Refitting Global Organizations for New Order

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Kosovo's proclamation of independence has sparked a storm of debate. The main topic of discussion is how Kosovo's decision will influence other regional conflicts. More interesting, though, is what role the events in the Balkans will play in the overall weakening of international institutions.

All of the participants in the Kosovo conflict appealed to international law to support their positions. But since the United Nations Security Council has had little impact on resolving the Kosovo issue, the legitimacy of the new state will remain a matter of dispute.

Moscow and Belgrade blame the countries that argued for "independence at any price" -- the United States and Western Europe. For their part, Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and other Pristina supporters feel that Russia's obstructionist position has further weakened the UN Security Council's effectiveness.

In reality, though, this is nothing new. International institutions have been steadily losing influence for the last 15 years. One country after another has contributed to the problem whenever it was expedient to do so.

As a rule, a country's reliance on international law and organizations is inversely proportional to its power. The weaker and more vulnerable a country is, the more it argues for the rights and obligations of all nations. And the reverse is also true: When a country has superpower status, it is tempted to circumvent or outright ignore international law.

In this sense, the Cold War was a unique period. Two major international players were roughly equal in terms of power and influence. This situation had mixed consequences for the functioning of global institutions.

For example, the UN Security Council's work was often paralyzed by the bipolar confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, and this greatly diminished its effectiveness. Nevertheless, the standoff forced both sides to agree upon rules and standards governing mutual behavior. Since neither side was free to behave exactly as it wanted, both saw the need for common regulatory institutions.

But the end of the Cold War changed everything.

The victorious side found itself burdened by restrictions that had been imposed during the previous period. But the losing side had no opportunity to insist on a full application of these rules. As a result, the legal approach to international policy gradually began turning into mere ritual, rather than a substantial process of decision-making.

NATO justified its military action against Yugoslavia in 1999 by citing the need to defend the rule of law and human rights. But a different interpretation of earlier UN Security Council resolutions was required to legitimize the military campaign on legal grounds. And the U.S. invasion of Iraq was initiated without any supporting UN resolution whatsoever. According to the opinion of neoconservative ideologues who dominated U.S. foreign policy during the first years of this century, the UN had lost its moral and legal standing and should therefore be abolished.

The situation appeared in a new light when that approach led to unfortunate consequences -- primarily for the United States. With the start of his second term, President George W. Bush attempted to position U.S. foreign policy back within the framework of international agreements. The inability of the old system to regulate international conflicts is becoming more obvious with every new conflict. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's concept of a "coalition of the willing," which has proved a handy substitute for stable alliances and international organizations, prevails.

Of course, the UN is not the only organization that is suffering from decay. Nearly every international organization has become less effective at solving global problems. Talks of reforming various institutions -- from the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to the World Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization -- have not amounted to much.

For example, last spring Russia requested that the OSCE convene to discuss the proposed changes to the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. Nothing was achieved. The efforts to shift talks on missile-defense issues to include a greater number of EU and NATO member countries were equally unsuccessful. But the members of these organizations are interested in seeing the question resolved at a bilateral level and do not want to incur any of the responsibility for strategic questions.

NATO itself is going through a crisis. After September 2001, Washington's refusal to fully rely on the organization in its war against terrorism brought NATO's founding principle into question. It is not surprising, therefore, that current U.S. efforts to involve NATO in resolving military problems and to shift its focus toward global conflicts have failed.

In the post-Cold War multipolar world, new nations have emerged as international leaders, and they are declaring their right to participate in defining the rules of the global game. The current international institutions, however, were designed to meet the needs of the old bipolar world. They could somehow function as long as they were only required to formally ratify decisions made outside the framework of those organizations.

Which forms of international cooperation are effective in today's world? Those that were set up by a range of different powers to resolve concrete problems. The Group of Six, for example, convened to settle the problem of the North Korean nuclear threat. Or the Group of Five to sort out the situation with Iran. Of course, they operate in coordination with the UN Security Council, but at their core is a combination of different policies and interests from individual countries. But it is difficult to achieve a consensus because of the deep mutual suspicions among the participants.

Is there a chance that this destructive process will give way to something more constructive in the foreseeable future?

It appears that this is unlikely. The end of the Cold War was not the finale, but the start of a painful process of global transformation -- from stable, long-term confrontation governed by well-defined rules to something entirely new. Just where this process is leading remains unclear. The only certainty is that it hasn't stopped yet. It is impossible to establish a status quo or create a new system of standards and institutions while the world is still in constant flux.

The circumstances surrounding the emergence of a new Balkan state suggest a gloomy conclusion. The hope that arose in the 1990s for a world governed by law and human rights did not bear out. It was the combination of the use of military force and the domination of ethnic interests over legal ones that led the citizens of Kosovo to declare their independence.

This indicates that the world has changed less over the last 100 years than was previously thought. And the lessons we thought we had mastered might have to be repeated.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.