Global Security 2.0 - International institutions urgently need an upgrade

In the first essay by our Junior Ambassadors, Jonathan Hillman argues that key international institutions are in urgent need of change. "Above all, the international community must reexamine the mechanisms it uses to address global security issues. In other words, rather than simply conducting its day-to-day business, the international community must also take a hard look at how it does business," he writes.

Key institutions are stuck in the past century, Hillman argues. Pictured, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon at the Munich Security Conference 2011 (Photo: Moerk).

Warning: the following essay may cause dizziness or drowsiness. Dizziness because it’s stunning how antiquated the international community’s institutions have become. Drowsiness because the topic of reforming international institutions falls somewhere between doing the laundry and waiting in line at the grocery store in terms of sheer excitement. However, if leading global forums like the Munich Security Conference do not feature this issue more prominently in the future, it’s sure to become exciting in all the worst ways. 

 

It’s no secret that international attention is commanded first and foremost by crises, the unexpected geopolitical tornado and storms approaching on the horizon. Of course, policymakers must deal with the world as it is, not as they wish it to be. But galloping from crisis to crisis does not come without a price. Issues deemed to have a less immediate impact, those far-off tempests that we see coming but whose winds do not yet howl, are relatively ignored. Climate change, resource shortages, pandemics, demographic challenges, and many other non-traditional security issues fit this bottom-of-the-list bill.

 

These topics are all worthy of promotion on the international agenda, but there is an even more fundamental issue that must be addressed first. Above all, the international community must reexamine the mechanisms it uses to address global security issues. In other words, rather than simply conducting its day-to-day business, the international community must also take a hard look at how it does business. To effectively confront the emerging challenges of the twenty-first century, the international community must update its toolbox. Among the institutions that most urgently need an upgrade are NATO, the United Nations, and the World Bank.

 

For its part, NATO is on a path to becoming the equivalent of a classic Volkswagen Beetle. Advanced in its prime during the Cold War, it’s now more nostalgia-inducing than powerful. A revealing example is NATO’s 2011 mission in Libya, during which the alliance’s potential utility and present weakness were equally apparent. In the aftermath of the operation, many Western commentators echoed then-president Nicolas Sarkozy’s praise for NATO as “an indispensable tool.” Yet just eight of 28 NATO allies engaged in combat, and the United States overcompensated for allied gaps in munitions, surveillance, targeting, and intelligence. In an era of declining defense budgets, must the world’s strongest military alliance continue to atrophy?

 

Cobwebs have been collecting at the United Nations as well. Nearly 67 years since it held its first session, the U.N. Security Council now resembles America’s Augusta National Golf Club. Like Augusta, which finally admitted its first female member last year, the U.N. Security Council’s membership does not adequately reflect the world we live in. Surely India, the largest democracy on the planet and home to one-sixth of its population, deserves a seat at one of the most important policymaking tables. There are also strong cases for considering the candidacies of Brazil, Japan, and Germany, among others—perhaps even the European Union as a whole. Opponents of Security Council reform argue that enlarging its membership will make consensus even more difficult to achieve. But if its ranks are not expanded, any consensus it reaches will lack legitimacy.

 

Exclusion is also preventing the World Bank from fulfilling its full potential. Since its birth in 1944, the World Bank’s top post has been filled exclusively by Americans, some of whom carried questionable credentials. America’s effective veto on World Bank presidential appointments, while more appropriate during the decades following World War II, fails to account for the importance of emerging economies in today’s international system. Last year’s election was a small step in the right direction—provoking overdue conversations about the election process and bringing to power a leader with decades of experience working in impoverished nations—but much remains to be done. An institution committed to alleviating global poverty has an obligation, both practical and moral, to empower those most affected by its decisions.

 

The Munich Security Conference is an ideal forum for discussing how these twentieth-century cornerstones of peace and prosperity can be updated to account for today’s international realities. While it might seem a stretch to lump a defense alliance, a Bretton Woods institution, and the United Nations into a single discussion, these organizations have much in common, most of all in their shortcomings. The core challenge for all three organizations is determining how to better allocate responsibilities among their members. In this vein, a Munich Security Conference panel along the lines of “Representation and Responsibility in International Organizations” would draw attention to one of the most important and neglected topics in international security.

 

The impact of this conversation would reverberate well beyond the intricacies of procedural reform and bureaucratic maneuvering. At stake is the very fabric of the international community, how nations cooperate to address common challenges and to minimize conflict in a world of diverse interests and diverging viewpoints. Put simply, if international institutions remain stuck in the last century, they will be poorly equipped to deal with the challenges of tomorrow. Most alarming of all, if the post-World War II international order cannot reform its institutions to better reflect shifts in global power, it risks becoming irrelevant or being replaced.


Jonathan Hillman (26) is a Master in Public Policy candidate and Belfer International and Global Affairs Student Fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He is one of three Junior Ambassadors at the 2013 Munich Security Conference.

18 January 2013, by Jonathan Hillman

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