Support for global cooperation has significantly eroded in the last years, raising key challenges for the future of international organisations and the current multilateral system broadly defined. Yet, as the world is facing the threat of Covid19, can one imagine a world without the World Heath Organization (WHO)? Or one without the World Trade Organization (WTO) at times when national protectionist temptations are vivid? It is hard, especially if you are based in Geneva and working in or with one those organisations.
Yet, a world without international organisations as we know them now is not a pure fiction. Using a time frame of ten years, it is likely to happen in at least two of four possible futures of international relations that I developed in earlier pieces in this series based on Jim Dator’s four archetype scenarios. To recap things, those archetypes include the four following situations. The “growth” archetype depicts a situation in which conditions and trends progress in a continuous direction. “Constraint” refers to a situation where a core guiding value or purpose organises societies and controls behaviour. “Collapse” captures a situation with major social systems and infrastructure breakdown. Lastly, a scenario of “transformation” represents the case of a society or system that fundamentally changes or reorganises itself.
Two future worlds with the current international organisations
If things progress in a continuous direction from what we see today – the growth scenario – the world will exhibit high social instability ten years from now. Ecological disasters in line with climate change induce a growing number of people to migrate both within and across national boundaries, leading to growing social instability in both transit and destination areas. The transformation of the work place has destroyed millions of jobs that have not yet been offset by the creation of new opportunities in a digital world economy, leading to social pressure for state intervention and help. The scarcity of resources available for human societies is becoming stringent leading to severe competition among the major economies in most parts of the world.
In that context, great powers have an increasing difficulty to agree on a division of the world, particularly in regions with higher resource availability. Smaller powers feel more and more disenfranchised and see the rise in power of leaders with revolutionary temptations. In sum, under the scenario of business as usual, the world will be a worrisome one in ten years. The cohesion of nation-states will be severely weakened by high social tensions and at the international level great power politics will have side lined a rule-based system. Yet, international organisations will still exist with ability and permission to act when and under the conditions that super powers allow them to do so. In some respect, they would go back to the past situation of the cold war with the significant difference, however, that they would benefit less from the support and benevolence of a united western world that created them. This would give them a higher chance to act as a broker as they would be less tainted politically.
In a world evolving in accordance with the core value of sustainable development as built into Agenda 2030 – the constraint scenario – one should expect a renewed shift toward state intervention – denting the strength of a liberal, individualistic order. But based on the current developments, the world is likely to fall short of its commitment toward resource sustainability. Some countries, in Europe and China, will be on good track but their progress dwarfs evolution in many other countries. Differences between the EU and the USA over environmental choices will drive both sides of the North Atlantic apart with protracted trade and investment disputes.In contrast, China will have become the new economic and technologic hegemon feeding its domestic sustainable development through international initiatives and foreign infrastructure investment. Acting as a magnet and a growth engine, China has a responsibility to act as a stabiliser for the world, yet it is still putting domestic issues first.
Given the need for new partnerships to achieve sustainable development, traditional global governance actors – the UN in particular – have been supplemented by new hybrid organisations and somehow lost their privileged status in international relations. Yet, they still exist and draw upon their legacy to act as orchestrators of political and technical networks. Short of significant increases of overall funding to support global cooperation, they will have to scale down their operations and share sources of revenue with the newly created partnerships. In sum, a world working under the sustainable development guiding value will be one with a more focused, leaner and more agile UN system.
Two future worlds without them
Change would be more radical for existing international organisations under the two remaining scenarios. This is almost naturally the case under the collapse scenario characterised by the breakdown of nation-states as the major social and political infrastructures. Under this scenario, the UN system is largely dismantled given that states that have been supporting it are struggling for survival and been concentrating their forces at the domestic level, making sure that outside intervention remains limited. From this perspective, there is no longer a world liberal order as remaining states have tried to regain control over their borders. This would be a world with a kind of licence to use domestic violence to preserve nation-states, which could lead to inter-state clashes when existing national borders are contested.
There would remain, though, regional zones of interstate cooperation, some with liberal inspiration such as in the European Union, others with more mercantile origin such as a renewed Silk Corridor. The gap left open by the dismantling of the UN system is now partly filled by alliances of cities that act as problem solvers for more than 60% of the world population. Yet, despite their growing technologic and financial power, concentrated in the hands of few technology giants, those groups of cities are constrained in their collaborative efforts by the fact that many of them are still anchored into nation-states, holding on their sovereign prerogatives to prevent a full transformation of the world order.
Radical change should also be expected in the transformation scenario of a world morphing away from the production focused, state-centric, and scarcity obsessed, current world, to a distribution focused, partnership dominated, cosmopolitan one with much less concern with local differences of access. This would be a world characterised with unprecedented levels of mobility, virtual or real, and lessening ground for violent conflict. Sovereign equality of states is no longer the dominant guide of international relations and diplomacy as it is no longer the best way of protecting the subjects of those states – the people. Indeed, from a security viewpoint, cyber security is largely provided by private companies and from a needs perspective, the virtual economy has helped to create abundance and therefore to lower potential for conflict. As a result migration is less an issue, particularly in emergency situations. A direct consequence of the demise of the hegemony of state sovereignty is the diminishing importance of national citizenship as it no longer is the best entry to access and distribution. Individuals combine local roots with a sense of a global citizenship articulated around the basic values of respect for diversity and empathy. In such a cosmopolitan world, nomads, virtual or physical, are in fashion.
In such a world, the UN system has been replaced by a multi-layered system of partnerships or networks, yielding an open problem-solving transnational cooperation. Some of those networks link only national governments. Some include regional or local organisations, others networks of global charitable organisations. Most of them are either providing scale or resilience, but some may be oriented toward some specific, and time limited, tasks. The links between those networks differ across regions. In Europe the experience accumulated throughout the construction of the European Union to manage multi-layered governance system has facilitated the development of deep interconnectivity between the networks, something that is yet missing in most other parts of the globe.
The UN at 75: last chance to celebrate a major anniversary?
If we envisage the full range of possible futures for international relations, one might be well advised to fully celebrate the 75th anniversary of the UN as it may not reach the next important milestone. Given the series of challenges that the world is currently facing and the rather grim consequences that some of these challenges may mean for the future of human societies, celebration should also serve to boost efforts in support of global cooperation. This is the aim of the UN75 -- an initiative to launch a “global conversation on the role of global cooperation in building the future we want.” Taking seriously this intention may well mean a future without the international organisations as we know them now – probably not the desired end result that the UN is envisaging with its initiative, yet one that should be carefully considered if the underlying goal is not simply organisational survival.
This article is part of my series "The Director's words" which features in our Executive Education newsletters. Follow us on LinkedIn>
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of The Graduate Institute, Geneva.