Abandonment of international institutions would be dangerous
Despite the headlines focusing on the great power competition between China and the US, describing a bipolar world sinking into a new cold war, the planet is much different than it was after the Second World War with the rise of the US and USSR. Indeed, through free trade and economic growth and development, the world is now much more multipolar. There are other powers who, in their regions, have a voice and interests that need to be heard. Unilateral decision-making from any great power is no longer possible on many fronts. These regional powers, such as Japan, India, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have voices that need to be heard.
Undoubtedly, the international institutions that were created mostly after the Second World War contributed greatly to this advancement. However, some would argue that they were built in a completely different time and need to be reformed. Some even go as far as saying they should be terminated and new ones built. For example, Europe did not then represent the economic bloc it is today, and the same concept can be applied to most of the world. Regardless of people’s eternal pessimism, the world is in a much better place than it was 100 or 50 years ago. Also, despite the constant headlines on inequality, we should notice that people generally live better lives, with less poverty and sickness and obviously fewer wars.
This, in my view, has a lot to do with the positive role played by the US leadership throughout the years, as well as the Western alliance. The US has led most of these institutions, providing the balance needed. Even the EU, which might currently be divided and at a loss politically, has been a great textbook case study to support development through its institutions and the unleashing of greater opportunities and prosperity. It would not have been possible without the US.
We all know that these international institutions were built to support greater stability and solve issues between countries, while avoiding war and promoting greater trade integration. This took time to build. The UN is the successor of the League of Nations, which failed as the Second World War started, while the World Trade Organization (WTO) was born after decades of trade negotiations, and the same applies to most such organizations, whether economic or military.
As we investigate the budgets of all these institutions, we notice that the biggest contributor is the US. For example, America provides 22 percent of the UN budget, while China is the next-biggest contributor with 12 percent. The US is the biggest contributor to the World Health Organization (WHO), paying $851.6 million in 2018-19. When it comes to NATO, which is partly based on the gross domestic product of each country, again the US is the biggest contributor. In the WTO, many trade agreements were written in a way to ensure that the US, as the planet’s largest economy, supports the economic growth of developing countries, China included. As tougher economic conditions arise, many are questioning such support, even if this institution has been a booster of free trade and economic integration — a key element in securing stability in the world.
Open economies and fair trade are the only way to support stability in the world and help react quickly to any global danger.
Khaled Abou Zahr
All these institutions, whether regional or global and in their different objectives, have received, in one way or another, support from the US. They have also supported a safer and better world. Once again, despite what the pessimists might say, we live much better lives than our ancestors, whether we are in New York or Cairo.
When President Donald Trump criticizes the actions of international institutions such as the UN, the WTO, NATO and, most recently, the WHO, most describe his declarations as a symbol of the US’ retreat from the world scene. However, despite his blunt declarations, there was at least truth and transparency. From his point of view, if you are paying the biggest share toward the budgets of these institutions and see them acting in favor of other countries, which are competing directly with your interests and trying to undermine your efforts, then you may indeed question their viability and the reason for your investments.
From the other side, as countries have become stronger and middle-ranking powers have started to appear, they are now less inclined to unconditionally approve US decisions. This is clear today with European nations on the Iran file, where they put their own economic interests first. It is also clear with the relations of some institutions being in favor of China. The US’ influence, while still being the strongest, has started to become less respected, even though it remains the biggest financial supporter of international institutions. Even some allies of the US are looking to have a bigger say in their own regions.
So I will apply a US domestic concept to this situation, which is: “No taxation without representation.” This derives from the belief of the early colonies that they should not be taxed by the British Crown unless they had a say in Parliament. This means, from Trump’s view, that as long as the US is the main financial benefactor of an institution, then it should have the leading and most-respected voice. In all fairness, this makes sense. This world order would not stand if the US withdrew.
Today, in the US, there is a bipartisan view that all the decisions made to support a transition to a market-driven economy and open society in China have failed. They mostly consider Beijing as going down the opposite route of more government-controlled companies. The debate around the WTO and the future nomination of its chief are symbolic of this situation.
Change is bound to take place, but abrupt change or the abandonment of these institutions would be dangerous, especially in the current economic and political climate. Another important point is that these institutions were built prior to the digital and data revolutions, which have catapulted a few corporations above the rest.
Therefore, there is an example that might be interesting to follow, which is the establishment of the G20. This grouping of the world’s biggest economies has brought greater communication between these powers and is helping to channel voices from the West and the East. It is pushing toward greater common values, while also tackling the digital revolution and important development focused on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Open economies and fair trade are the only way to support stability in the world and help react quickly to any global danger.
The coming G20 summit in Saudi Arabia — despite the difficult coronavirus disease situation — can contribute greatly to the exchange of ideas for the greater benefit of all. We might be inspired by what Thomas Jefferson once said: “Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”
- Khaled Abou Zahr is the CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.