When the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions were established nearly seven decades ago in the aftermath of World War II, economic and political power was concentrated in the hands of a few “victor” countries, making it relatively easy to reach a consensus on how to restore international order. However, since then, global governance has become increasingly muddled, impeding progress in areas of worldwide concern.
Not only do more than 190 countries now belong to the UN; publicly funded international institutions have proliferated, with not one multilateral institution having been shuttered since WWII. The result is an inefficient and confusing amalgam of overlapping mandates.
Meanwhile, significant portions of the international system lack sufficient funding to deliver meaningful progress in critical areas — a problem that will only worsen as the needs and expectations of an ever-expanding global population grow. In this context, progress on global issues like climate change, cybercrime, income inequality, and the chronic burden of disease are proving elusive.
The efforts of many publicly funded bodies have a real and lasting positive impact on the world. International institutions have spearheaded breakthroughs in a wide range of areas, including health, finance, economics, human rights and peacekeeping. However, such institutions are largely perceived as inaccessible, inefficient and opaque, leading national governments to neglect them. As their legitimacy and funding diminish, so does their effectiveness.
Overcoming 21st-century challenges will require a comprehensive review and renewal of international institutions. In its report titled Now for the Long Term, the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations — a group of experienced leaders and scholars convened to help formulate responses to global challenges — proposes mechanisms for undertaking this process.
For example, embedding sunset clauses in the governance structures of publicly funded international institutions would ensure regular reviews of organizational performance and purpose. Institutions that have fulfilled their mandate or proved unable to respond effectively to changing demands should be shuttered, and their resources redirected to more productive endeavors.
To escape that fate, existing institutions must adapt to shifting global power dynamics. This means increasing representation not only for the major emerging economies, such as China, India and Brazil, but also for countries like Nigeria and Indonesia, which together are home to more than 400 million people.
International affairs and international organizations largely operate under mid-20th-century arrangements, which has two serious shortcomings: First, countries with a diminishing stake retain disproportionate power. Second, global decisionmaking now involves four times as many countries as it did in the immediate postwar era, not to mention a plethora of nongovernmental organizations and civil-society groups, making for a messy — and often unproductive — process.
With the world’s problems becoming increasingly complex and interconnected, global decisionmaking processes must be as streamlined and efficient as possible. When numerous committees meet in parallel, the countries with the largest teams of experts dominate proceedings, effectively locking most countries out of key decisions and impeding meaningful dialogue.