The International Institutionalism We Need Now

The lofty phrase “global governance” has often been met with suspicion, if not outright alarm, in the evangelical world. Global governance sounds vaguely like one-world-government on the one hand, or the hegemony of a misbalanced capitalism on the other. And evangelicals are hardly alone in their reaction. The conventional wisdom about global governance, writes Daniel Drezner in The System Worked: How the World Stopped Another Great Depression, resembles an old Woody Allen joke: the quality is terrible – and yet such small portions!

I want to make three arguments about this pessimistic picture of global governance-- that set of formal and informal rules that regulate international order and the collection of authority relationships that extend, coordinate, monitor, and enforce them. (1) Suspicion of international institutions, including the United Nations, is endemic to contemporary political culture in America; (2) evangelicals are a lot like everybody else in this respect, but an evangelical political theology gives good reason to be different; (3) and finally, there is also good reason to be optimistic about international institutions, and Christians in particular should be at the forefront of this optimism. 

Seeing Only the Bad in Global Governance

Kathryn Yarlett asked at the beginning of May if the United Nations was still an institution worth engaging. Her answer, which I heartily second, is that it certainly is. But I’m less encouraged by the data she cites on American attitudes. She cites a Gallup poll in which 66 percent of Americans believe the U.N. has a necessary role in global affairs, but only 35 percent think it’s actually having a positive role in global affairs. This means that one third of Americans believe that the United Nations should never have even opened its doors, and only 35 percent think even after opening its doors that it’s done “a good job in trying to solve the problems it has had to face.” The figure of 35 percent is actually slightly up from a historic low of 26 per cent in 2009, right after the global financial crisis.

These numbers are consistent with what Drezner says has been a general trend downward on polled attitudes toward multilateral institutions. Why?

There are the usual suspects to blame. “Trashing global economic governance seemed to be a prerequisite for writing for The Financial Times,” Drezner jokes in his opening chapter, and again in his closing chapter, “in the world of international affairs punditry, pessimism sells.” But cathartic as it is to finger point at sensationalist media, a certain degree of navel gazing is also to blame. Since 2009, he writes, the top five journals in international relations and international political economy published a combined total of more than one hundred articles on global economic governance. Authors based in the United States and Europe were responsible for approximately 93 percent of those articles (Drezner, 68). In the four years following the 2008 financial crisis, even the United Nations’ own journal Global Governance had 88 percent of its articles authored by Western scholars and practitioners. This matters because financial recovery in the West, especially in America, was much slower than in other parts of the world. While Germany’s economy stood on the brink of retraction and Greece’s debt-financed economy essentially collapsed, sub-Saharan Africa was posting growth rates of 6 percent. Writing from Detroit, the end of the global capitalism as we knew it was nigh. But that’s not what they were writing in Delhi and Jakarta.

This matters because it reinforced two biases: the already soft bias against international institutions in developed countries, especially in the United State, and the bias after 2008 that multilateral institutions were failing because economic recovery was lethargic in the United States. This is a bit like polling the Germans after successive Greek bailouts on whether the E.U. was working; they may have proved rightly skeptical in the moment. In brief, “global governance had a bad reputation at the start of the twenty-first century, and it has only gotten worse” (Drezner, 14).

Finding the Good in Global Governance

And yet on institutions themselves, we’ve seen an attempt at a minor renaissance of institutional thinking. Jonathan Chaplin wrote a moving manifesto on “Loving Faithful Institutions” as the building blocks of a just global society. James K.A. Smith and Comment magazine dedicated a whole issue to their belief in institutions. Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros in The Locust Effect make powerfully persuasive arguments about systemic justice and institutions, using practical cases to demonstrate how well-functioning systems of justice are necessary to development. All of this has footnotes in style, if not in substance, to people like James Davison Hunter in To Change the World, and Andy Crouch in Playing God and Culture Making, an attempt to build off the consensus that individual “hearts and minds” are necessary, but not sufficient, to the call of the Gospel. We must evangelize the culture too, even down to its institutions, its systems of justice, of commerce, and of industry.

These have been hard lessons to put into practice, in part because a theology of institution building is also a theology which necessarily puts Christians shoulder-to-the-wheel with non-Christians. It presumes, in other words, making peace with proximate justice. “Looking for perfection in global governance,” writes Drezner, “is the enemy of finding the good in global governance” (Drezner, 15). But there are at least two powerfully important reasons for Christians to find that good.

