Trump’s ‘America First’ approach has targeted international institutions – but they have proved to be resilient

In an unprecedented attack on the international liberal order, Donald Trump withdrew the US from several international organisations. But international organisations are remarkably resilient, write Maria Debre and Hylke Dijkstra. Those that survived the onslaught can expect a brighter future under Joe Biden, who has indicated he will reverse many of Trump's decisions

Trump's attack on the international liberal order

Donald Trump’s ’America First’ approach following his election in 2016 has been the biggest challenge to the liberal international order since the end of the Cold War.

Under his administration, the United States has left the Paris Agreement on climate change, reneged on the Iran nuclear deal, quit UNESCO, set in motion a process of exiting the World Health Organization, blocked the appointment of the new Director-General for the World Trade Organization and judges for the Appellate Body, and put the future of NATO in doubt.

The US has not been alone in following in this approach. The UK, for example, exited the EU, Burundi the International Criminal Court, and the Polish and Hungarian governments have repeatedly challenged the liberal norms meant to uphold membership of the EU.

The resilience of international institutions

Even though this challenge to the liberal international order seems unprecedented, multilateral institutions have always had to fight for their survival in the face of external pressures.

Around 39% of formal international organisations founded since 1815 have ceased to exist, including the League of Nations, the Warsaw Treaty Organization and the International Refugee Organization. But most are surprisingly resilient. Recent research reveals that their survival depends to a large extent on how they are set up.

Around 39% of formal international organisations founded since 1815 have ceased to exist

Large international organisations with significant bureaucratic resources are particularly resilient and rarely dissolved. With this historical record of resilience in mind, it is unsurprising, therefore, that Trump’s ‘America First’ assault has failed.

International officials and institutionalisation = resilience

The way international organisations are set up significantly affects their chances of survival. Those with numerous staff, for instance, are particularly resilient. While many international organisations have very small secretariats, others employ thousands of experienced and skilled staff on their payroll.

Member states often hesitate to dissolve such large organisations that bundle knowledge and perform key governance functions. International officials are skilled at improving cooperation between states, helping challenged organisations to adapt and fight for survival.

Of a sample of 150 international organisations, only four with large bureaucracies have been dissolved since 1815, and then only as a result of major political shocks such as the Second World War and the end of the Cold War.

Of a sample of 150 international organisations, only four with large bureaucracies have been dissolved since 1815, and then only as a result of major political shocks

Several international organisations have, nevertheless, been replaced by other institutions, often because member states decide to reform existing treaties and restart cooperation under a new heading.

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, for instance, was replaced by the World Trade Organization, and the Organization of African States by the African Union.

Replacements are only likely when international organisations are not highly institutionalised. When member states have invested heavily in an organisation, the costs of starting anew are simply too high. Yet, when positions have diverged significantly, states may leave the old institutional setting for a new organisation.

International organisations normally also have flexibility clauses, such as how states can exit and how treaties can be amended, and treaties often leave some room for interpretation. These clauses are often included into treaties precisely to deal with external shocks and future uncertainty. And states negotiate them painstakingly, because they are afraid other states may abuse them. Surprisingly, flexibility clauses have little effect on international organisations' survival. Merely majority voting improves survival chances, but only in the longer term.

Joe Biden and the future of the liberal international order

The crisis of the liberal international order has been the talk of the town. Immediately after Donald Trump got elected, the journal Foreign Affairs ran a special issue entitled Out of Order?

Ever since, some international relations scholars (the so-called realists) have been rubbing salt in the wound, noting that the liberal international order was bound to fail while other political scientists emphasised the populist challenge confronting international organisations. Yet challenges to multilateral cooperation are anything but new, and international organisations have survived many challenges over the last 200 years.

Donald Trump has certainly damaged international institutions with his politics, but this damage is largely reparable and can be undone. President-elect Joe Biden will not be able to ignore Trumpism completely once he takes office. He will also have his own list of demands for the World Trade Organization and other organisations.

Trump has certainly damaged international institutions with his politics, but this damage is largely reparable

Biden might also encounter challenges rejoining UNESCO, since Congress has prohibited funding organisations with Palestinian membership. Yet international organisations have survived four years of ‘America First’.

There are, therefore, reasons to be optimistic about the future of the liberal international order. Large and highly institutionalised organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, and the World Trade Organization are difficult to disband.

Although their survival does not tell us much about their ability to solve the world’s problems, international organisations are bastions of multilateralism. Based on transparency and reciprocity, they make policy informed by expertise, and generally promote liberal values such as democratisation. Having survived four years of Trump, their future may well be brighter under Biden.

This blogpiece is based on the research article Institutional design for a post-liberal order: why some international organizations live longer than others, written as part of the NestIOr project, which has received funding from the ERC under the EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 802568).

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Maria Debre Maria Debre Postdoctoral Researcher, Maastricht University More by this author
photograph of Hylke Dijkstra Hylke Dijkstra Associate Professor, Maastricht University More by this author

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2 comments on “Trump’s ‘America First’ approach has targeted international institutions – but they have proved to be resilient”

  1. Success is increasingly less a matter of survival in today's world but rather, how one has chosen to survive. It would be interesting to note how many of these institutions have survived. While publicly embracing values, many institutions demonstrate a marked inability to match these values with concrete action within the organisation ("do as I say not as I do.") For example, in diversity (gender, ethnic, etc.) many have the "head and feet" issue - a lot of diversity in the bottom vs. the top - that is too often obscured with broad statistics. Looking at budgets, many depend on short-term infusions of cash and thus have become increasingly dependent on equally short-term, low-paid consultants that work more for the prestige and the illusion of obtaining what was once a long-term, well-paid government position, something that is no longer financially feasible at these institutions. This contributes to environments where staff feel unappreciated and unheard and management is not receptive to constructive criticism because they lack incentive and a sense of stability as well as the strategic freedom to pursue projects of substantial depth. Not to mention the gross inequality in salary and benefits this encourages, given the contracts awarded to IO employees on average 15 to 20 years ago versus today, nurturing dissatisfaction and frustration between colleagues. Add to this an environment where reporting success is often tied to future funding, meaning that expensive failures are not opportunities to learn but rather reasons to remain skittish about reinvesting.
    This isn't to negate the positive work done; however, the issues that got Trump elected are not unique to the USA. His style of leadership, his means, regardless of the ends, are found throughout a lot of older international institutions. They are a product of a permissive environment with which we are all complicit and an incentive structure that discourages needed structural change.

  2. Agreed. An institution or a position's inherent worth is dependent upon the manner in which it executes its power, not its mere existence. Doctors and teachers, for example, can do good work but can still fall victim to and even perpetuate structural inequalities based on economic capacity, education, gender, race...They can even negate, hide and work against much of their positive effects when they do this. As a contractor, I've worked with too many talented, amazing international organizational employees that go on sick leave because the idealism that attracted them to the position is squashed by a politically well-connected, overpaid lifelong bureaucrat who wants to keep his/her funding and move up the promotion ladder - and is rewarded for prioritizing these personal concerns. I see ECPR is offering a PhD looking at international organizations - hopefully they'll move past the source of funding to question the actual concrete practices of international organizations and their leadership. I'll keep an eye out. I'm not leaving my name, for obvious reasons.

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