• Still Herding Cats: The UN at 70

    On September 28 the Seventieth Session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly began with an opening speech by the Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon. The Secretary General extolled the virtues of the UN and highlighted its successes in anti-poverty efforts and efforts to coordinate international disaster response. In many other areas, however, the Seventieth session begins with significant challenges for the UN: challenges that it will have a tough time meeting.

    English transcript of the Secretary General's speech:

    Rising from the ashes of the Second World War as an organization meant to promote collective security and prevent future world wars, the UN has become a large and complex organization addressing a vast range of issues in global governance. As an IGO, the UN relies heavily on the goodwill and voluntary support of its member states, as the list of topics addressed by the Secretary General demonstrate.

    The UN has adopted the 2030 Agenda, which includes a series of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) to supplement and extend the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s). The MDG’s are among the most successful efforts at poverty reduction in the modern world, having helped to guide hundreds of millions of people out of poverty since their adoption in the year 2000. The SDG’s follow in the same spirit, including efforts to reduce extreme poverty and income inequality around the world.

    Much more difficult will be the efforts at a global, comprehensive climate change agreement. The December meetings in Paris hope to succeed where past meetings have failed, finding common ground for an agreement that has global support.

    Among the most pressing needs of the UN is financial support for humanitarian crises around the world. While the number of refugees and displaced persons has risen significantly due to spreading conflict in places like Syria, contributions by member states have not kept pace. This year only one-third of the funds needed for basic support have been provided, placing tens of millions of people worldwide at risk. The World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May 2016 will try to get UN members to reaffirm their commitments (moral as well as legal under the UN Charter) to aiding those displaced in the various natural and human-caused disasters around the world.

    All of these issues reflect serious challenges to global governance. In the absence of a single, global government, there is no power that can coerce states into following their commitments. The UN can only ask that member states honor their commitments. In the absence of voluntary compliance, only moral pressure and the exercise of soft power is available to the United Nations. This makes enforcement of its rules hard, even when states agree on the goals and of the value of the efforts. When states disagree on basic principles, then cooperation and coordination can be nigh unto impossible.

    While the MDC’s demonstrate the positive results when states work together (or at least don’t actively block) the UN, the disagreement over conflict management shows the consequences of failure. As Russia, the United States, and other global and regional powers lock horns over the civil war in Syria, we see significant disagreement over means and ends, and even how to apply basic concepts of international law. As nations bicker over terms and conditions and who can be allowed to participate, the war continues, displacing and killing more people each year. With over half its population displaced and no end of the war in sight, the flow of refugees has overwhelmed regional support efforts. This has sent led to a significant move of refugees into other areas such as Europe as they seek a better life than that provided in refugee camps that have received only one-third of the required funding to provide for basic survival.

    So, as the speeches get made at the UN and we celebrate seventy years of the United Nations we see that some of the basic questions of global governance remain contentious for the governments of its member states as they defend their sovereign prerogatives. While we have avoided world wars, there remain a great many areas in which agreement still requires long and difficult negotiations. But the common framework of the UN at least provides a common location and a basic set of rules to start with. While it may not get around the problem of sovereignty, it can make communication easier.

    So, herding cats is still frustrating, but global institutions make our world a bit safer, can make the lives of hundreds of millions of people better, and help us manage global crises.  So, happy seventieth to the United Nations and thanks for all that you do.

  • Trust but Verify, if you can: International inspections in a sovereign state mean the devil is in the details

    The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) came under criticism by politicians in the United States and a number of independent experts on nuclear security in the past week as it has emerged that the IAEA did not actually inspect a key Iranian nuclear site themselves, but relied on samples provided by the Iranian government.

    The Parchin facility is a key Iranian nuclear site that was the subject of significant give-and-take in the negotiations between the P5+1 nations and Iran that ended with a comprehensive deal in July. The site is a key part of Iran’s nuclear program and international access has been denied for over a decade.

    On Friday, September 18 a group of nuclear experts criticized the secrecy surrounding the IAEA inspection of the site. The lack of details led to concerns that the inspections were not as rigorous as supporters of the Iran Nuclear Deal had led people to believe. Concerns over the inspection regime were raised by an Associated Press (AP) report that suggested that the IAEA would not inspect the site itself, but would accept samples provided by the Iranians collected without international supervision.

    On Monday, September 21 the IAEA confirmed that it would not be present when the samples were taken, but that the process would be monitored by video.

    Confusion and discord over the inspection program highlights the problems of enforcing international agreements. Iran and its negotiating partners in the P5+1 are all sovereign states: no higher authority can legitimately coerce them to change their policies. Despite this, they have entered into an agreement that exchanges benefits for Iran for behavior that the P5+1, and particularly the United States, find desirable. The challenge is how to enforce the deal signed last July? The states turn to the IAEA as an impartial organization that can provide third-party confirmation of compliance. But what can be done if there is a disagreement over what constitutes compliance? The IAEA argues that the remote monitoring of samples complies with its inspection regime and that this indicates Iranian compliance with the term of the deal.

    As an international organization, the IAEA has little power of its own and must depend on its soft power in order to get nation-states to go along with its ruling. The central source of the IAEA’s power is its impartiality as a third party to agreements and its consistent application of its rules. This makes the perception of its inspection program an important part of its legitimacy among the parties to the agreement.



