Quick Reflections on International Institutions 2.0

21CQ Topic President's Blog


Irvin Studin


6 years ago

21CQ is manifestly interested in renovating last-century international institutions and, wherever necessary, divining and proposing “new” institutions and mechanisms for solving new-century international, global and even national problems.

Several of 21CQ’s primary “Questions” of interest touch directly on institutional renovation and creation. These include, of course, the concept of a Middle Eastern or West Asian security framework and an East Asian security framework. On the Middle Eastern framework, 21CQ has done considerable work around the world, and continues to lead the international discourse on the standing up of such a regional structure as a means of solving several vexing challenges at the heart of West Asia’s troubles – starting with the basic absence of trust and confidence among many of the constituent states.

Several other 21CQ “Questions” also involve at least some degree of institutional innovation in order to solve a complex international problem or national imperative: the Russia-West conflict; the Arctic space; and international criminal justice. 21CQ is interested in and engaged on all these problems.

After nearly five years of work on its various “Questions” (21CQ celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, just as GB celebrates its 10th anniversary), it is worth offering a handful of reflections on some of the cross-cutting issues and angles involved in tackling the construction of a new or renewed universe or constellation of institutions that will be à la hauteur – as it were – in helping humanity solve some of this new century’s most important challenges.

Interstitial Institutions

Perhaps the most important and least understood of all new-century international governance challenges concerns the nature of the interactions between geographical blocs – especially geographic economic blocs. The construction of various species of intra-continental or geographically-specific economic blocs, as discussed below, is manifestly more intuitive and builds on extant efforts from the 20th century – the EU, ASEAN, etc.

Also more intuitive is the need for “global” institutions to oversee and regulate all manner of intercourse among states and state-specific institutions – the UN, the Bretton Woods institutions, etc. We treat the new-century logic and looks for such institutions below.

But what of the “interstitial” relations between geographic blocs? Who is working on these arrangements? Answer: very few people, and too few at that.

Far more than considerations about NATO expansion or any state-specific conspiracy, the most persuasive interpretation for the genesis of the Russia-Ukraine-West conflict, for which 21CQ has been a leader in floating exit algorithms, is that of an essential “clash” or “crash” in 2014 between the competing gravities and “fields” of the EU (the European economic bloc) and the still-embryonic Eurasian Economic Union (the major economic bloc of the post-Soviet space).

These blocs (gravities or “fields”) – for all practical intents and purposes, not just economic blocs, but also regulatory, security, normative and even spiritual blocs – pulled on the “unclaimed” Ukrainian space (unclaimed in the sense of not being a proper member of any of the competing blocs) that lay (geographically) between them. The two blocs were able to pull, in opposite directions, deliberately and unwittingly alike, on the institutionally weak (and poorly governed) Ukrainian state with sufficient force as to cause its fundamental disruption or destabilization – with chaotic forces released from the Ukrainian “atom”, as it were, as if in a nuclear fission.

Indubitably, then, any “solution” to the Russia-Ukraine-West conflict will require not only a species of restitching of the intra-Ukrainian space to reckon with that state’s weak institutions and various constitutional and political specificities, but also an “interstitial” stitching that connects the EU and Eurasian Economic Union between themselves and across the Ukrainian space and state – without Ukraine necessarily becoming a bone fide member of either bloc. (I would warm, humbly, that if the moment has not already passed, then this solution will have to be in place in the coming months if the Russia-Ukraine-West conflict is not to re-erupt in the context of the springtime presidential election in Ukraine.)

The second major episode of interstitial crisis occurred as late as 2018 – in the event, involving the US, China and Canada, or as between the NAFTA (North American economic bloc) and China (or Chinese-led blocs). First, in the fall of 2018, Canada, Mexico and the US signed the new USMCA agreement, intended to succeed NAFTA – for all intents and purposes, a “NAFTA 2.0”. This new agreement included – surprisingly, to most analysts, in both North America and Asia – an clause (Article 32.10) that requires each of the three signatory states to have effective approval – procedurally and substantively – from the other two in the event that the state in question should wish to pursue a free-trade agreement with a “non-market” state.

If, as most analysts suggest, this clause intended “non-market” to mean, first and foremost, China (understood as “non-market” in American trade law, but not in WTO terms), then the 2014 interstitial contest between the EU and Eurasian Economic Union over and through Ukraine has repeated itself, in 2018, between the NAFTA and China spaces over and through Canada (and, to a less sharp degree, over Mexico). If we presume that it was the US that introduced this clause and logic to the USMCA, then Article 32.10 was intended to place Canada firmly within the NAFTA (North American) economic space to the explicit exclusion of any frictionless possibility of a) joining a China-led bloc, or b) being a member of, or otherwise freely enjoying the economic rents associated with membership in both the North American and China blocs.

