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September 10, 2015

Responding To: SFS Dean Inaugurates Georgetown's Discussion of Global Governance

Sustainable Agenda-Setting: The Crucial Role of International Institutions

Tobias Vestner

Joel Hellman encourages us to rethink the timeframes that govern development interventions, notably in the contexts of fragile and conflict-affected states. He raises our awareness of such countries’ contemporary and future challenges by emphasizing that more than just “security” or “development” is at stake: It’s about the human dignity of the people suffering from insufficient government structures.

Unfortunately, the fate of fragile states is an old story. In the 1990’s, the problematic was framed as a security and humanitarian issue. Later on, with the rise of global terrorism and pirating, the focus shifted to the international and regional security implications of fragile states. But despite the international community’s attention to the problem, no clear solutions were available. States fixed the negative effects momentaneously, and at the micro-level. Finally, other priorities pushed the problematic from the agenda. A lack of long-term commitment prevented the international community from addressing the underlying causes.  

Current events, such as the fighting in the Middle East and North Africa, the migration crisis, the Euro-crisis, and financial uncertainties, are emblematic for the fragile states’ fate on the global policy agenda. The burning fires must be extinguished; long-term thinking gets postponed. However, according to Joel Hellman, what countries with weak state structures need is a long-lasting, stable, and reliable support for state governance - or even a temporary substitution of governance.  

International institutions can provide such long-term commitment to fragile and conflict-affected countries. When creating international institutions, states actually lock in their preferences for a long time span. Thus, states cannot easily renege on their commitment to a particular cause just because of spontaneous priorities. Backing down now has strategic consequences. In addition, once international institutions are established, they hardly ever go out of duty. Georgetown Professor Lise Morjé Howard has proven that one of the components for success of UN peacekeeping missions is operational flexibility that enables institutional learning (UN Peacekeeping in Civil Wars, 2007). Hence, international institutions may enable states to combine long-term commitment with effective delegation.  

Consequently, international institutions allow a sustainable agenda-setting with regard to fragile and conflict-affected states. This implies that international institutions over which states have little direct control, such as the UN programs, might be better to ensure a long-term framework for the development of fragile states than projects undertaken by individual states, public-private partnerships, or private initiatives. In essence, international institutions may provide by their very nature the support that fragile states need. In order to establish - or further strengthen - such institutions, there must be a momentum that puts the fragile states’ fate on the agenda of the top-decisionmakers.  

The current events are potentially a window of opportunity for planting the seeds of long-term thinking. Joel Hellman lays a stepping stone by raising our awareness, and by initiating changes in our perception. If we seize our chance and get it right, as Georgetown Professor Anthony Clark Arend and former MSFS Concentration Chair Mark P. Lagon have suggested, international institutions may indeed be agents that foster human dignity around the globe (Human Dignity and the Future of Global Institutions, 2014).

Tobias Vestner is a MSFS student and a Global Futures Fellow.

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