By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Explain the purpose of regional IGOs and give examples.
- Differentiate between the missions of NATO and the EU.
- Explain how the missions of NATO and the EU have evolved over time.
- Describe causes of tension within regional IGOs.
- Discuss the ways regional IGOs contribute to global governance.
Much of the work of global governance is done at the regional level. IGOs such as the Arab League, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the African Union (AU) have extended the UN model to regional affairs, and IGOs like the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Mercado Común del Sur (MERCOSUR), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have extended it to subregional affairs. Regional IGOs work to improve the quality of life for people in a given region by encouraging economic development, facilitating trade, and/or enhancing security. They seek to lessen conflict by enabling cooperation and dialogue between neighboring states and by promoting common interests. Regional IGOs may become involved in any issue of common interest to states in the region, such as protection, trade, climate change, migration, or human trafficking. Military alliances focus on the coordination of military policy, while economic IGOs focus more on promoting trade and economic progress. IGOs composed of mostly democratic states can promote and reinforce democratic norms, punishing member states that stray from democratic practices. The African Union took just such steps when it responded to the 2013 military coup in Egypt by suspending Egypt’s membership in the IGO.35
Over time, regional IGOs may broaden their scope, increasing the levels of cooperation between member states. The idea that cooperation on small, discrete policy areas such as coordinating postal services or air traffic control can create mutual trust and evolve into cooperation on larger, more complex issues is called functionalism. This is illustrated in the case of the European Union, where the original economic union evolved to include a multitude of domestic and foreign policy issues such as the environment, health, labor, security, and immigration. Ultimately, what began as a union of states concerned with individual and regional economic growth developed into an organization espousing common values and objectives that extended to a wide variety of issues traditionally within the sole purview of individual sovereign states.
The largest and oldest regional IGO is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, NATO is the most powerful military alliance in the world, with 30 member states and combined forces of over two million troops. In 2019, NATO states accounted for 54 percent of global military spending.36
In an anarchic system, security IGOs increase predictability by making public member states’ military commitments. Alliances are designed to serve as deterrents against attacks on any member states, as potential attackers know they would face the combined strength of the alliance in response. Alliances also coordinate policy responses to international events and to the foreign policy decisions of non-allied states, thus making accidental or impulsive military action less likely.
NATO’s Purpose and Current Mission
The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Portugal formed NATO in 1949 to safeguard US allies in Europe by deterring a Soviet attack. In 1952, Greece and Turkey joined NATO, and Germany joined three years later. Article 5 of the NATO Treaty promised collective defense, assuring members that “an attack on one or more of them . . . shall be considered an attack against them all.”37 The individual security concerns of each NATO country were subsumed by what they considered the shared existential threat of communist expansion or Soviet nuclear attack.
The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, creating 15 new states, the largest of which is Russia. Instead of dissolving in response, NATO expanded, ultimately including both many Eastern European states that had previously been allied with the Soviet Union and some former Soviet states. Part of NATO’s original purpose was to forbid “the revival of nationalist militarism in Europe through a strong North American presence on the continent” and to encourage “European political integration.”38 Thus, after 1991 NATO offered membership to any state that could meet the political and financial obligations of membership. After the end of the Cold War, NATO’s mission shifted from fighting communism to preserving the general security of member states and the international community.
With the addition of North Macedonia in 2020, NATO had 30 member states. As of this writing, three additional countries are seeking membership, and another 30, including most of the states of the former Soviet Union, have joined NATO’s “Partnership for Peace” program.
NATO invoked the collective defense agreement of Article 5 for the first time following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. In response to those attacks, the United States attacked the Taliban government in Afghanistan. The United Nations authorized a NATO-led peace-building force to establish a new government and stabilize the country.
NATO can deploy a unified command military force to engage in armed conflict. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has intervened in international crises, monitored security threats, trained security forces, and undertaken peace-building in Kosovo (since 1999) and Afghanistan (2003–2021).39
What Kinds of Conflicts Exist within NATO?
As with all IGOs, NATO’s primary challenge is managing the varied interests of its members and creating common policy acceptable to all. However, in security organizations like NATO, the influence of the most powerful state is more pronounced. Throughout the Cold War, NATO depended on the promise of US military force. The United States dictates NATO policy more than, say, Germany dictates what happens in the EU and more than the UK influences what happens at the United Nations. In the post-Soviet world, and with the addition of members outside Western Europe, US power in NATO has weakened as the organization has had to balance the needs and concerns of other member states.
