If We Don’t Choose Failure, We Can At Least Try to Avoid It

In a back-and-forth about Nina Hachigian’s TNR piece that Mark praised the other day, new FP blogger Dan Drezner relays Hachigian’s effective response that working through international institutions will prove the only way to address major 21st century challenges.

But the evidence is mounting from events like 9-11, SARS, the Mumbai attacks, and freakish weather that if we don’t work together, we sink together. And in order to work together most effectively, we need institutions. Yes, the current ones are flawed, sometimes deeply flawed. But they already carry our water on a regular basis and nearly zero political credit for doing so. Want to prevent an epidemic of drug resistant TB in the US? Need the WHO. Want to share the costs of bailing out a whole bunch of countries? The IMF is taking that on. Want to run schools in Gaza or elections in Iraq? Call the UN. You see my point. It’s not that these institutions are a panacea. It’s that they are necessary because we haven’t figured out a better way to coordinate actions between governments…and they do deliver. If we invest in them modest amounts of time and money, they will pay further dividends in our security and prosperity.

Drezner had expressed some skepticism about the model that conservatives often caricature as “global governance,” presenting the legitimate argument that, unless the spheres of interest of great powers sufficiently overlap, it will be exceedingly difficult to construct solutions on issues as internationally divisive as, for example, how to respond to global warming, or how to reform the Security Council. At the root of Drezner’s skepticism is the game theory problem that, while the catastrophic effects of global warming will affect everyone, individual countries have a hard time responding to the imperative by taking the first step, and thus consensus is difficult to achieve.

Drezner characterizes Hachigian’s argument as one of “failure is not an option,” but I think he is being unfair in parsing out the clarification that failure can only be an “outcome,” not an “option.” Clearly. The choice, per se, is not between successful nuclear non-proliferation and failed non-proliferation (though some, of course, might attempt to make an attempt for proliferation); it is between attempted non-proliferation and unattempted non-proliferation. International institutions come into play not because countries recognize that they do not want to “choose” failure, and not only because they represent the best — and, as Hachigian convincingly expresses, only — way to avoid failure, but also because they provide the best means for negotiating the way to move these long-term common global interests forward. This is not investing “diplomatic capital on hope,” as Drezner interprets it, but on strengthening the mechanism by which the interests of various international actors are pressured into a certain direction.

Now the final question that Drezner raises, whether the consensus that emerges out of such international negotiation will be a good one…well, there’s the rub. But the potential for a less-good solution, or even a certifiably bad solution, no less decreases the absolute need to work together than the overwhelming difficulty of mustering any sort of effective response diminishes the enormity of a problem like global warming. It won’t be easy to come to a “good” solution, and — as climate talks in Poznan last December showed us — the chances of reaching an ideal agreement are slim to none. But a little bit of give on all sides — had the United States acceded to either of two very legitimate and agreeable proposals for Security Council reform in 1996, for example, we might have a very different-looking international order today — can go a long way in securing a response that will be far, far better than no response at all.