Beijing clearly interpreted this clause as hostile to it – by design from Washington, and by subservient or reflexive agreement from Ottawa (and, to a less significant degree, in economic and strategic terms, Mexico City as well).

The interstitial conflict between the North American NAFTA/USMCA bloc and China crescendoed remarkably in late 2018, following the arrest in Vancouver of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, based on an extradition request by the U.S. for alleged violations of US sanctions laws. The arrest led to a major standoff between Ottawa and Beijing, and has seen the detention/arrest of at least two Canadians in China as possible retaliation for what the Chinese perceive as Canada enforcing an American-led anti-Chinese posture – or, alternatively, as the US using Canada as a key “interstitial” front against China in the North American space or theatre. Well into 2019, it is not impossible that this front should become increasingly contested, up to and including in quasi-military terms, as these two blocs compete in the near-total absence of proper interstitial governance.

The key question, then, in institutional and international governance terms, is how to build “insterstitial” mechanisms – tendons, as it were – between the major geographical blocs, economic and other, such that the relations and interactions between them are minimally frictious or indeed never hostile to the point of potential armed clash.

In the event, such interstitial tendons will have to be divined and developed between, among others, the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union; the North American (NAFTA 2.0) space and China or China-led blocs; the North American bloc and the Eurasian Economic Union across the weakly governed Arctic space (perhaps a near-term next source of inter-bloc conflict); and, to be sure, between the EU and an eventual Middle Eastern or West Asian bloc – to which we turn shortly below.

What is the nature or content of these “interstitial” ties or links between blocs? Answer: in the de minimis form, they ought to include joint discussion and problem-solving fora and personnel exchanges (to unwind deep misunderstandings and develop common understandings and frameworks), but also, beyond these, a steady stream of pilot projects, joint inter-bloc projects (and commissions), time-limited special economic zones (including under joint or flexible regulation), pushes to coordinate and unify regulatory frameworks, as well as “interstitial” conflict-resolution bodies and arbitrators.


Asian-Led Institutions

The second major area of novelty in global institution-building this century must be the advent of Asian-led and Asian-initiated global institutions – that is, Asian institutions that are intended to solve international problems within and certainly beyond the local Asian geography or theatre.

China will evidently be a leader in driving many of these new-century international institutions, as with the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). This is only proper, given China’s new centrality in the global system, and should generally be welcomed by other regions as necessary to the international problem-solving mix, where North America, Europe and the former Soviet space have to date been the dominant regions for driving international mechanisms (and rules).

Of course, key regional countries like India, Japan, both Koreas, Indonesia and Singapore will also be possible future drivers of international governance innovation. International problem-solving can, in general, only profit from the injection of Asian imagination and initiative.

It may well be Asia that leads in developing early best practices in the interstitial governance discussed above – specifically, by building on extant and evolving practices in relations between China, the East Asian space, and the Eurasian Economic Union in what may be called the larger or greater Eurasian space.

Could this be expanded to Asian bloc relations with North America? Indubitably. And perhaps starting in the Arctic. A country like Canada has colossal infrastructure challenges in its North (see 21CQ’s work on the Arctic Question), and it is not beyond the thinkable or reasonable that a Canada-China infrastructure-led partnership on Northern and Arctic infrastructure should be the sharp end of the stick both in starting to repair relations between Ottawa and Beijing, but also to begin conscientiously building the said interstitial links between the continental blocs. (One can imagine Russia, the US and select European Nordic states soon joining this initial interstitial infrastructure “consortium” for the North as a way of deepening these interstitial links across at least four blocs or strategic theatres – to wit, North America, Asia, the Eurasian Economic Union and, of course, the EU.)

What are other areas, on top of infrastructure, in which China in particular, and Asian-led blocs in general, can lead the way in driving international problem-solving, including the generalization of approaches to other regional blocs? Answer: cyber, space, weapons and armaments (including new-century nuclear, biological, chemical and radiological weapons), oceans, the environment (including climate change), and, to be sure, various species of new technology, science and ethical problems (from nanotechnology to genetics).

For now, based on 21CQ’s consultations, it does not seem like an East Asian or whole-of-Asia security framework is anywhere near to being on the policy table in any plurality of regional countries – even if it remains a key 21CQ Question. Nevertheless, 21CQ’s proposal for a Western Asian security architecture, led by my 21CQ colleague Sam Sasan Shoamanesh, has, since first proposed in the pages of GB in 2010, become a key priority for many regional states and in security and governance discourses in that region.


