US Leadership and The Limits of International Institutional Change
It has become commonplace to bemoan the gap between today’s institutional order and the nature and scope of the global problems that fall under its purview. For the order to change, however, one of two things must occur. Either the current powerful backers of the current institutional order need to reform it, or they need to stand aside and let the others do the job. For either of those things to occur, the system’s still most-powerful actor would need to conceive an interest in institutional change. Below I outline the core propositions of US grand strategy as it relates to international security institutions. I argue that the current institutional architecture is well suited to US interests, at least as Washington currently understands them. The US has and will likely continue to seek to adapt institutions and rules to suit its interests, but generally does so indirectly in ways that are hard to observe and assess. Still, the case can be made that the United States has met with more success than many analysts are willing to grant.
This success comes with costs, however, some already evident, others still only incipient. One evident cost is the weakness of the current institutional order. Optimality for the US does not equal optimality for the world or for the health and robustness of the institutions themselves. Far from it. Hegemons like the US thrive on institutional ambiguity and hypocrisy, which may present problems for allies like Canada that place value on the integrity and legitimacy of global rules. Another evident cost is lost opportunity: by banking on key security institutions (notably NATO), the United States forecloses a concert of powers, including Russia, China, and other increasingly assertive states. The potential incipient cost is that using institutions as a key plank in its grand strategy of global leadership may make it especially hard for the United States to retrench if its relative power continues to decline.
US GRAND STRATEGY AND INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTIONS
Woven through the speeches of President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other top US officials is a robust restatement of the traditional US commitment to multilateral institutions as a key plank in a grand strategy of global leadership. With some oversimplification, this approach can be summarized in a few core propositions.
First, US leadership is a necessary condition of institutionalized cooperation to address classical and new security challenges, which is, in turn, a necessary condition of US security.
Second, the maintenance of US security commitments to partners and allies in Europe and Asia is a necessary condition of US leadership. Without the commitments, US leverage for leadership declines.
Third, the leverage the US obtains by being a security provider for scores of countries spills over into other functional areas, notably economics.
Fourth, embedding US leadership in formal institutions often has major benefits for Washington and its partners: the classical functional benefits—focal point, reduced transaction costs, monitoring, etc.—as well as political and legitimacy benefits, which mitigate the politically awkward aspects of hegemony. Because the US is not meaningfully constrained by its institutional commitments, the benefits far outweigh the costs.
Fifth and finally, embedding US leadership in less formal institutions—e.g., international law and other rules—also often pays in more diffuse ways. It is easier to pursue a national interest when it can be expressed as a rule or principle to which others have formally subscribed. Again, because the US itself is not meaningfully constrained by rules, the benefits outweigh the costs.
Coupled with this reaffirmation of longstanding US strategic principles is a new insistence on the need for—and confidence in America’s ability to spearhead—change in the institutional architecture to address new security challenges.
PRAGMATIC ADAPTATION, NOT REFORM
The Obama administration’s commitment to institutional change strikes many analysts as chimerical. Scholarship from many social sciences leads to the expectation that institutions will be “sticky” and resistant to reform. Many international relations scholars agree that institutions can “lock in” a given power distribution or political equilibrium. If institutions have this lock-in feature, it follows that they must be hard to adapt to new circumstances or constellations of power and interest. And if institutions really lock in equilibria that reflect existing power relations, states that expect their relative power to rise will not buy into reforms. You can have lock-in or reformability, not both.
On the surface, the record would seem to vindicate the skeptics. The poster child for lock-in is the UN. The founders wanted to lock in their leadership roles in the security council, and so they have. They built in a high bar for any change that would diminish their privileges, which has proved resistant to decades of reform attempts. The result is a composition of the world’s preeminent law-giving body in the international security realm that is embarrassingly out of sync with the global distribution of capabilities and influence.
Beyond the UN system, skeptics note a general lack of evidence for US-led institutional reform. As Jeffrey Legro argues,
since the end of the Cold War the United States has not done a whole lot to reshape the dominant international institutions that structure global politics and largely failed when it has tried to do so.… This under-ambition and underachievement, moreover, has come at a time when there seems to be demand for change given that many international institutions today appear outdated. Scholars such as John Ikenberry, Stephen Brooks, and William Wohlforth and policymakers like Douglas Hurd (former foreign secretary of Great Britain from 1989-1995) argue that the United States after 1991 had an ideal opportunity to ‘remake the world, update everything, the UN, everything.’ We are still waiting.
US policymakers would respond that this misses the real action. As strategic actors, they are well aware that some institutions do indeed have lock-in effects and so are costly to reform. They know that many rules do work against hegemonic leadership by formally empowering weak actors. They naturally avoid institutional settings and mechanisms that work to their disadvantage. In the UN, for example, formal, deep reform must go through the general assembly, a body that generations of officials have understood is poorly suited to the exercise of US power.