    1. The IAEA can only act when it is allowed to do so by states. It cannot forcibly inspect any nuclear sites, nor can it undertake inspections that violate sovereignty. It is dependent on cooperation from the states it inspects. With no “teeth” to enforce its inspection rights, why do states accept IAEA inspections? Why would the P5+1, and particularly the United States, choose to work through an agency that relied on Iranian cooperation to inspect Iranian nuclear facilities? What do these states gain by using the IAEA as an inspector?
    2. The IAEA relies on its reputation to ensure credibility as an international organization that can be relied upon to carry out its duties. Why would the IAEA accept an inspection protocol that would lead the public (and especially people who were already opposed to the nuclear deal) to question the effectiveness of its implementation? What benefits do the IAEA gain from being the independent evaluator of Iran’s compliance with the deal?

  • The Beautiful Game, Not So Beautifully Governed

    Billions of fans around the world follow soccer. It generates trillions of dollars in global revenues and is the only truly global sport. Yet it is easy to forget that to make this global sport work across hundreds of borders, coordinate hundreds of national leagues, and just keeping the rules straight requires an organization. World soccer is governed by FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), among the wealthiest and most powerful non-governmental organizations in the world.

    FIFA plays a powerful role in global sports through its control of the World Cup and other international tournaments. FIFA serves as the global coordinator for 209 national federations, giving it a reach that only a handful of NGO’s can match. With over $2 billion in revenues in 2014, FIFA has significant economic resources. (1) The ability to award the right to host the World Cup and other regional tournaments means that FIFA also has enormous symbolic power. Nation states compete for the privilege of hosting the world’s largest sporting spectacle. Only the Olympics rivals the World Cup for its symbolic power and financial benefits.

    With such power comes the potential for corruption. For an NGO operating in 209 countries, the legal questions this raises can be complex. Recently the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar have raised serious questions about the transparency and honesty of the process of selecting the host country. Worse still have come legal troubles for FIFA as American and Swiss officials pursue charges against FIFA officials.

    The legal woes of FIFA are of concern to soccer fans the world over, but they also raise an interesting issue: How can an organization with global reach be held accountable in a world where national laws differ widely over what is and is not corruption? FIFA is based in Switzerland, so it makes sense that the Swiss might prosecute FIFA officials for breaking local laws, but why would the United States seek charges for actions taken outside its borders? How do nation-states enforce their domestic laws outside of their borders?

    The FIFA case raises interesting questions about how NGO’s operate and the standards that nation-states may apply to them. It also shows that even the most powerful NGO’s are at the mercy of nation-states (at least powerful ones) when they operate across borders.


    1. How does an organization like FIFA exercise power in the world? Does their ability to make use of power differ from other kinds of international actors? Do these differences matter when dealing with nation-states?
    2. Would a small, poor country have the same ability to enforce its laws against officials working for FIFA? Does the relative power of the nation-state impact how it can enforce its laws across borders?
    3. Does the effort of the US to enforce its laws on people living and working in another country mean that sovereignty means less today than it has in the past? If one country can enforce its laws around the world, do we still have sovereignty?

    (1) FIFA Financial Report 2014, page 15 (http://resources.fifa.com/mm/document/affederation/administration/02/56/80/39/fr2014weben_neutral.pdf)

    For basic information on FIFA see:


  • Great Power Politics is in the Eye of the Beholder

    Since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 major powers have played a role in the conflict. Russian support for the Asad government has been continuous with military equipment, trainers, and diplomatic support in the United Nations Security Council. This support has clashed with the goals of the United States and other Western states for an end to the Asad government and its replacement with a moderate government based (vaguely) on democratic principles. The competing goals of the great powers were evident in a number of ways, but have largely resulted in stalemate. The result has been an enduring conflict that has dragged on for over four years and that has displaced a third of the population of Syria.

    Regional powers are also engaged in the Syrian Civil War, with Iran backing the Asad regime and Saudi Arabia backing the Sunni Opposition. The mix of regional and global power interests have added significant international dimensions to the battle for who will rule Syria.

    All of this was made more complex by the rise of the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS). This group has made enemies on all sides, fighting both the Asad government and other rebel groups. IS has also extended its war to Iraq, conquering a large part of the country.

    The Syrian civil war serves as a complex example of how domestic and international conflict can quickly merge. The interests of global and regional powers become part of the complex mix of factors on the ground. The interconnected nature of the issues makes the conflict even more difficult to resolve.

    In such a complex situation it is easy for different interpretations of events to become part of the discourse of the conflict. A recent expansion of air traffic control and logistics operations in Syria by Russia has led to widely different reporting in the world media.

    In the United States, media has focused on the “escalation” of involvement by Russia. Seen from America and the West, the Russian actions are portrayed as running counter to the interests of the US and its allies. Seen from Russia, this is simply a continuation of a long-standing policy of support for the Asad government.

    Coverage of the Russian actions by PBS’s Newshour program in the United States offers an example of mainstream American news coverage of the events in Syria.

    Russia Today, the English language service of Russia’s official government media, provides a response to the coverage of Russian actions that has appeared in Western media outlets.

    Each of these reports covers the same, complex events in Syria, but reflects significant differences in perception. The power of media reporting to shape public perceptions of complex issues is a significant part of how states seek to shape global opinion and generate support for their actions.


    Is the great power intervention that we see in Syria typical of the kinds of conflicts that we see as states compete in the international system? What aspects of competition motivate states to compete in these kinds of conflicts?

    The Syrian Civil War has become highly internationalized and is now influenced by many, competing interests among outside groups. How does this outside influence impact the likelihood for peace in the conflict? Does this outside attention make the conflict easier or harder to solve? Why?