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A System of International Collaboration

The late Oxford Professor Hedley Bull famously described the international system as an “anarchical society.” As international “society” becomes more “anarchical,” and in the absence of a supranational governing authority, how can states collaborate to address the range of pressing global and regional challenges? Baroness Catherine Ashton and Robert S. Litwak outline three modes of international collaboration that policymakers can tailor to particular policy contexts.

It is a truism that there are no serious issues we face as nations that can be resolved alone. From the global challenges of climate change and COVID-19, to threats from serious crime and terrorism, and the benefits of trade and economic partnerships, every country must collaborate to achieve its goals. The question is: how?

To reform the present system, we need first to strip away common illusions about how it works. We have institutions such as the United Nations and moral principles such as those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But in the absence of a supreme global authority, we live in what the late Oxford Professor Hedley Bull described in 1977 as an “anarchical society”, in which action flows from the convergence of interests and values. 

What has emerged is a hierarchy based on size and power, with the United States at the top, which advocates the values and norms of liberal democracy (however imperfectly practiced by countries that preach them). 

This approach has been subject to increasing challenge, particularly over recent years. Sergei Lavrov, foreign minister of Russia, wrote recently that the West should recognise other forms of governance than this western approach. He argued that Russia and China, amongst others had their own values and traditions that dated back a thousand years and any attempt to decide whose values were better a pointless exercise. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China has been clear it wants a say in who sets and enforces international rules. 

It is in this context that we must look ahead. The U.S. National Intelligence Council, in 2011, forecast ahead to 2025, that the international system would be unrecognisable, with a shift from a U.S.-dominated world to a relatively unstructured hierarchy of old powers and rising nations.   

Arguably this is a forecast coming into reality, not just in the United Nations but in regional powers such as the European Union. In the European Union, Poland and Hungary have questioned who decides “which” European values should apply, and “whose” rule of law, making it much harder for the EU to act as one in international affairs. Long-running disputes about judicial independence in Poland or press freedom in Hungary have grown into fundamental differences at the heart of the Union. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte publicly declared that Hungary had no place in the EU anymore due to its legislation attacking LGBTQ rights. In reality, removing any nation from the EU would require a unanimous decision after a tortuous process, with all concerned trying to avoid such an outcome. But frustrations now run deep and the chances of concerted, joint action to address external challenges are significantly reduced.

If Hedley Bull’s analysis of an international society based on values no longer functions effectively, then the rules of engagement that would allow for effective collaboration become more elusive. While science may provide the framework that gives the greatest buy-in to solve the problems of climate change, it will still require action over many years, needing long-term acceptance of both problem and solution. Even the United States cannot guarantee that a new administration in four years will stick to its commitments, a consideration in the determination or lack of it from other countries to take drastic action. Resolving complex problems, from the future of Afghanistan to ending the conflict in Ukraine or in Syria, are even more difficult when the route through formal international bodies looks impossible. Re-examining the models available to collaborate that have been tried and tested may provide new answers to these problems.

There are essentially three models.  The first is formal collaboration when states are prepared to work together within a framework of established rules. United Nations operations or EU Missions are the most obvious examples, providing civilian and military support to people in need, agreeing on sanctions to change behaviour, and putting in place aid programs.  

The second, is the informal process, or the coalition of the willing. These groupings have also covered the spectrum of activity from military and civilian to humanitarian aid. The recent G7 meeting is an example of the informal grouping, with membership confined to those who already share the same ideas. Without formal rules, the G8 was able to remove Russia simply by disinvitation and become again the G7. The advantages are obvious; working together only on issues on which they agree, determining membership to suit their interests, and choosing their issues, rather than being expected to deal with all of them. 

The disadvantages are clear too. Without the formal structures they do not carry the legal or moral authority, nor have necessarily the depth and staying power to continue to tackle a problem over many years. They are like yachts, able to manoeuvre quickly and provide support at speed, unlike the formal models which are more reminiscent of tankers; hard to get moving and slow to change direction, though willing to stay at sea for a long time.   

The crisis in Libya which began with the formal process of wanting to help the people of Benghazi, under attack from Gaddafi's forces, became a response by an international coalition of the willing. It moved from the formal to the informal, and from tankers to yachts. Initial enthusiasm for a military mission was not followed by long-term support as the coalition fell away. Recognising that each model has limitations is an important feature of thinking through how to use them. 

The third is the hybrid of the two and best exemplified in the Iran negotiations that led to the JCPOA. Authority was given to the coalition of six countries, led under the EU’s chairmanship, to negotiate an agreement. It was not a formal model, because there was no serious obligation on the six countries to stick with the agreement—as witnessed by the lack of action when the United States withdrew. It relied on the informal model of a coalition willing to work together to get the job done, and the formal acceptance that it had authority to act on behalf of the UN, especially on sanctions. It had the advantage of being able to compartmentalise the issue, such that despite the Ukraine crisis with Russia, the talks continued unabated and largely unaffected. It was the only example of all permanent members of the UN Security Council working together, a model that is worth revisiting. If agreement can be found on the solution between the five, then the ability of the UN to enact solutions will be enhanced. 

The question that needs to be resolved is whether as the international “society” becomes more “anarchical” are there possibilities to restore confidence in the system by using the repertoire of formal, informal, and hybrid models of collaboration to better effect? Policymakers must exercise creativity and flexibility to adopt a particular mode of collaboration to the specific policy context. One size will not fit all. The hybrid model—between the formal and informal—should be put to the test where possible. There is little choice. No issue can be resolved alone, and the list of issues to be resolved gets longer.