Legro and other skeptics thus are looking for leadership in all the wrong places: formal, big, one-state-one-vote conventions that rewrite rules. The US prefers a subtler approach. It presses its interests behind the scenes within the institution, working in sub-organizations or secretariats to block things it doesn’t like and push things it does. It seizes on opportunities such as the 9/11 attacks, to push its agenda, as it did when it virtually dictated security council resolution 1373, authorizing a raft of new UN counterterrorism strategies and capacities Washington had long favoured. A combination of behind-the-scenes diplomacy and the threat or reality of unilateral action outside of existing institutions has arguably shaped the UN’s whole agenda in ways favourable to US interests. If you examine Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s March 2005 report “In larger freedom: Towards development, security and human rights for all,” you will see a whole reform agenda for tackling new security challenges that is remarkably consistent with official US perceptions of sound thinking. And, as expected, the top end reforms died. But that was likely no surprise to seasoned, pragmatic US officials, who invested little capital in that part of the report. Less noticed were lower-level subtler changes to rules, practices, and norms concerning terrorist finances, states’ rights to respond, information and intelligence-sharing and monitoring—all welcome in Washington.
In fact, US officials would say, there has been a huge amount of US-led institutional change since the Cold War’s end. Multilateral institutions the US dominates, such as NATO, have been thoroughly revamped. NATO’s “partnership for peace” program has been used to institutionalize security cooperation in a flexible way with many non-NATO states. Bilateral security arrangements have been revised. And entirely new, flexible institutions have been created out of whole cloth to deal with new problems, such as the proliferation security initiative. Summing these and adding them to the subtler changes the US has helped engineer in harder-to-control institutions like the UN arguably yields a far different balance sheet than the skeptics suggest.
In sum, US officials are arguably more satisfied with the current institutional set than many scholars, including Steve Brooks and me, suggest. By ignoring or marginalizing parts of the order it doesn’t like or can’t change and focusing strategic efforts on those parts it likes and/or can change, the US gets the best of both worlds—efficiency and legitimacy gains with only marginal constraints.
THE COSTS, EXISTING AND POTENTIAL
So far I’ve argued that US policymakers reject neoconservative, institutionalist, and constructivist arguments about the costs of embedding their leadership grand strategy in institutions and rules. To neoconservatives, US officials reply that institutions do not sap US sovereignty and do provide net efficiency and legitimacy gains. To institutionalists and constructivists, US officials would say (off the record) that Washington does not actually have to bind itself via rules to reap some of their benefits. American leaders repeatedly promise their people that they will never allow foreigners a veto on any action they deem necessary for US interests, and I think they mean it. As far as I can tell, the US ignores any rules that get in its way.
But that does not mean that there are no costs. For the purposes of discussion, let me put three on the table. As it happens, all three would seem to emerge from a broadly realist way of thinking about politics.
First is the evident opportunity cost of compromised institutions. The United States’ commitment to protecting its sovereign prerogatives as a leading great power saps international security institutions of many of the potential powers institutionalist scholars ascribe to them. Even if every single argument about the causal power of institutions is right, they will not come into full force if the US cannot or will not bind itself to rules.
Second is the opportunity cost of exclusion. Foundational elements of the US grand strategy of leadership are exclusionary by nature. As noted, US officials believe that the maintenance of US security commitments to partners and allies in Europe and Asia is a necessary condition of US leadership. And those commitments are exclusionary by definition. As long as those commitments remain the bedrock of the US global position, states against which those commitments are directed—especially China and Russia—can never be wholly integrated into the order. The result is to foreclose an alternative grand strategy of great power concert. Securing the gains of institutionalized cooperation today may come at the price of having alienated potential partners tomorrow.
Third, there is at least a potential cost associated with the central role of institutions in current US grand strategy. Even if they are right that the near-term costs of institutional constraints are marginal, US policymakers may confront another set of costs in the longer term. Key here is the article of faith among US policymakers that all the parts of the US grand strategy are interdependent: US security commitments are necessary for leadership that is necessary for cooperation that is necessary for security and for US leadership in other important realms. The result is to create apparently potent disincentives to disengaging from any single commitment. Pulling back from US security guarantees to South Korea or Taiwan or NATO may make sense when each of these cases is considered individually. But if scaling back anywhere saps US leadership capacity everywhere, any individual step toward retrenchment will be extremely hard to take. When US officials are confronted with arguments for retrenchment, these concerns frequently come to the fore.
The US response to global security challenges is filtered through its grand strategy of global leadership. That strategy sees institutions as useful tools in the pursuit of its interest—as arguably more flexible, less constraining, and overall less consequential than many scholars presume. Officials from the current and previous administrations would likely argue that there has been more institutional adaptation than many critics allege. While their arguments are complex—imbibing hard-to-test bits of realist, institutionalist, and constructivist scholarship—I think they are stronger than many critics allow.
If this analysis is right, it means that the international system’s most powerful state actor is very unlikely to undertake large-scale bottom-up institutional reform, and renders highly unlikely US acquiescence in any efforts to strengthen institutions that would come at the expense of America’s hegemonic prerogatives. In addition, it sets the stage for challenges if capabilities continue to shift away from the US and its closest allies. I see little evidence that the US grand strategy of global leadership is going to change, or that it is compatible with sharing leadership with rising powers. In addition, it has at least the potential to make it particularly hard for the US to disengage from its multitudinous security commitments.
 Jeffrey W. Legro, “Sell unipolarity? The future of an overvalued concept,” in G. John Ikenberry, Michael Mastanduno, and William C. Wohlforth, International Relations Theory and the Consequences of Unipolarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 351-52.
 Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, “Reshaping the world order: How Washington should reform international institutions,” Foreign Affairs 88, no. 2 (March-April 2009): 49-63.
This article was originally published in International Journal, the CIC’s scholarly publication on international affairs.
Photo courtesy of Reuters