Covid-19 and responses by international organizations

Covid-19 and responses by international organizations

The liberal international order is being challenged and international organizations (IOs) are a main target of contestation. Covid-19 seems to exacerbate the situation with many states pursuing domestic strategies at the expense of multilateral cooperation. At the same time, IOs have traditionally also benefited from cross-border crises. In a new working paper [NB: not yet peer-reviewed], we analyze the policy responses of major IOs to the exogenous Covid-19 shock by asking why some IOs appear gridlocked, others manage to provide some continuity of operations, and yet others use this crisis as an opportunity to expand their scope and policy instruments?

Crises such as Covid-19, we are told, are fundamental in understanding the development of IOs. Punctuated equilibrium theory (PET) notes that IOs remain stable across long time periods that are intersected by punctuations, often following exogenous shocks. Historical institutionalism similarly argues that institutional change is path dependent and incremental, but can depart radically following critical junctures. Covid-19 therefore presents potentially a fork in the road for many IOs and indeed the liberal international order at large.

Apart from “muddling through,” the Covid-19 crisis provides IOs with two divergent paths. First, Covid-19 may further undermine the liberal international order. It is the first international crisis since the end of the Cold War where the United States does not play a coordinating role. China seems to accelerate its development as a great power by embarking on “mask diplomacy” and tightening its hold on Hong Kong. Many states are furthermore pursuing domestic strategies, such as closing borders, with nationalisation coming at the expense of multilateral cooperation. In other words, Covid-19 might exacerbate the existing gridlock within many IOs. 

Second, we also know that cross-border problems (with Covid-19 as a case in point) often provide impetus for (renewed) cooperation. Indeed, the WHO and its predecessors were originally established precisely because ‘diseases do not stop at borders’. It is also well-known that IOs regularly benefit from crises, because established orders become fluid when the stakes are high and rapid response is imperative. Jean Monnet famously said, “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.” Once the dust settles, some IOs may actually be more powerful than they were before. 

In our paper we theorize that variation in institutional design conditions the likelihood of IOs to be able to respond and adapt to Covid-19. We expect that IOs may benefit from this crisis in terms of an expanded scope or new policy instruments if they are more authoritative and have bureaucratic capacity to formulate adequate policy responses to Covid-19. On the other hand, less authoritative IOs with limited bureaucratic capacity are more likely to face gridlock. 

To test this argument, we have coded the initial policy responses of 75 major IOs, varying from no response to using existing policies and instruments, and proposing new policies and instruments (data provided in the appendix). We use data from Hooghe et al. on the authority of IO and data on bureaucratic capacity from the Yearbook of International Organizations (secretariat staff size) and our own coded data on IO budgets and IO leadership. We control for number of member states, preference heterogeneity, policy areas, number of Covid-19 deaths among the IO membership, and whether China and the United States are both members.

We find that secretariat staff size is highly significant (p<0.001). Such IOs may be able to reassign staff to work on crisis response, are more likely to have relevant in-house expertise, and can put forward policy proposals. We furthermore find some significance (p<0.1) for IOs with delegated agenda-setting powers, which is an opportunity structure that allows for the proposal of new policies and instruments. We find no evidence for any of the control variables and alternative explanations.

To provide a further sense of what is going on, we have included three case illustrations of the World Health Organization, European Union and Council of Europe (which all score high on staff and have introduced new policies and instruments). Despite all the criticism on the WHO and EU, we actually see that they are expanding. Particularly the European Commission has gone into overdrive keen not to “waste a good crisis” with policy ventures in to health and social policy and, most notably, a much more financial (and innovative) resources to address long-held preferences in climate change and digitalization. The Council of Europe, almost a dormant organization, has really stepped up, at least in the area of public diplomacy selling itself as the defender of human rights amidst Covid-19.

The current Covid-19 crisis presents a clear test case to take stock of the current state of liberal international order. Just as Daniel Drezner claimed that “the system worked” during the previous economic and financial crisis, we show that the large majority of IOs manage to continue their operations and some even gained from Covid-19 in terms of policy scope and instruments. The fact that many IOs show resilience during a cross-border crisis, for which they were developed in the first place, means their future is not necessarily bleak.