UN and other Institutions – De Minimis Approaches

While 21CQ is exercised by international problem-solving and the modernization or creation of new international mechanisms and institutions to solve many global, international and even national problems, we remain extremely humble before the reality that “formal” institutions cannot and will never be able to solve all of this century’s major international challenges.

The UN Security Council, for the foreseeable future, remains a central component of both global security and global problem-solving not in its ability to comprehensively represent or tackle these problems with any effectiveness but rather, in a de minimis sense, because it maximizes the chances of there not being conflict among the great, nuclear-armed powers.

More precisely, as discussed previously in this blog, the Security Council, despite its many imperfections and inability to represent even all the major powers of the day (the central question among several important vectors in Security Council reform), the veto powers of the five permanent members (the US, Russia, China, the UK and France) rather ingeniously ensure that there are no conditions under which these leading powers could enter direct military confrontation between or among themselves under the formal sanction of international law.

In other words, such a great-power war could happen indirectly or illegally, but not directly and legally. As direct war between and among the great powers has, happily, effectively not taken place since the Second World War and the very creation of the United Nations, one can only conclude that the de minimis logic of the Security Council, undergirded by a culture of constant assembly, communication and public debate among the great powers, and perhaps also an inference by these great powers in respect of where the approximate spheres of interest of the opposite great powers lie, has allowed the world to avoid cataclysmic armed conflict on a cross-continental or global scale. This would seem a good thing.

Of course, there has been – and continues to be – military conflict on a less-than-global or intercontinental scale. This is a less good thing. There has been genocide, there have been many cases of mass atrocity, and there continue to be episodes of illegal war and warfare. But this does not compromise the grand function and utility of the Security Council – as the Council, by its very logic, does not and cannot promise to eliminate these major problems. It is not a de maximis structure. And so we can certainly improve on the representativity and operations of the Security Council at the margin, but it is not Security Council reform as such, or even improved operations or functioning or “good will” of or from the Council (or the removal of so-called “capricious vetoes”), that will solve the world’s major problems outside of the core imperative of preventing military cataclysm.

If the Security Council plays its due (minimalistic) part, then there must be other international mechanisms and institutions that build on its de minimis foundation (or “understructure”, as it were) in order to address broader issues – non-war and war alike. And indeed, there are many, including the new-century variants we discuss above.

Still, I should like to stress that the classical logic of the late Australian Hedley Bull, in his precocious book, The Anarchical Society (1977), continues to play an indubitable role in expanding the de minimis logic of the Security Council to the following types of mechanisms and informal “institutions” that allow the essential “anarchy” of the world to become a quasi-“society”, as it were:

  • war (yes, war or the threat of war or force as an international mechanism – and hopefully one that, as discussed below, can be driven to a minimum this century)
  • diplomacy (in both its classical and evolving forms)
  • international law (see 21CQ’s considerable work on International Criminal Justice)
  • balance of power
  • great powers

21CQ supports the logic that these institutions, working in varying combinations, continue to provide the central mix of means to the end of solving most international problems.

As such, international law, while clearly important to human and state conduct around the world, cannot alone resolve problems like war, genocide and a host of non-military challenges (many of which are noted above). It may be a necessary condition, but it necessarily also operates in combination with mechanisms like diplomacy, great-power balances and even the pressure of potential war or use of force in order to drive various outcomes that tend toward resolution of international problems. (To be clear, 21CQ’s work is conscientiously aimed at driving to a minimum the weight of war and the threat of war as an “institution” in international affairs.)

And yet we must allow, on this logic, that some problems of an international order will not be solved in any meaningful way, and some wars not avoided. The circle of mechanisms and institutions expands from the de minimis and critical, in other words, toward the desirable, but always short of total coverage. The magnitude of the gap of unsolved problems turns on the ambition and imagination of humankind this century – and whatever cannot be solved in spite of an existing ambition can only be described, existentially, as part of the tragedy of life and the world.

Let me also note, perhaps with emphasis, that the present fashion of invoking a so-called “rule of law” tradition in some parts of the world as, by dint of multiplication or replication to all quarters of the world (perhaps in almost identical or universal form), the necessary “telos” or end-state of international relations this century, misses the point of both the de minimis logic of the Security Council in particular and the five or so Bullian “institutions” radiating outwards in concert with that de minimis structure. “Rule of law”, even in its maximal form globally, still must work in concert with the other institutions of international society or the international system if it is to be effective. The goal, of course, should be to maximize the reach and interoperability of these institutions, and refining them constantly – hopefully in the service of a better global condition (or peace).

Please watch for Sam Sasan Shoamanesh to be writing soon, in various formats and also in the pages of GB, on two key 21CQ international institution-related Questions that he leads and on which considerable work has been done by our team around the world – a West Asian Security Framework; and also International Criminal Justice.

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