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International institutions in crisis

Seeking Islands of Cooperation

Outlines of different countries from maps arranged like islands

What factors determine whether the departure of a state from an institution further escalates a conflict or not? This was the focus of the interdisciplinary research project “Drifting Apart: International Institutions in Crisis and the Management of Dissociation Processes,” which was successfully concluded with a Special Issue in 2022.

International institutions are in crisis. Time and again, individual states distance themselves from common rules and values and withdraw from a common institution. These “dissociation processes” take various forms, be it that a state withdraws from an institution or is excluded (as in the case of Brexit or Trump’s withdrawal from the international climate protection agreement), be it that a state formally remains in the institution but de facto no longer adheres to its norms and rules (as in the case of Russia's distancing from the European security architecture as of 2007 at the latest), or be it that a state establishes alternative institutions, as in the case of China and its new trade agreements with the BRICS states.

But what are the consequences of such separations? How does the separation process affect the relationship between the departing states and those remaining in the institution? As in a divorce process, such separations can lead to an intensification of conflicts and differences. Questions about who is to blame for the separation and the costs it has caused, a fundamental questioning of the institution, grievances and differences from the past can lead to escalation. On the other hand, a relaxation would also be conceivable. One goes separate ways, arranges still existing obligations and provides for balance. For example, when a state leaves an international organization, one could agree on compensation payments to cushion the loss of its contributions. Finally, compensation and indemnification could be used to draw a line under the matter and to establish a more relaxed relationship with each other.

Depending on how states manage these separation processes, the course is set for future relations and security architecture.

The interdisciplinary research project “Drifting Apart: International Institutions in Crisis and the Management of Dissociation Processes” focuses on the how of dissociation processes. The focus is not on the why of the crisis of international institutions, but on the questions: What factors determine whether tensions and alienations escalate between remaining and exiting states? How do separation processes affect the relationship between states?

Within the framework of the Leibniz Research Network “Crises of a Globalized World”, a PRIF research team together with colleagues from three other research institutes pursued these questions in a comparative explorative study. The team worked on five dissociation processes, some historical and some current:

  • the decline of security cooperation between Russia and the West since 2000,
  • the departure of the United Kingdom from the EU,
  • the establishment of alternative institutions by the BRICS countries in international financial cooperation,
  • the collapse of the Warsaw Pact,
  • the withdrawal of Iran from cooperation with the West since the late 1970s.

Their research began with the hypothesis that there are two types of conflicts in dissociation processes, ideational and distributional conflicts, and that ideational conflicts in particular carry a high risk of escalation. The researchers were able to confirm this assumption, but they also succeeded in identifying other mechanisms that lead to an aggravation of tensions between states through dissociation processes and thus make their management more difficult. After three years of project work, they presented their initial findings in a special issue.

In order to prevent an ideologization of conflicts, it is important not to insist only on the enforcement of one’s own values, as problematic as this may sometimes be, especially for the West.

Dirk Peters

These offer little reason for optimism. In most cases, disengagement processes lead to an intensification of the conflict. The disengagement is often embedded in a relationship that has always been in tension; the exit from cooperation is just another contribution to that conflict. And there is almost always a tendency to turn the conflict into a fundamental dispute. Often domestic pressure makes a peaceful settlement difficult; a scapegoat must be found to justify costs and disadvantages. It is seldom possible to deal with the separation at the distribution level and thus draw a line under it through compensation and settlement payments.

In one of the cases examined, the peaceful transition to a normalized relationship succeeded, at least for a time: the GDR’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. Here, too, there were domestic constraints; Soviet President Gorbachev was under tremendous pressure not to engage in negotiations. But he succeeded in overriding this and reaching agreements with the Federal Republic on ample compensation. In principle, therefore, it was possible in the negotiating situation to resolve the conflict through agreements on a material level and not to get involved in discussions of values. The prerequisite, however, was Gorbachev’s political courage. In retrospect, however, it should not be concealed that he did not succeed in forging a domestic coalition that went along with and supported the agreement. The conflict continued to smolder in the Politburo, with the familiar consequences.

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The ideologization of a conflict always adds fuel to the fire; the example of Iran and its withdrawal from cooperation with the West from the 1970s onward is illustrative of this. The highly ideologized dispute with the United States led to constant friction and threats of war. The German government, on the other hand, continued to pursue its business with Iran, thus never getting into a high-tension situation, but had to face accusations of double standards.

What does this mean for the management of future conflicts? And does this necessarily mean that one’s own norms should take a back seat in order to avoid escalation? Science cannot offer simple answers. The researchers argue that islands of cooperation should be sought. It must be prevented that a relationship is perceived only under one aspect and the conviction arises that one can never cooperate due to fundamental ideological differences. When this happens, war is not far away. Instead, it is important to identify areas in which common interests still exist, which can then lead to partial cooperation. In no case should the values that a regime represents be decisive for all areas of cooperation. This does not necessarily mean that one’s own values should no longer be represented, but rather that one should avoid placing the entire relationship under the standard of these values. For example, one should certainly stand up for human rights, but without claiming to enforce them in another country. One can raise the issue and also advertise it, but one should not stop interacting with a government because it follows different norms, otherwise one quickly ends up with a polarization of the relationship and interstate conflicts.