NATO allies do not always agree. Although NATO has insisted that it is not an “enemy” of Russia, Russia’s aggressive actions in Crimea and toward Ukraine have caused concern among many NATO member states, especially those with borders near Russia. In 2016, NATO called Russia a “challenge [to] the Alliance” and “a source of regional instability.”40 However, some members of NATO, including some larger Western European states, are reluctant to take any action that might be seen as aggressive toward Russia.41 Varying conceptions of security threats are natural given the differing size and geographic location of member states. These variations complicate the creation of unified policy priorities and responses.
NATO Sends Ships, Planes to Eastern Europe as Ukraine Conflict Heats Up
The Russian invasion of Ukraine threatened Europe and the prevailing world order. Because of those threats, and because of the potential direct threat to NATO countries like Poland that border Ukraine, NATO strengthened defenses in the area—even though Ukraine was not a member of NATO at the time.
Another source of conflict is burden sharing, that is, how much each country should contribute to the funding and operations of the alliance. The two wealthiest NATO countries, the United States and Germany, each pay 16 percent of the operating costs, and each country is called to allocate 2 percent of its GDP to defense expenditures. Due to the size of the United States’ GDP and its allocation of 3.4 percent of its GDP to defense, in 2020 the United States’ spending on defense made up 69 percent of the overall NATO defense spending.42
Regional Security IGOs Since the Forming of NATO
Many regional multipurpose IGOs, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the African Union, have a security function within a broader framework of regional cooperation and promotion of the common good.43 The United Nations has called upon regional organizations to support peacekeeping work both on their own and in cooperation with the UN. At an August 2015 summit, then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “The United Nations increasingly shares responsibility for peace and security with regional organizations. We should do everything possible to help them resolve regional problems and to include the states concerned in solutions. At the same time, regional organizations should continue contributing to United Nations peace and security efforts.”44
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) calls itself “the world’s largest security organization.”45 It works on a broad range of security initiatives, including arms control, terrorism prevention, preventative diplomacy, and peace building. It has offices in member countries that monitor current and potential zones of conflict.
Africa has been the most conflict-prone continent in the 21st century. The African Union, the largest and best-resourced regional organization on the continent, has a spotty regional security and peacekeeping record. In 2002, the AU ratified the African Peace and Security Architecture plan, which enlisted regional economic organizations and other partners to address security challenges on the continent.46 Subregional economic organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States and the Southern African Development Community have played an increasingly prominent role in handling security issues, particularly in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, Lesotho, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The European Union
Headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, the European Union (EU) is the largest and most influential regional economic IGO. Since the withdrawal of the United Kingdom (a move referred to as “ Brexit”) in January of 2020, the EU includes 27 countries across the European continent. The EU began as a small-scale economic organization, but its mission has expanded to promote peace and solidarity among European countries.
Although it recognizes the sovereignty of its member states, including their right to withdraw from the organization, the EU has moved far closer to the union of countries than has any other IGO. Most EU countries have adopted the common currency, the euro, and most allow citizens to travel and work across borders within the 26 countries, made up of most EU countries and a few non-EU countries, known as the Schengen Area. Countries that apply for admission to the EU must meet certain entrance criteria, including an established free-market economy and a democratic government. Candidate countries must adopt national legislation that aligns with admission criteria; hence applications may take years to finalize.
The Purpose of the EU
In 1951, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands formed the European Union to support their economic recovery from the devastation of World War II. Over the next four decades, the countries’ economies became increasingly integrated. The Maastricht Treaty of 1993, which introduced the common currency and a commitment to common security and foreign policies, established the current structure of the EU.
EU member states commit to a common set of values, stated in Article 2 of the EU treaty and reinforced in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, that they consider central to European life: “a society in which inclusion, tolerance, justice, solidarity and non-discrimination prevail.”47 In addition to affirming human rights guarantees such as freedom of expression and freedom from torture, the Charter outlaws the death penalty, specifies the equality of the sexes, and protects cultural heritage.48
The Organizational Structure of the EU
Five main bureaucratic and political organs oversee and help guide EU activities and policies. Leaders of European states sit on the European Council, which meets several times a year and, working with the European Parliament, sets the broad priorities of the EU.
European citizens directly elect the 705 members of the European Parliament to five-year terms. These members represent seven political groups from left to right on the political spectrum. The European Parliament plays both policy-making and budget-oversight roles. A part of the EU executive branch, the European Commission, promotes EU interests. The European Parliament elects a president to head the 27-member College of Commissioners for a five-year term. The Commission implements EU legislation, represents the EU internationally, and allocates funding for EU projects. Member states nominate commissioners, who are then approved by the European Parliament and serve as the bureaucratic heads of various policy agencies within the EU.
