treaty, the Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, and the Basel Convention on hazardous waste transport. The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) counts 98 multilateral environmental agreements and 117 regional agreements, including ten it considers to be of systemic significance. This year’s Copenhagen Process, meant to negotiate a climate-change accord to replace the Kyoto Protocol, aims to create the largest and most complex agreement to date.

Clearly, the issue is not a lack of will per se. Governments and interested parties have devoted much time and diplomatic effort to environmental problems. They have negotiated many agreements on environmental policy. And they have put together an organization whose hope is to make these agreements effective. But their work has nevertheless fallen short. Few major environmental agreements work as they should. They are uncoordinated, full of major gaps, weakly enforced (when enforced at all), and physically headquartered around the world in a way which makes improving them exceptionally difficult. Even the titular coordinator, the UNEP, is too weak, structurally and politically, to enforce the agreements or improve them. The world’s multilateral environmental achievements are mostly on paper and in meeting halls—rather than in the forests, the air, and the water.

…But Not Very Successful

One fairly successful agreement, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), illustrates the disparate problems of environmental multilateralism. Founded in the 1960s and based in Geneva, CITES oversees international trade in about 30,000 listed species. A typical meeting of the CITES executive conference might decide how many ball pythons can travel from Benin to zoos and pet shops in the United States and Europe, how many lynx pelts Russia can export in a year, and whether to ban trade in elephant ivory altogether. Conclusions are often reached quickly and successfully. But this very fact shows a weakness common to the existing international environmental organizations: An enormous amount energy, time, and political capital is being devoted to a relatively small part of a very big problem.

In a few cases, international trade can threaten the viability of an animal or plant species, and CITES management is essential to species survival. But in most cases, the main threat to most rare species is destruction of habitat, through climate change and industrial or urban development. CITES protects sea turtles against the minor threat of sale for jewelry and canned soup, but it does nothing about the large threat of fishing by catch or destruction of nesting beaches in favor of hotels and tourism development. The turtle population, as a result, continues to decline.

Other agreements don’t work even on their own terms. The International Tropical Timber Agreement, which goes back to 1985, revamped most recently in 2006 and based in Yokohama, was meant to ensure sustainable logging as developing countries raise revenue from timber sales. It was launched (and relaunched) to great fanfare, but the world’s tropical-forest cover has shrunk by some 10 percent since the Agreement was concluded. The Biodiversity Convention is an even sadder case. Launched in 1992 and based in Montreal, it committed the world to a “significant reduction in loss of biodiversity” by the year 2010. No such thing has happened. Nearing its twentieth anniversary, the Convention seems more pious hope than policy.

Issue #14, Fall 2009

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