Come Together

Leaders struggling to fix a world spiraling out of control are turning to international institutions. Are they up to the task?

The world has been in a state of economic turmoil since 2008, and there's a good chance that things will get worse. Germany's economic slowdown is generating new doubt about Europe's already troubled efforts to deal with its debt crisis. And if Europe's crisis spirals, a devastating global downturn may follow.

The burgeoning emergency will have all sorts of political implications, but some of the most consequential may be for the architecture of global governance. Perhaps surprisingly, the global economic crisis has to this point strengthened key international institutions. The most obvious beneficiaries are the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European institutions, including the European Central Bank and the new European Financial Stability Facility.

The IMF received billions of dollars in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and now occupies a place in international deliberations that its leaders could only have dreamed of in 2006. Leading voices are arguing that IMF instruments could serve as a new global reserve currency. Meanwhile, Europe appears likely to grant some of its institutions more power over member states' budgetary and fiscal policy. This week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel advocated "real economic government for the euro zone," with much more central control of member-state budgets.

It's not intuitive that severe turbulence would empower rather than weaken international organizations. Crises have, in the past, shattered institutions. Most obviously, the Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II effectively put an end to the League of Nations. The consensus and goodwill that the league relied on dried up quickly in the face of international turmoil. Similarly, the nearly constant crises of the Cold War often neutered the United Nations and rendered other key institutions, including the International Court of Justice, mostly ineffective.

So why has the brutal economic crisis empowered rather than eviscerated instruments like the EU and the IMF? Part of the answer may be that leaders are casting about for solutions in all directions. They're pulling every policy lever they have, including multilateral ones.

But it's also possible that we have reached the point at which the world is more centripetal than centrifugal. The messy, halting, and fragmented project of global governance may have advanced far enough now that conflict, crisis, and the intense pressure of events lead not to the flying apart or hollowing out of existing institutions but to their consolidation. When crises hit, policymakers are pulled toward more international governance rather than less -- sometimes in spite of themselves. The reality of interdependence may finally have insinuated itself into the instincts of policymakers.

This centripetal dynamic, it's important to acknowledge, does not reflect particularly strong performances by existing institutions. As its own internal evaluation acknowledges, the IMF mostly failed to anticipate the 2008 financial crisis. Similarly, the European Union does not receive high marks for its actions during the ongoing debt crisis. European policymakers working through EU institutions have consistently opted for piecemeal solutions that delay -- but never resolve -- the underlying problem.

Multilateral instruments are getting more power and responsibility not necessarily because they've earned it, but because there seems to be no other option. Global institutionalization, at least in the economic realm, may now be a one-way ratchet: the only real options are keeping the status quo (which virtually everyone agrees is untenable) or ceding more power to the center.

In the security realm, the picture is more complicated. But here as well there's strong evidence that the world is turning centripetal. When Britain, France, and the United States decided on action in Libya, they drew on almost every multilateral resource at hand, including the United Nations, NATO, the Arab League, and the International Criminal Court. For better or worse, the Security Council is a key forum for developing the international response to the Arab world's turmoil. Encouraged by the G-8, the World Bank and the IMF offered to help solidify peaceful political transitions in Egypt and Tunisia.

It would be easy to dismiss today's security multilateralism as the particular product of Europe's consultative predilections and an Obama administration keen to distance itself from the George W. Bush administration's unilateralism. But consider how the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq War -- the most significant recent security shocks -- affected the U.N. and NATO. The United States, of course, opted for a largely unilateral response in Afghanistan. It only sought the most minimal authorization from the Security Council for action in Afghanistan. In Iraq, of course, it ended up with no authorization at all. And as the Security Council clashed over that conflict, plenty of pundits and politicians argued that the Bush administration had dealt the organization a death blow.  

