Are informal intergovernmental organizations such as the BRICS the answer to our future security problems? Felicity Vabulas believes that states are beginning to see their virtues, which include diplomatic flexibility, rapid crisis response, and an unquestioning respect for national interests.
By Felicity Vabulas for ISN
Around the world, the efficacy, equity, and legitimacy of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) are increasingly being questioned. As Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations notes, “there has been no movement to reform the composition of the UN Security Council to reflect new geopolitical realities. Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is comatose, NATO struggles to find its strategic purpose, and the International Energy Agency courts obsolescence by omitting China and India as members.”
IGOs have never been a “magic bullet” solution for the world’s security challenges. Because they embody path dependence, they always reflect distributions of power that are quickly outpaced by reality. Today, states are increasingly making use of forms of governance outside of traditional institutions such as the European Union or the United Nations. In particular, informal intergovernmental organizations (a term I coined in an article co-authored with Duncan Snidal) are emerging as both substitutes and complements to existing formal IGOs—in areas as diverse as finance and security. The interplay between informal and formal institutions is what is generating the “messy multilateralism” that has characterized the opening decades of the 21st century.
Why informal intergovernmental organizations?
Informal IGOs are defined as an explicit group of associated states having explicitly shared expectations (rather than formalized treaties) that participate in regular meetings but have no independent secretariat, headquarters, or permanent staff. In its initial years, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision (BCBS) was a good example of an informal IGO: states shared a common goal to cooperate on banking supervision, but they did not codify their agreement under international law. Other examples include the G8, the Concert of Europe, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the Paris Club.
Typically, states have preferred informal IGOs for five reasons:
1. To retain flexibility. This can be valuable when uncertainty about the future is high, distribution problems are severe, or when states do not need or want high precision in their desired outcome.
2. To preserve their sovereignty. Lower sovereignty costs are incurred when authority is not delegated to a formal IGO secretariat.
3. To maintain secrecy. Informal IGOs are not subject to formal transparency rules and can thus help to maintain secrecy among their members.
4. To respond more quickly and with lower negotiation costs. Informal IGOs are especially valuable in crises when leaders must move quickly and without the constraints of formal procedures.
5. To minimize bureaucratic centralization. This helps states reduce costs and move fluidly without the constraints of rigid structure.