Craig Perry has written his ninth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. His entire series explores the potential for another Great-power War. This piece asks whether international institutions can constrain great-power conflict. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Since at least the time of Thucydides, realism has dominated the study of international relations, explaining the propensity for great-power conflict in terms of human nature and systemic anarchy. But what accounts for cooperation among states? Liberalism emerged from the Enlightenment as a competing school of thought, emphasizing the importance of international institutions, free trade, and the spread of democracy in mitigating conflict—and positing a theory of change promising a more peaceful future.
For all the talk of anarchy in international relations, states do tend to cooperate on a myriad of issues. Unlike the classic “prisoner’s dilemma” that rewards defection, states have to live with the lasting consequences of their iterative foreign policy choices, making mutual cooperation an eminently rational choice. As their interests converge in a given area, states routinely enter into arrangements with one another, from informal consultations to binding treaties and international organizations, that more efficiently and productively manage their interactions. In practice, such cooperative regimes produce far more “win-win” outcomes than zero-sum solutions.
The 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which famously introduced the modern concept of state sovereignty, also inaugurated the use of multinational gatherings to resolve international disputes. Such ad hoc conferences became a recurring feature of European diplomacy following the 1815 Congress of Vienna—which also established the world’s first intergovernmental organization, to manage navigation on the Rhine—and it wasn’t long before international conventions in Geneva and The Hague began codifying laws of war.
Founded following World War I, the League of Nations was the first international organization focused on maintaining world peace, and it failed miserably owing in part to poor institutional design and lack of U.S. membership. However, this idealistic experiment paved the way for the United Nations, which has successfully resolved numerous conflicts since the Second World War through diplomacy, economic sanctions, peacekeeping operations, and even the use of military force. Nowadays, most countries insist on UN Security Council authorization before going to war, and even the great powers pay lip service to this influential institution as a forum for registering their foreign policy positions.
Beyond the UN, the United States championed a variety of multilateral regimes to promote global economic growth and regional integration in the wake of World War II, including the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, NATO military alliance, and the European Union. These institutions not coincidentally served as bulwarks against Soviet expansion during the Cold War, and were instrumental in the transition of Eastern Europe to “Western” democracy and capitalism after the collapse of the USSR. They have unquestionably contributed to making Europe whole, free, and at peace.
Regional integration has been much less successful in Asia, however, where U.S. influence has been exercised primarily through bilateral arrangements among mutually mistrustful partners that only recently began to fear a rising China. Since taking up its UNSC seat in 1971, Beijing has proven itself more adept than Moscow at playing well with others in multilateral forums, joining Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the WTO before its northern neighbor and establishing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a potential rival to the World Bank and IMF. With the launch of its massive Belt and Road Initiative and the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China is institutionalizing its regional hegemony—and challenging U.S. leadership—in ways Russia must envy.
While the proliferation of cooperative international regimes has certainly bound most states together in ways that makes war among them less likely, it puts far fewer constraints on the great powers, who jealously guard their privileged positions atop the international system. Beijing rejected arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea over its South China Sea claims; Moscow annexed Crimea in contravention of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances; and Washington routinely engages in bombing campaigns with the flimsiest of legal pretexts.
Moreover, the future of international cooperation seems increasingly uncertain. The current American president disdains the very multilateralism that for generations enhanced U.S. power and prosperity; China is promoting alternative arrangements that promise far less transparency and accountability; and Russia is intent on undermining NATO and the EU at any cost. The less committed these great powers become to prevailing security regimes, the more likely they are to disregard longstanding norms of international cooperation and multilateral conflict resolution—which could be a very dangerous development, indeed.
Ultimately, international institutions can constrain conflict—but only insofar as the great powers play along. And for Beijing, Moscow, and Washington, it’s an anarchic world after all.
© Craig Perry 2018