Far from it. The Security Council resumed its work and set about authorizing several major peacekeeping operations, including in Sudan, Ivory Coast, and Haiti. The last years of the Bush administration were some of the council's busiest. In the end, an American administration deeply skeptical of "global governance" -- a term John Bolton abhors -- did very little to reduce the prominence of the organization. The U.N. is as active and central today as it was before the 9/11 attacks. Indeed,  it's remarkable how little the Iraq experience, despite all the heated rhetoric, did to undermine the organization.

The case is even stronger that the 9/11 security shock pushed the NATO alliance toward greater reach and authority. Afghanistan has become NATO's most ambitious undertaking ever, with dozens of alliance members participating. The operation has introduced all kinds of well-documented strains, but it has also forced the alliance to operate jointly in a combat environment. The experience has turned an alliance that had been focused on Europe and its environs into one that thinks globally.

But there are no guarantees. Institutional fragmentation could still happen; a reshaping or even dissolution of the eurozone -- which would entail major consequences for the EU itself -- remains possible. A fissure could emerge on the IMF's executive board -- perhaps over further European bailouts -- that would paralyze the institution. Skeptics have been predicting the crack-up of NATO for years, and there are indeed sharp differences within the alliance. A future U.S.-China clash over the South China Sea might fracture any number of major international organizations. More broadly, the BRICS may still challenge the existing international architecture much more directly than they have to this point. There's nothing inevitable about the advance of international institutions.

And make no mistake: A centripetal world is not necessarily a better or more harmonious one. But it's one in which policymakers instinctively reach for solutions that involve and rely on international institutions. This is a victory for those who have long argued that institutionalized cooperation is the only path forward. But it's also a daunting challenge. More reliance and authority for these institutions will mean much more public scrutiny. The days when international organizations could work quietly in the shadows are ending.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images


Planning for Libya 2.0

Make no mistake: Qaddafi will be ousted, and probably sooner rather than later. That's why the hard work of rebuilding Libya must start now.

Finally, it seems that Libya's rebels have momentum on their side: They have pushed back Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces on multiple fronts and are poised to encircle the capital of Tripoli. Libyans, and the entire world, will no doubt cheer the country's liberation, but it's not time to celebrate yet. Even if Qaddafi falls sooner rather than later, the immediate post-war period will still pose serious risks to both Libyans and the international community.

The stakes couldn't be higher. A botched transition to a new regime could imperil the security and welfare in a post-Qaddafi Libya, discredit the NATO intervention, provide hfaven to international terrorists, lead to a new dictatorship, and even break up the country. We know from the experience in Iraq how costly a poorly planned transition can be.

The most pressing requirement will be reestablishing security. There's no sign as of yet that Qaddafi intends to go quietly. On Aug. 15, he implored his supporters to "pick up your weapons, go to the fight for liberating Libya inch by inch from the traitors and from NATO." Even if the regime collapses, remnants of his armed forces may take these words to heart. Tripoli presents the greatest challenge. While liberated areas in other parts of the country have stabilized quickly as Qaddafi's forces and sympathizers fled, there is no guarantee that the same will hold true for the capital. Many regime supporters and mercenaries have gathered there, and could mount the kind of "stay-behind" operation that brought chaos to post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

Security cannot be maintained for long without at least a rudimentary system for police, courts, and incarceration. These new institutions will be forced to grapple with internecine warfare among rebel or tribal factions, revenge killings, and criminal gangs. The Qaddafi-era institutions may suffice in the immediate post-war period, but thorough reforms will be needed if the rule of law is to be established on a more permanent basis.

Humanitarian requirements are also likely to be acute in Tripoli as well as other newly liberated population centers. Even in liberated areas, casualties and humanitarian requirements have not yet been fully assessed. Electricity outages are already reportedly severe in Tripoli, while Misrata has been in need of food shipments. Following Qaddafi's fall, it will be vital to quickly restore basic services to these neighborhoods. Providing food, water, shelter, and health care for the most vulnerable -- including what may amount to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people -- will also be key. An angry citizenry does not make for a smooth transition.

