Program Areas

Program Areas

Study: International institutions insufficient to deal with global issues

A view of the flags outside the UN Headquarters on 23 September 2020. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Considering that global problems demand global solutions, is global governance really fit for purpose? This question is discussed in a new publication from SNS Democracy Council, a Swedish non-profit organization that advises international policymakers.

Based on numerous empirical data, the 200-pages study examines to what extent the United Nations and other international, or multilateral, organizations are able to deal with “contemporary societal problems” with a “transboundary nature” such as climate change or military conflicts. Do these organizations and institutions hold enough power? Do they operate with sufficient effectiveness and possess an adequate degree of legitimacy? 

Assessing power, effectiveness and legitimacy

The report contends that whether international organizations have adequate power is a topic of debate. In times of crisis, they are often described as impotent, the study points out, whereas in other situations they are criticized for being too powerful. In order to come to a more objective assessment, the study looks at the criteria of legal, institutional, material and ideational power. It says that commonly “multilateral institutions face deficits in one or several of these areas, thus reducing their ability to deliver on expectations.”

Overall, the report comes to the conclusion that while contemporary international organizations in general “have notable levels of power, effectiveness, and legitimacy” the “arrangements” are nevertheless “insufficient to tackle current and future challenges.” 

Existing arrangements insufficient for current and future challanges

The document argues that insufficiencies of multilateralism are particularly “well illustrated in the area of global climate governance”. While the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change plays a central role for international cooperation on handling climate change it has “very limited means of power” and “insufficient measures” to reach global climate goals at a collective level. 

While “international organizations do not suffer from a general legitimacy crisis” according to the report, it concludes nonetheless that there is a worrying ”elite-citizen gap in legitimacy beliefs vis-á-vis global governance” since leaders in politics and society tend to think that international organizations are legitimate and ordinary citizens less so. Based on an assessment of opinion polls, the study highlights that “overall average citizen confidence in international organizations slightly exceeds average confidence in national governments.”

In comparison to the UN the authors make the obvious point that the European Union (EU), an institution with supranational powers, is “better equipped both institutionally and materially”. With bodies such as the European Commission and the European Parliament, the EU is able to take decisions based on majority voting rather than on consensus and to adopt binding regulations, which is not possible in current institutions of global governance.

Three different strategies

Three different strategies for making global governance more fit for purpose are recommended. First, to “upgrade the classic interstate system of cooperation” and strengthen existing multilateral institutions by “giving” them “greater legal power to regulate” and “more extensive enforcement powers”, in parallel with “more majority voting” and a stronger “core funding of multilateral institutions.” The report does not go into further detail on which particular institutions should be developed in this regard or if these reforms would require difficult changes in the UN Charter. Furthermore it is not clear if suggested majority voting would be based on states, population, economic power or other criteria.

Since existing international organizations may seem too difficult to reform, a second strategy is put forward to enhance “new modes of global governance” that are “less dependent on the will of states”. The authors suggest that these new modes could include more of “informal processes” of cooperation through the involvement of “nonstate” actors, “transgovernmental networks”, “transnational hybrid institutions”, private actors or “translocal cooperation” of cities.

Supranational and democratic global governance

A third strategy is based on pessimism regarding the possible success of incremental reforms and instead “calls for a fundamental shift toward more supranational and democratic forms of global governance” which includes consideration of new “fully empowered institutions” like a World Environmental Organization, giving existing organizations supranational authority that supersedes state sovereignty, developing stronger democratic mechanisms such as global political parties and legislative assemblies, and strengthening international courts and national courts’ role in enforcing international law.

In particular, this move into a “cosmopolitan direction” could also include “a system of international taxation that generates much expanded own resources for international organizations and other global governance institutions.” It is pointed out that the three strategies aren’t mutually exclusive and each has its own “tricky aspects”. 

No mention of a UN Parliamentary Assembly

While the report acknowledges the importance of developing “elected global assemblies”, it does not mention the long-standing proposal of a UN Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) which numerous experts and civil society organizations consider a key element in strengthening the effectiveness and legitimacy of the UN and the broader system of global governance. 

“A UNPA could be established without changing the UN Charter, based on article 22. While it would build on current structures of multilateralism it could at the same time pave the way for new modes of participation and a future democratic transformation of global governance, thus combining the three strategies suggested in the report”, Petter Ölmunger, chair of the Swedish chapter of Democracy Without Borders, commented.

The SNS report was authored by Jonas Tallberg, Karin Bäckstrand, Jan Aart Scholte and Thomas Sommerer who are professors at the University of Stockholm, Leiden University and the University of Potsdam, respectively.