Reshaping the World Order

How Washington Should Reform International Institutions

Creating a league of democracies, revamping the UN Security Council, revitalizing the nuclear nonproliferation regime -- proposals for revising international institutions are all the rage these days. And for good reason: no one sitting down to design the perfect global framework for the twenty-first century would come up with anything like the current one. The existing architecture is a relic of the preoccupations and power relationships of the middle of the last century -- out of sync with today's world of rising powers and new challenges, from terrorism and nuclear proliferation to financial instability and global warming.

It is one thing to agree that change is needed, but quite another to settle on its specifics. As soon as the conversation shifts to brass tacks, competing visions begin to clash. In an anarchic world of self-interested states -- that is to say, in the real world -- the chances that those states will cooperate are best when a hegemon takes the lead. There are, of course, good reasons to question whether the United States, the only contender for such a role today, is up to the task. Under the George W. Bush administration, consideration of global institutional change fell through the cracks. The administration did not invest much in international institutions and tended to denigrate them for hindering, rather than enabling, the realization of U.S. interests. But with the election of President Barack Obama, the United States' reluctance to push for institutional change now appears to have ended. In a 2007 address to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Obama stressed that "it was America that largely built a system of international institutions that carried us through the Cold War. . . . Instead of constraining our power, these institutions magnified it." "Today it's become fashionable to disparage the United Nations, the World Bank, and other international organizations," he continued. "In fact, reform of these bodies is urgently needed if they are to keep pace with the fast-moving threats we face."

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