Defining Ideas

Why America Needs International Agencies

Thursday, May 28, 2015
Image credit: 
Barbara Kelley

 In the debate over the extent to which US grand strategy should stress enhanced unilateral international engagement or should instead focus on more modest, multilateral efforts, more attention should be given to the various forms that international engagement can take. Regardless on one’s position on the utility of “deep engagement,” any intelligent strategy, however grand or modest, should include a more effective use of advantageous multilateral activities through so-called specialized agencies.

Engagement through United Nations bodies is in disrepute. When possible, the US uses the Security Council, where it is one of five permanent members with the veto power, to advance its perceived interests. Otherwise, US policy deliberately avoids relying on existing international institutions to address new challenges. Despite some rhetoric in favor of multilateral cooperation, especially by Democratic administrations, the US has treated proposed uses of multilateral bodies as dangerous, political rather than professional, and biased against US interests. This reaction is understandable with regard to politically charged UN initiatives and bodies, such as the Human Rights Commission. But it is wrong to equate those bodies with most specialized agencies associated with the UN. Specialized internationals agencies have a long record of achievement as vehicles for transnational cooperation and regulatory activity in numerous, critically important areas.

Specialized agencies have been formed by states to deal with transnational activities that require international cooperation. One of the first such agencies was formed by states through which the Rhine River traversed in Europe, in order to curb the adverse effects of taxation and misuse. The agency, controlled by the states involved but run by a professional staff, collected and distributed fees, undertook maintenance and improvement projects, and regulated the river’s use.

Other specialized agencies were created even before the League of Nations was formed, including for example the Universal Postal Union in 1874, which enabled states to develop the system of international postal services. Some 16 such agencies now exist, some of which have generated numerous detailed treaties and agreements by which member states have succeeded in enhancing safety and providing essential services to the public and private sectors.

Another example is the International Maritime Organization, which emerged in 1948 and was based on an earlier safety treaty adopted after the Titanic disaster; its Assembly, Council, and technical committees have been responsible for 60 international agreements dealing with safety, environmental pollution, wreck removal, training, signals, and many other essential maritime services. By 2014, the IMO had 171 members.

Despite two world wars and many lesser conflicts, the specialized agencies that existed before the creation of the United Nations continue to function effectively. New specialized agencies have been created to manage the transnational aspects of new areas of international activity. Among the most important is the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which various states used to establish the safety standards and regulatory practices essential for a fabulously successful civilian air transport industry.

Security officials, diplomats, and analysts need to distinguish between the UN’s political and its specialized agencies, and to recognize the potential contributions of the latter to international peace and US interests. The World Health Organization, for example, is currently a useful, often effective vehicle for securing cooperation in the exchange of information related to health, as well as in launching and funding international efforts to deal with disease and other health-related emergencies.

One of the most significant potential uses of specialized agencies in enhancing international security would be to develop agreed understandings and standards for the regulation of cyber activities. The US is justified in opposing Russian and Chinese ideas and efforts to control the use of cyber technologies. But it is wrong to dismiss the potential utility of an agency such as the International Telegraph Union in contributing to international cyber security. Specialized agencies can be fashioned and refashioned to deal with particular problems in a manner that satisfies universal objectives. To secure agreements, for example, that would establish a consensus-based, private and professional, standard-setting process for international cyber security regulation would require patience and imagination.

But the effort could lead to principles and practices that provide security to critical industries from cyber attacks, as well as to the identification of societal functions (such as healthcare, food processing, and civil aviation) that should be immune to attack even in the course of military conflicts. The paper I co-authored with Whit Diffie and David Clark for the National Academy spells out the type of system and processes that could reduce the costs being increasingly inflicted on critical infrastructure industries by governments unprepared to work together to limit their cyber warfare activities to national security areas such as espionage. Other areas of potential international cooperation through specialized agencies include trade, environmental protection, energy, and health.

While the US currently refuses to consider resorting to any international body for the purpose of developing standards that reduce cyber vulnerabilities, this is no surprise given how specialized agencies have been created in the past. Many, successful specialized agencies were established by the international community only after decades of effort by individuals, NGOs, and governments. Now, they are taken for granted and their utility is insufficiently appreciated. At some point, perhaps after the international community suffers the cyber equivalent of the Rhine River’s degradation or the sinking of the Titanic, the practical process of creating a lasting and effective international solution to a growing transnational security threat will be undertaken in earnest.

Whether one favors a robust grand strategy or one of retrenchment, the US needs to increase its deliberate and effective use of specialized agencies to enhance international cooperation and security.