April 6, 2020 10:48AM

The (Limited) Role of International Organizations in Constraining China

In an article in The Atlantic entitled “Consider the Possibility That Trump Is Right About China,” a former Trump administration national security official makes a wide range of arguments that probably deserve a rebuttal, but for now I’m going to focus on the following one:

Many of President Trump’s critics in the foreign‐​policy community put great stock in the ability of multilateral and international organizations to constrain the misbehavior of China and other states. These organizations, at their best, promote concerted action against commonly recognized problems. But Trump’s critics tend to view them mainly in their idealized form and as the central instruments to solve global problems and advance values shared by all. In practice, though, how international organizations perform is profoundly influenced by power relationships among member states.

One problem with this view is that it elevates international organizations to something beyond what they really are. The author talks about “the ability of multilateral and international organizations to constrain the misbehavior of China and other states.” That makes it sound like the organizations themselves have the power to act. But as people familiar with such organizations know, most of the power still lies with the states who created the organizations.

There is clearly a lot of confusion on this point, as just the other day, the economist Branko Milanovic tweeted this: “We are in a horrible position that *all* international agencies (WHO, Interpol, World Bank, UN, IMF, ILO, Unesco) have been politicized by global powers, deprived of funds & skilled people w/​integrity, populated by faceless bureaucrats & lost all credibility. We are back to 1918.” The reality, of course, is that we are not back to 1918, and instead we are where we have always been: International organizations are limited by what states want them to do.

When you apply all this to trade policy and an organization such as the World Trade Organization, you might hear a pro‐​Trump person say something like, “The WTO can’t constrain China.” That’s certainly true, but it misses the point. The WTO is an organization with a set of rules, and enforcement is up to the states who are members. There is no WTO prosecutor to seek out instances of Chinese protectionism and impose penalties in response. That’s up to the member governments. 

So if the United States wants WTO rules to rein in China’s behavior, the United States could, for example, file more complaints under the WTO’s dispute procedures, as I have argued that it should. Of course, there are limits to the enforceability of the rules, and limits to what the rules cover, but the rules can be helpful nevertheless. But they can’t help if you don’t use them. To paraphrase the great philosopher Wayne Gretzky: You lose 100% of the cases you don’t bring.

International organizations can’t discipline China’s behavior on their own. It takes an active approach by governments to make use of these organizations. The Trump administration doesn’t seem very interested in utilizing this option, which is one reason why it has had so little success in addressing China’s protectionist trade practices. (Another reason is that it has spent so much time attacking U.S. allies on trade, but I’ll leave that point for another post).