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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

The Pitfalls and Potential of International Cooperation

Many observers are excited that Joe Biden’s presidency promises to bring international cooperation back into American foreign policy, but whose interests are advanced and whose are harmed by international agreements?  While international cooperation is often presented as a smart, pragmatic and progressive approach, a closer look reveals a more complicated reality.  Northwestern University Weinberg College Center for International and Area Studies Director and Political Science Professor Ian Hurd and European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights Program Manager Jonas Grimheden highlighted the potentials and pitfalls of international cooperation during a Northwestern Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs webinar. Here are four key takeaways from the discussion:

There is a persistent myth that international cooperation benefits all parties. Many believe international agreements stem directly from cooperation among states, and that cooperation is “good for everyone,” Hurd said. Yet, if the history of the post-WWII era is any indication, these assumptions don’t stand up to scrutiny. “The cooperation metaphor is not a good way of thinking about international affairs because it gives the impression that there are no losers from these agreements and that everybody wins,” he said. 

International agreements are often defined by coercion and domination, with key actors bullying others into cooperating. Countries such as the United States have traditionally aligned their participation in international institutions with their own desires. “The way cooperation works today, the interests are not always aligned with that of the people or that of a good cause, but often possess a very narrow government, power-related focus,” Grimheden said. 

 When thinking about international agreements, we need to “recognize that there are advantages for some and disadvantages for others.  This then allows us to understand resistance and why some people are not happy with the current system,” Hurd said. “It may well be that people see their interests as being harmed by the way that institutional rules have been written and applied.  Their political response needs to be understood.”

While there is no denying the power dynamics and shortcomings associated with the current international order, international agreements do still have the capacity to produce positive outcomes. “Very often there is no alternative to cooperation. Although public international law is an imperfect tool, through international human rights law [and other examples] we can see instances where cooperation is for a better cause than government interests” said Grimheden.  Even if the initial reasoning behind a particular agreement is questionable, it’s important not to discount potential beneficial outcomes.

This dynamic is seen in agreements where incentives are used to influence member cooperation. Grimheden cites the efforts of the European Union (EU) as an example, which has struggled for over a decade with member states that have resisted complying with the second article of the European Union treaty, which outlines shared values related to the rule of law and human rights.  The EU has relied on “all of its tools—political and judicial—to try to reach an understanding, and is now using funding as a means to push member states less convinced by the rule of law arguments that they have to change in order to access these funds,” he said. 

The COVID-19 crisis reveals many of the shortcomings—and also potential­—of the international order.  The lack of global leadership during the pandemic has revealed “the power of certain private actors, such as pharma companies and philanthropic organizations such as the Gates Foundation that have manipulated the cooperative landscape to produce vaccine research and production with funding and direct science. This has further blurred the boundary between international public and international private authorities,” Hurd said. 

In the case of the World Health Organization, Hurd argues the actions it took were entirely predictable based on its structure. The WHO has “governments as its members, and its primarily funded by governments. It is responsive to its most powerful members and it receives information on health crises from government authorities. This means that what it’s able to communicate to the world is dependent on what governments are telling it,” he said.  Thus “it followed the only script that it has, which is to send up flares when public health authorities in member countries detect new problems, which is what it did.” 

Ultimately, when assessing the actions of international organizations, the benchmarks we use to gauge their effectiveness are important. “Sometimes the hope should be to prevent deterioration.  If we take a long view, we see that small steps over time add up,” Grimheden said.

This webinar is part of Northwestern Buffett’s "Building Sustainable Futures: Global Challenges and Possibilities" webinar series. The series will focus on a different United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) each quarter, beginning with UN SDG #16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions—an examination of how existing infrastructures uphold and promote violence, and what we can do to build more effective, accountable institutions.