Kickstarting Libya's economy will require getting its energy production and exports back online as quickly as possible. But it is not just a matter of getting the oil and gas flowing: A more transparent and accountable system for spending the resulting revenue, much of which used to disappear into Qaddafi family accounts, will be needed to help forestall quarrels over the proceeds and set the country on a more sustainable path. The post-Qaddafi regime will need to do a full accounting of its assets and try to ensure that some of them are not "privatized" by officials seeking to line their pockets.

Establishing transparent, accountable, and inclusive institutions of governance will be the responsibility of the Transitional National Council (TNC), which has now received diplomatic recognition from the United States as well as much of Europe and the Arab world. This will be key to determining Libya's political future. The TNC's inclinations are clearly in the democratic direction, but it has been rent by factionalism and disorganization. The killing of the rebel military chief Abdel Fatah Younes by what appears to be a dissident faction within the rebel ranks is only the most visible example of this internal chaos. In order to maintain its claim to legitimacy, the new government will need to swiftly incorporate new people from recently liberated areas and heal long-standing tribal and minority wounds.

The TNC should consider including officials formerly belonging to Qaddafi's army and security services, who otherwise may try to spoil the transition. Just as de-Baathification harmed international efforts to construct a stable government in Iraq, premature de-Qaddafiization could create more problems than it solves. On the institutional level, it needs to lay out a roadmap for preparing a constitution, organizing national and local elections, and convening a parliament. This is a tall order for a government that recently disbanded its executive committee in the wake of Younes's murder. Even in Egypt, where a solidly unified military remains in charge, the timing and order of these political events has posed knotty issues.

The international community has a role to play in this transition as well. It must lend its help to Libyans in overcoming the many challenges that they will face. The process should begin at the United Nations, where the coordinated effort to protect Libya's civilians first began. A Security Council resolution could affirm that Libya should remain a single country, should be able to sustain and defend itself, should be committed to using the wealth of its natural resources in an equal and beneficial manner, and should be governed by inclusive institutions that respect the will of all its people and their human rights. This kind of internationally supported transition framing will help to ensure common purpose and coordination among the dozens of governments and hundreds of organizations likely to become involved, some of which are already providing assistance in liberated areas.

The United Nations, which authorized the NATO intervention, has both the funding and the credibility with Libyans to play a leadership role in the transition. From Washington's perspective -- which is no doubt to avoid getting embroiled in more nation building -- it is also a relatively economical way to get things done, as the United States usually pays no more than one-third of the U.N. costs.

The European Union also has serious capabilities -- in particular, the ability to deploy hundreds of paramilitary police needed to stabilize a city like Tripoli -- which will likely need to be brought to bear. Several important European Union members, such as Italy, France, and Germany receive oil and gas supplies from Libya or have invested in Libyan energy production, and therefore have a vested interest in seeing the country manage its transition effectively. Europe, however, is preoccupied with its own financial difficulties. Libyan assets frozen in the United States and Europe will eventually provide ample financing, but wealthy Arab oil producers may be needed to meet Libya's most immediate requirements.

The United Nations and the European Union should lead in assisting the Libya transition, but that does not exempt the United States from contributing. American logistics and intelligence have been vital to the NATO military operation and will likely also be crucial in the post-Qaddafi period. The United States is not completely devoid of interests in Libya, after all -- it does not want sensitive materials from Libya's nuclear and chemical weapons programs to get loose, for known terrorists to seek haven there, or for any Stinger-type anti-aircraft weapons to escape into the world arms markets. The United States will also want to make sure that NATO is prepared to step in if chaos threatens to break up Libya, re-install a dictator, or unleash a humanitarian crisis across North Africa and the Mediterranean.

Libyans have much to look forward to celebrating after a long and difficult conflict. But the really difficult challenges still lie ahead. The more we think through the challenges and prepare for them now, the easier it will be to meet the requirements later.