The lofty phrase ‘global governance’ has often been met with suspicion, if not outright alarm, in the evangelical world.

The first is very pragmatic: these institutions exist because we need them. The twentieth century witnessed the expansion of globalization at a breakneck pace, which meant we suddenly had a whole range of ways of relating to each other that we simply didn’t have before. The International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations Specialized Agency, simply was not needed before the Second World War. Neither was the International Atomic Energy Agency. These marvelous smart phones that beam me the latest Katy Perry news all rely on a backbone of internet infrastructure that is buried under oceans and governed by international conventions. Even the most skeptical, small government-minded pundits have to admit that the scale and pace of our world simply mean that multinational treaties and organizations are now a necessary feature of global affairs. No single state can manage the rules and regulations that make commerce, communication, travel, and more possible around the globe. If we didn’t have these institutions, we’d need to invent them.

This is the basic premise behind something called functionalism, which emerged as a way to think about international connectedness in the twentieth century. Although its roots stretch back to people like Kant and Woodrow Wilson, its simplicity is not confined to that tradition. That states will find common interests and needs and that they will “pool their sovereignty” to produce better integrated, and better managed, global systems is in some ways obvious. This is not a world government. Functionalism doesn’t even deny real, heated argument over the limits of that connectedness, it simply says that where governments can realize real benefits from coordinating certain functions together, they should, and they will.

There has always been something vaguely subsidiary-like that I have appreciated about this, something that tracks with the tradition of Christian political thought and practice. Authority should be given to the lowest unit possible, but in some cases, multilateral treaties and institutions will be the necessary authorities. And those authorities are not only essential for “better global governance,” they are essential for the thing we call justice, the peaceful conciliation of diversity.

Which means, second, that the institutions of global governance are also ways we love our neighbors. That they are broken, maybe even that they need to be rebuilt, is fair enough to argue. That we need something like them is not. The World Trade Organization, with its almost comic history of abuse and inaction, is instructive here. It took decades for the world to turn the Breton Woods’ General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs (G.A.T.T.) into an actual organization, which remains a disappointment to almost everyone. But some mechanism that monitors and enforces trading regimes is surely indispensable. Could it be that even the nearly universally vilified International Monetary Fund has a functional task that only something like the I.M.F. could actually accomplish? If we accept the argument of Chaplin, Smith, Boutros, Haugen, and others, then we know that justice needs to be scalable, and part of that scale is global.

Christian Engagement in Global Governance

Finally, the story also isn’t as bad as we’ve been told. In his book, Drezner spends a lot of time trying to settle the record on just how bad these international financial institutions actually are. His conclusion is not that “all is well” but that compared to stress tests in the past, “the system” performed passably well. In the middle of the Great Recession, the World Bank reported that the first Millennium Development goal of halving the 1990 levels of extreme poverty had been achieved ahead of schedule. The U.N. Development Programme reported that, despite the crisis, there had been more rapid improvement in human development since 2001 than during the 1990s. The poor had greater access to global markets, and growth rates in developing economies, with some significant exceptions, were stable or growing. The crisis itself spurred no major reversal of globalization, and China and the United States, for all of their rhetoric and genuine disagreement, collaborated together with the rest of the world’s largest economies to create a package of coherent political-economic responses.

This is not the same as saying all is well. All is not well. But this is why we need our best and brightest at the World Bank and in the United Nations, serving in NATO and on the array of treaties and organizations that continue to coordinate the rules and regimes that make globalization possible. Genuine progress can and is being made, and that progress is being made not only despite, but in some cases because of international institutions. Evangelicals should be at the front of that line, because our call to an evangelical politics, one which preaches and practices justice and mercy, necessarily dovetails with the scale, capacity, and longevity of these organizations. It is proximate work, to be sure, filled with the kind of faithful compromise that the diversity of something like global governance presumes, but it is also good work.

I cannot imagine something more transgressive and less hip than studying to be an economist for the International Monetary Fund today. But that is right where the Christians should be, treating our (global) politics, like our theology, with a robust dose of semper reformanda.

 -Robert J. Joustra is assistant professor of International Studies at Redeemer University College and editorial fellow at The Review of Faith & International Affairs. He is a Fellow at the Center for Public Justice.