Today’s world is beset by crises, yet the international institutions that are supposed to facilitate a cooperative global response keep coming up short. Throughout the past year, democratic norms and institutions have continued to erode around the globe. America’s West Coast, Turkey’s countryside, and even Siberia burned last summer as climate change took its toll. And some 5.5 million people have perished from a pandemic that the international community has failed to stem. Now, in 2022, we have reached a turning point where concerted efforts are needed to revitalize international institutions—and this makes it crucial to heed the lessons from recent history about making multilateral cooperation more effective.
Of course, the international system has periodically faced reform moments. The best-known example took place at the end of World War II, from 1944 to 1946, when the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and a host of other institutions were created to forge a postwar international order. Three decades later, the 1973 oil shock sparked the creation of the International Energy Agency. More recently, the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis provided the impetus for the establishment of the G20, which became a focus of problem-solving when the 2008-2010 global financial crisis erupted.
Sometimes, leaders fail to seize those moments. In the early 1990s, surprisingly little was done to refashion international institutions after the Soviet Union’s dissolution despite an unsuccessful effort to morph the G7 into the G8, and as the United States and Europe focused on the enlargement of NATO and the European Union.
Now that we are at another such inflection point, three efforts in recent decades to improve international institutions offer useful lessons: ending atrocities and human rights calamities, cooperating on climate change, and fighting deadly diseases.
Mixed Results on Human Rights and Atrocities
The world has taken steps to bolster the global institutional framework for combatting human rights violations and atrocities over the past quarter-century, yet it still faces challenges in legitimacy and efficacy. When it was created in 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) built upon the experience of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda by providing a permanent court for prosecuting individuals who committed atrocities. The court has faced backlash that it is biased against Africa; plus China, Russia, and the United States are absent from its membership. However, the court’s biggest failing is its relatively slow pace, only taking up thirty cases in the twenty-three years since it was established.
Similarly, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm addressing sovereign national and global action as atrocities unfold was also born of crisis moments. It was hatched by a Canadian-hosted commission after the presence of UN forces failed to prevent massacres in Srebrenica and Rwanda, and it was promulgated among omnibus reforms adopted at the 2005 UN General Assembly (UNGA) following the invasion of Iraq, the Oil-for-Food Program scandal there, and UN inaction on atrocities in Darfur. In 2011, Libya became the first state in which the UN Security Council (UNSC) invoked R2P to authorize military intervention as a result of widespread attacks against the civilian population. The intervention in Libya ultimately led to the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime, inviting misgivings from powers such as Russia, China, and Brazil regarding the legitimacy and objectives of military intervention under R2P. Still, more than eighty UNSC resolutions have invoked R2P, demonstrating this international norm is taking root despite widespread differences on its extent and application.
Created in the 2005 UNGA reform package, the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC) improves on its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), with more transparent elections and candidate country platforms, a peer review mechanism for all UN Members every four years, and a better record on calling out atrocities (e.g., North Korea and Syria, versus Darfur under the CHR). Nonetheless, it features an outsized focus on Israel, while scrutiny of many other states and issues are blocked by autocratic members. Although the George W. Bush administration did not run for the UN HRC and the Trump administration withdrew from it, the Obama administration engaged with it. The net improvement of outcomes during the Obama years demonstrates how an imperfect body created at a reform moment can be bettered when the United States plays a more active role.
Stop-and-Go on Climate Change
The track record of the international institutions addressing climate change has also been mixed.
The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) has been key in setting the climate agenda, and its annual climate talks—most recently the Glasgow COP26 meeting—provide valuable opportunities to mobilize action. However, progress on negotiations has been off and on again, depending largely on the level of leadership from the great powers as well as on whether developing countries feel their voices are being sufficiently reflected in the outcomes.
These negotiations have led to the establishment of no less than seven multilateral climate funds, most notably the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Green Climate Fund. Created in 1991, the GEF is hosted at the World Bank and channels roughly $1 billion per year through the UN Development Program (UNDP), the World Bank, and the UN Environment Program (UNEP). It is credited with making important contributions, but some have criticized the limited discretion it affords to recipient countries, a lengthy funding process, and insufficient engagement with the private sector and NGOs. The Green Climate Fund was launched in 2009 as a separate entity and, after being scaled up in the wake of the Paris Agreement pledge to mobilize $100 billion per year in climate financing for developing countries, it is on track to disburse $2-3 billion per year. It gets good reviews for going farther than the other climate funds in encouraging country ownership of projects, mobilizing substantial private sector co-financing, and starting to engage civil society. Still, the current level of climate financing is woefully insufficient. Much more needs to be done to make good on the promises of the world’s leading countries, but any further reform of the field should avoid adding to the current alphabet soup of institutions by building upon and improving existing organizations.
Healthier Health Institutions
There have been more success stories in the field of global health security. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative, created in 1988, has helped to eliminate wild poliovirus in Africa and isolate outbreaks to just two remaining countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which was launched in 2000, has immunized more than 800 million children and is now at the core of the COVAX initiative to distribute Covid-19 vaccines. Since its creation in 2002, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria (Global Fund) has saved 44 million lives by funding multistakeholder partnerships to prevent and treat the world’s deadliest infectious diseases pre-Covid-19. And a relative newcomer, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) provided crucial early support for several Covid-19 vaccine candidates, including the AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines.
The most effective global health institutions tend to share several characteristics. One is that they maintain broad international backing, including from the United States, European governments, and other great powers, as well as from the global South. They also have benefitted from including leaders from different sectors in their governance and operations—not just government officials, but also civil society leaders, scientists, business executives, philanthropists, and others. The Global Fund does just this on its board and at the country level, becoming a model of how inclusion can be harnessed to spur efficacy. In particular, the most successful global health institutions—Gavi, the Global Fund, and CEPI—have tended to operate as public-private partnerships rather than like traditional, government-dominated UN institutions. This approach has made decisionmaking and implementation more results-oriented, allowing them to direct resources towards programs that are more effective, rather than distribute funds without regard for performance in the name of political consensus or equity among states. Similarly, the partnerships born in a 2000-2005 era of multilateral innovation embraced by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan have exhibited the crucial quality of nimbleness in crisis, such as the Global Fund’s Covid-19 Response Mechanism. These touchstones for effective institutions might very well apply beyond the health domain.
Today’s Renovation and Innovation Moment
Now, after the mixed success of 2021’s COP26, world leaders are debating the next steps needed to take on climate change in 2022 to turn their rhetorical progress into meaningful action. They are also considering what must be done to better respond to future pandemics. The Biden administration is pushing to launch a new pandemic preparedness fund, and there is a narrow window of opportunity in 2022 to agree on what reforms are needed to surge resources when preparedness comes up short, including whether the current ad hoc approach of the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator should be institutionalized, or different structures are needed. Given the crowded alphabet soup of the field, it is wise to focus on expanding financing while strengthening and improving existing organizations, such as scaling the Global Fund’s comparative advantages in the health system, strengthening supply chains, and rapidly deploying health innovations.