The international community is not in great shape.
The war in Ukraine pits two entirely different conceptions of the global order: authoritarian Russia and its supporters versus the more-or-less democratic world. This war is currently mired in a stalemate that could, nevertheless, escalate into a nuclear conflict very rapidly.
At the same time, the United States and China have descended into a cold war of military stand-off and economic competition that could also degenerate into a world war.
Right-wing nationalists are in charge in India, Italy, Israel, and elsewhere, and their unilateralist approach to global affairs overlaps with that of countries with equally exceptionalist traditions like North Korea, Eritrea, and El Salvador. According to Freedom House’s Democracy Index, 46 percent of the world lived in “free” countries in 2005. A mere 16 years later, that number had dropped to 20 percent. So much for an ever-widening consensus on democracy and human rights.
Meanwhile, a number of international institutions are facing increasing strains. Here are three examples.
The International Criminal Court has experienced several withdrawals – the Philippines, Burundi – and key countries like the United States have not acceded to the treaty. With war crimes in Ukraine and massive human rights abuses elsewhere in the world, a powerful international court is needed now more than ever, yet it seems to becoming weaker and weaker.
The Paris agreement on climate change has an impressive number of signatories that have all made important pledges to reduce their carbon footprints. But those pledges are voluntary and, according to the Climate Action Tracker, no country has actually fulfilled its promises with the exception of tiny outliers like Bhutan.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is an important international mechanism to move the world toward disarmament. But not a single nuclear weapons state has signed the agreement.
All three cases point to a lack of accountability and legitimacy that is gradually eroding the efficacy of international mechanisms.
Okay, that all sounds ominous. At a time when the world needs more cooperation in the face of global threats, a lot of countries are simply not interested in that kind of collaboration. Meanwhile, the mechanisms to facilitate that cooperation have become weaker.
Glass Half Full
But let’s take a look at some reasons to be cheerful.
Reason number one: the hole in the ozone layer is shrinking. In 2006, that hole was around 27.5 million square kilometers. At the end of 2022, it shrank by more than 4 million square kilometers.
This might not seem like big news, since the world faces a lot of other environmental disasters at the moment. But actually, it is very important.
It means that international cooperation works. In 1989, the Montreal Protocol went into effect. One of the few global agreements with universal ratification, the protocol has been responsible for phasing out the substances responsible for depleting the ozone layer, primarily chlorofluorocarbons.
The latest scientific data about the shrinking size of the hole in the ozone layer demonstrates that the treaty has been effective. In other words, when countries do decide to work together on a problem, they can solve it.
Reason number two: the international community has dramatically reduced the risks of COVID-19. Because of the availability of COVID vaccines, there have been far fewer cases and fewer deaths this winter than last winter or the winter before that.
Two stages of international cooperation have been required to tackle COVID.
First, there was an amazing degree of scientific cooperation across borders to develop the COVID vaccine. The scientific community has traditionally been far less conscious of borders and historical grievances than the political or the military community. The greater cooperation of the scientific community can be measured, for instance, in the steadily increasing international collaboration on scientific papers. More scientists working together internationally set the stage for the urgent response to new pandemic. To develop the COVID vaccine in record time, the flow of collaboration was stunning.
But then there had to be cooperation to get the vaccine into people’s arms. And that’s where COVAX comes into the story. This international mechanism for pooling resources and sharing outcomes was set up to provide access to the COVID vaccine for everyone in the world, not just the people who happen to live in wealthy countries.
The story of COVAX is equally impressive, with nearly 2 billion doses delivered to 146 countries. The program didn’t manage to vaccinate the 70 percent of the global population it planned for 2022, but it did reach 52 percent.
True, the distribution remains uneven. Africa in particular has lagged behind with only a 35 percent vaccination rate. But some African countries initially refused to accept vaccines. And while the initial problem involved limited supply, the new problem is declining demand, with millions of doses thrown away in South Africa in the second half of 2022.
Despite this persistent inequality, COVAX remains an important example of international cooperation. Given the global decline in cases and deaths, across every continent, the initiative must be rated a qualified success.
Reason number three: the international community continues to expand the protection of human rights.
One recent convention covers the rights of people with disabilities. It was the fastest negotiated treaty in UN history. Only 20 countries have not signed the agreement (though that includes, unfortunately, one of the countries involved in drafting the convention, the United States). And the convention has helped transform the very landscape of the world, by providing the disabled with access to both infrastructure and policymaking.
Even North Korea signed the agreement, occasioning the invitation of the first human rights rapporteur to the country, Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, in 2017. In other words, international agreements have had an impact in even the most politically remote countries in the world. That gives hope that the international community can still function even at a time of growing authoritarianism and exceptionalism.
Reason number four: Wikipedia.
Yes, I know, you’re not supposed to cite Wikipedia in any serious research paper. But even if it contains some errors—for instance, when will someone update my entry so that I’m the director of FPIF, not the co-director?—the project is truly breathtaking in its scope. As of February 1, 2023, there are over 6.6 million articles in English on the site. Wikipedia exists in 329 different languages. An astonishing 44 million people have registered as users (aka contributors or editors). In the last month, over 127,000 of these users were active.
Wikipedia is proof that millions of people can cooperate across borders—without a government or a corporation or a religious institution or even a UN body telling them what to do. These Wikipedians, who are constantly updating everything from the entry on the war in Ukraine to the 95th Academy Awards, are not in it for fame or fortune. Out of a commitment to the knowledge commons, they have created something that is truly democratic in its participatory and self-correcting spirit.
Taken together, these four examples demonstrate that the world can work together to achieve measurable results. The first two examples – preserving the ozone layer and addressing COVID-19 – suggest that the international community responds best in an emergency. But the third and fourth examples prove that even very difficult challenges, like addressing discrimination against people with disabilities or creating a universal and comprehensive encyclopedia, can be tackled over time.
The current trend is certainly not toward world government. But there’s still hope that humanity can respond effectively to an emergency like climate change. We don’t have the luxury of time. We do have considerable collective energy and commitment when, as the example of Wikipedia demonstrates, we all get on the same page.