Conserving monuments – global institutions increase security

Peace & Security24 Jul 2007Ko Colijn

As instruments of peacemaking, global institutions like the United Nations are not really popular. In the stiff ‘new-speak’ of the modern policy sciences we should evaluate these institutions in terms of their accountability, policy targets accomplished, customer orientation, governance-to-cost ratio and policy efficiency. This is unjustified.

One current in the studies of international relations is called neorealism. It is, basically, a still widely embraced theory explaining world politics as a process driven primarily by the actions of nation states that are engaged in a continuing power struggle for their survival. Neorealists see only a marginal role for international institutions: they are merely the tools of the only actors who matter in the jungle of global politics – the governments of the most powerful nations. To be sure, these states sometimes do cooperate in the big survival game and use institutions to their own benefit. In certain ‘win–win’ situations states may decide to enter into cooperative arrangements, although too large ‘relative gain’ differentials – i.e. state A would gain much more from the envisaged cooperation than state B – may be prohibitive to such partnerships.

When for example, Russia proposes that the United States cooperate in developing a radar station for a ballistic missile shield in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan rather than see the US construct a new installation in the Czech Republic, the relative gains theorist will predict – leaving out other considerations – that the US will probably turn down the offer. Why? The US would have to invest a lot of technology in it, but would never be sure that the radar will not be turned off some day. The US might prefer instead to build and run its own costly new system, because choosing the cheaper option – the Azerbaijan station – might provide the Russians with a disproportionate advantage.

However, even for adepts of this realist logic of scepticism and mistrust, it is still feasible to think of institutions performing a positive role. International institutions may open doors to sustainable patterns of cooperation, for example, as neutral referees to reach win–win situations in which governments get involved over a longer period. The very existence of institutions that administer give-and-take games in the longer run may tip the balance in favour of negotiated rather than imposed, let alone military, solutions, or no solutions at all.

Peaceful equilibrium

In another variant of extreme realist thinking, which parallels economic market theory, competition among states may even serve as a road to ‘peaceful equilibrium’. Flexible alliance formation, engaging in an arms race and even outright conflicts may not be looked upon as ‘diseases’ of the competitive international state system, but rather as the correctional mechanism of that very system which may also lead to dynamic anarchic peace. Rather absurd as it may sound, Edward Luttwak argued along these lines, with the bomb-to-Dayton campaign against Serbia, and operation Allied Freedom (NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo) in mind. In a provocative but yet serious contribution to Foreign Affairs magazine in 1999, Luttwak held that conflict resolution might be attained in the best and least harmful way according to the adage ‘give war a chance’.

At the opposite extreme, the 2005 Human Security Report (HSR) clearly rejects the ‘we-can-do-without-institutions’ paradigm. It concludes that the world has become a relatively safer place since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The number of armed conflicts has decreased markedly (down some 40%) and in parallel there has been a spectacular increase in ‘outbursts’ of peace or ends to conflicts. The HSR concludes that we owe a great deal of this optimistic change to increased international activism, in particular of NGOs and public institutions. The numbers of peace operations that have defused conflicts or have stabilized post-conflict situations, of war tribunals and sanctions mechanisms that have punished (or possibly deterred) rogue leaders, and of quiet but effective missions led by diplomats and UN emissaries such as Max van der Stoel, Jan Egeland or Lakdar Brahimi, have increased substantially since 1992. The follow-up of the HSR, the Human Security Brief of December 2006, shows an even stronger positive trend since 2002.

Since the 1960s the number of global multilateral security treaties in force has risen from some 150 to 400, in parallel to the downward trend in armed conflicts. While it may be premature to speak of a causal relationship, there is a correlation between institutional consolidation and growth on the one hand, and a less hostile world on the other. May I add to this the correlation, observed by the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), between the occurrence of regional security institutions and the relative absence of regional armed conflicts? In concrete terms, there are significantly more conflicts in institutionally poor regions like the Middle East and parts of Asia. My conclusion would be then: let us be careful, conserving monuments in the area of global security would certainly not be a waste of effort.


Unfortunately, due to the age of this contribution and several migrations to online content management systems, the footnotes in text may have been lost. The footnotes below are listed in its original order of appearance in text.

  1. Edward N. Luttwak (1999) Give war a chance. Foreign Affairs, 78: 36–44.
  2. Human Security Centre (2005) The Human Security Report: War and Peace in the 21st Century . University of British Columbia (now at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada).
  3. The Human Security Brief , 20 December 2006, updating the 2005 Human Security Report, and supplementing the 1946–2002 data to 2005.
  4. Alyson J.K. Bailes (2007) Introduction: The world of security and peace research in a 40-year perspective.SIPRI Yearbook 2006: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, Oxford University Press, pp.1–30, especially p.17.