News October 24, 2020

Rebuilding International Institutions Will be Tough but Necessary, Say Stanford Experts Thomas Fingar and Stephen Stedman

Photograph of the UN building in Geneva, Switzerland
Image by Mat Reding on Unsplash

On September 29, the APARC China Program hosted Thomas Fingar and Stephen Stedman for the program “Rebuilding International Institutions.” The program, which was moderated by China Program Director Jean Oi, examined the future of international institutions such as the United Nations (UN), World Trade Organization (WTO), and World Health Organization (WHO) in our evolving global political landscape. While Fingar and Stedman acknowledged that such institutions facilitated attainment of unprecedented peace and prosperity after WWII, they also asked difficult questions: Are these institutions still adequate? And if not, how will we change them?

Shorenstein APARC Fellow Thomas Fingar kicked off the session by asking whether or not US-China tensions would impede cooperation on major global challenges, or if those challenges were so serious as to render such rivalries immaterial. Perhaps the most obvious example of such a crisis is the current COVID-19 pandemic. The efforts to curb the virus’ spread not only by individual countries, but also by international organizations like the WHO, have proven largely inadequate. According to Fingar, our existing institutions need to be reformed or supplemented to deal with these types of threats. However, such an overhaul of our international systems will be difficult, he says.

How, then, will we go about such a massive project? Stephen Stedman, Deputy Director at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), responded by explaining that the current failure of international cooperation makes such undertakings tough. Globalization has been a double-edged sword: On one hand, more contact, perhaps inherently, leads to increased tension. The resurgence of traditional notions of sovereignty in 2010, kickstarted by the opposition of countries like Russia and China to what was seen as UN overreaching, has led to a reduction of international cooperation overall. On the other hand, Fingar posits that our interconnectedness may force us toward cooperation despite rivalries as we face more and more transnational threats. International institutions create rules to organize and manage our many interconnected relationships so that we can deal with our problems effectively and reduce friction.

Stedman also pointed to the upcoming US elections and the major impact their outcome will have on how these problems are addressed—or not. In the last four year, the United States has pulled back significantly from international institutions and agreements, leaving a gap that China has started to fill. Furthermore, despite the US’s retreat from international responsibility, the country still remains a critical actor in global initiatives. China’s embrace of a global leadership role is not inherently negative, but its future relationship with the US will need to be “managed in a way that you get greater cooperation and not just paralysis.” Stedman says that it is likely that progress will need to be made on a bilateral front in order to have productive conversations about international issues with China.

Concluding on an optimistic note, Fingar voiced his hope that the current tensions and negative perceptions between rivals might ultimately “be mitigated by success in dealing with a common problem,” because “experience does shape perceptions.”

A video recording of this program is available upon request. Please contact Callista Wells, China Program Coordinator at cvwells@stanford.edu with any inquiries.

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