Have we gotten any better at solving problems?

One big hope of the past two decades has been about the prospects for international cooperation – like previous thoughts on whether world society has become more cosmopolitan or not, there’s this enduring hope (amid the buzzwords of interdependence, globalization) that the end of the Cold War meant that institutions could work the way they were meant to, and that the blinkers on our recognition of mutual interests would be lifted.

So a recent post by Stephen Walt revists the question of whether our global institutional architecture is up to scratch in being able to address this multiplying, burgeoning agenda. Neither our awareness of the problems or the resources to deal with them are the problems, Walt argues. Instead, what we’re lacking is the political capacity to confront these in appropriate and effective ways:

One way to think about the current state of world politics is as a ratio of the number of important problems to be solved and our overall “problem-solving capacity.” When the ratio of “emerging problems” to “problem-solving capacity” rises, challenges pile up faster than we can deal with them and we end up neglecting some important issues and mishandling others.  Something of this sort happened during the 1930s, for example, when a fatal combination of global economic depression, aggressive dictatorships, inadequate institutions, declining empires, and incomplete knowledge overwhelmed leaders around the world and led to a devastating world war.

There’s a long litany of stuck-in-the-mud examples that Walt offers, and I think identifying the particular issue of political incapacity is broadly correct.  In many ways we’re still stuck with the architecture that grew during, and in the context of the post-World War II era. Reform and renovation (from GATT to the WTO, from the OAU to the AU, from the G7/8 to G20) has taken place, but is this of a substantially different type?

Walt’s proposed remedies – minilateralism (and fewer global-scale institutions), an emphasis on accountability, and institutional reform – don’t really seem to do justice to the scale of the challenges that he’s described. ‘Institutional reform’ is a banner under which a lot of things come (and Walt helpfully adds that “fixing institutions is boring“), from the detail of design issues like compliance mechanisms to constitutional change like for the UN Security Council.

Perhaps this is me looking for some grand narrative, but I find myself making this (rather realist) point of wondering whether underlying the issue of political capacity is a problem of power being at loggerheads. George W. Bush thought that American pre-eminence meant that he could disregard global institutions and their role in ensuring peace and prosperity; the undercurrent that surfaces in the second half of the Noughties is the BRIC story, which can block and drag cooperation even if it isn’t able to force its own agenda (yet).

If the Cold War put the institutional architecture into a straitjacket that was eased at the end of the Cold War, is the straitjacket now being tightened again? The difference might be that the proliferation of issues that are now deemed to be of ‘global’ significance with new security challenges and development issues, puts a new magnitude of pressure onto the international political system. The political constraints on achieving cooperation, however, might be ones that are not so unfamiliar.

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