Polarization, populism, and the performance of international organizations during the coronavirus crisis

Globe covered with face mask

“Problems without passports” are challenges that disregard national borders, threatening many countries. The phrase was popularized in 2009 by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who urged people to deal with these problems by working through international organizations (IOs), collaborating on collective long-term solutions, and deferring to experts. In other words, the response should be multilateral, farsighted, and apolitical.

The novel coronavirus that spread throughout the world in 2020 certainly seemed to fit Annan’s definition of “problems without passports.” But, as the outbreak morphed into the COVID-19 pandemic, countries defied these prescriptions and produced three unhealthy patterns.

Patterns: Blame-shifting, shortsightedness, and schisms

The first pattern is the tendency to blame international organizations, particularly the World Health Organization (WHO). With its drastic decision to cut off funding, the U.S. government has been an aggressive critic. But more than 100 countries also endorsed the European Union’s call for an independent investigation into the WHO’s handling of the disease.

The second pattern is the temptation to put short-term or narrow interests above longer-term or broader ones. During the crisis’s initial months, dozens of countries implemented export restrictionstravel bans, and unilateral vaccine development—all despite the World Health Organization’s objections.

The third pattern is a divided reaction to experts. Schisms have arisen at the subnational, national, and international levels. Some people have readily deferred to public health officials—but other people have challenged them, questioning the efficacy or legality of their recommendations.

These patterns look very different from how Annan urged the world to handle “problems without passports.” Yet if the former U.N. Secretary-General were alive today, he’d probably look at the pandemic with dismay, not surprise. After all, Annan’s recommendations are about how people should respond, and he was well aware of obstacles.

Indeed, the obstacles are central in scholarship on international relations. Research on bureaucracy and institutional design examines the challenge of making IOs accountable to member countries but also insulated from them. Research on delegation and socialization exposes governments’ hardships overcoming time inconsistency and noncredible commitments. Research on epistemic communities and anti-elitism reveals both upsides and downsides for permitting public policy to be formulated by unelected experts. Together, these veins show why resistance to IOs, broader or longer-term interests, and experts are commonplace. Without a resolute leader to overcome such resistance, this is how the world can look.

Yet two key questions remain—a retrospective one about domestic politics and a prospective one about the role of international organizations.

Domestic politics

The retrospective question is this: How does the lack of resolute leadership flow from routine international relations patterns interacting with domestic politics? In the past, the world has overcome natural suspicion of international organizations, global interests, and policy experts, so we need to understand what’s different today. One place to look is the United States, which has often taken a leadership role in matters of global consequence. Recently, American party polarization has reflected and fueled internal divisions, with segments of the U.S. now exhibiting leadership fatigue and a longing to “put America first.”

Another place to look is the overall population of countries, where sentiments such as populism may be gaining traction in multiple places simultaneously. Entrusting tasks to IOs, pursuing broader or longer-term interests, and deferring to experts involves pains as well as gains. Further attention to domestic trends could help spot conditions under which people fixate on the pains, not the gains.

International organizations

The second question is forward-looking: How should the performance of international organizations be gauged and addressed? IOs are expected to be responsive to their member-governments and also strive for the greater good—but those aren’t identical. So we must begin with a plan for incorporating assessments from a variety of governmental and nongovernmental sources.

Next, analysts must think hard about timing. Pandemics and other emergencies tend to prompt post hoc evaluations. But conducting evaluations at regular intervals would probably provide less tense circumstances for isolating factors and actors to be thanked or blamed, and also would better position analysts to uncover issues before they become emergencies.

Last but not least, more research is needed to figure out superior tools and conditions for improving IO performance. Governments’ knee-jerk reaction is to abandon or starve an IO that displeases them—but a counterintuitive (and potentially superior) response would be to feed it. Further analyses need to investigate not only reform outcomes, but also a wider variety of reform options.

Challenges ahead: Black swans, gray rhinos, or white elephants?

The imperative to answer these two questions goes beyond COVID-19, to whatever global challenges lie ahead. The next crisis could be an undreamed-of “black swan,” or an obvious and looming “gray rhino.” Or it might be the proliferation of global bodies that do little to help—or might even do harm. But whatever the form, without a resolute leader the next crisis is likely to produce similar patterns: negative reactions to international organizations, as well as the wider interests and subject-matter expertise that they represent.

The world has exhibited these patterns in the past and will exhibit them again in the future. International relations research does a decent job of explaining why those patterns occur. With more work, analysts also might be able to say more about what to do in response.