The Council of the European Union works more like the United Nations, where each member state represents its own interests to the whole. The Council of the EU is a policy-making body that, along with the European Parliament, discusses and passes laws for the EU. Its members are empowered to commit their home states to any decisions the Council makes.
Located in Luxembourg, the Court of Justice of the EU settles disputes arising under the laws of the European Union. The Court can interpret, find countries in violation of, and sanction those who disobey that law.
No issue is beyond the scope of the European Union. In many ways it functions as a state in the international system, for its members coordinate policies and share common positions on international issues. The EU develops economic, defense/security, foreign, immigration, and labor policies that apply to each member state. Independence of action in any of these areas would be a concern to the organization. Thus, while member states retain their sovereignty in some senses, the EU has the ability to interfere in domestic issues and to punish noncompliance.
Annually, the European Parliament publishes a list of issues that will be on the EU agenda for the coming year. In 2021, the issues included pandemic-related topics such as access to the COVID-19 vaccine and helping economies recover, social and humanitarian issues such as access to food, issues of discrimination, cultural issues including the state of the performing arts, and “some of the big background changes shaping the world we live in today—the digital, environmental and geo-political challenges ahead, from Europe’s borders to its transatlantic relationship.”49 Because the primary mission of the EU is to ensure the peace and prosperity of Europe, anything that threatens that mission is an issue of importance for the organization.
What Kinds of Conflicts Exist within the EU?
When 27 countries, each with its own goals and ambitions, attempt to coordinate a unified response to common issues, tensions and conflicts are inevitable. Addressing the needs and desires of every EU member state and trying to reach agreement on a common policy is difficult, especially when the organization’s mission incorporates so many different policy areas. The economies, politics, and cultures of the EU states differ, and these variations complicate efforts to create a “European identity” beyond the identity of the member states.50
The EU’s unification of so many traditional state functions, including economic and foreign policies, under a supranational umbrella has led to some backlash. Economic pressures on national governments can lessen the perceived benefit of being a part of the EU. Domestic constituents of wealthier states, who believe they are losing their sovereign identity and subsidizing poorer and weaker states, may become convinced that EU membership is no longer in their country’s best interest. Although only the United Kingdom has entirely withdrawn from EU membership, political groups in many member states include anti–European Union (“Euroskeptic”) sentiment in their platforms.
The loss of the United Kingdom, a founding member and one of the wealthiest and most powerful states in the EU, represents a significant setback, and managing relations between the UK and the EU in the aftermath of Brexit is an ongoing challenge.
UK-EU Post-Brexit Relationship: Rivals or Good Neighbours?
The UK exit from the EU has necessitated a reimagining of the relationship between the UK and other European countries.
Over time the EU has expanded to include states that have not traditionally displayed the strongest records on democracy or human rights. Democratic backsliding in member states Poland and Hungary and the rising strength of populist and nativist movements in other EU countries threaten democratic norms and institutions.
The growth and aggressiveness of Russia and, to a lesser extent, China also pose foreign policy challenges to the EU. Prior to Brexit, some international relations literature discussed the EU as a unified great power capable of acting as a counterweight to Russia or China in international relations. Determining the appropriate role for the EU and how it should address different international relations challenges remains a vital task for the organization.51 As former High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Javier Solana notes: “In order to be an international actor, the EU must act in unison and speak with one voice. If each member state acts individually, Europe will find itself relegated to the role of mere spectator in the arena of major world events, with neither the capacity nor the power to influence their outcome.”52
Regional Economic Organizations
Encouraged by the success of the European Union, almost every region in the world has formed an economic IGO and a regional economic development bank. These regional economic organizations (REOs) aim to improve cooperation and facilitate economic development by increasing transparency, funding projects, encouraging free trade, and reducing economic conflict. A handful of regional IGOs, such as the African Union and the Arab League, are more general in nature, but almost all have a substantial focus on economic development.
Because the success of an REO depends upon the peace and stability of a region, REOs are often pulled into efforts to enhance regional security. The United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA), the successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), is the world’s largest free trade area.
Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay established MERCOSUR, the Southern Common Market (Mercado Común del Sur), in 1991 to “accelerate sustained economic development based on social justice, environmental protection, and poverty reduction.”53 In subsequent years, other countries in the region, including Venezuela and Bolivia, joined MERCOSUR as full or associate members. In 2017, MERCOSUR suspended Venezuela for failing to comply with democratic principles.54 In 2011, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru founded a new Latin American trading bloc, the Pacific Alliance. The Pacific Alliance has decreased tariffs in the participating countries and increased trade with the European Union and countries in Asia.55
In the Asia-Pacific region, the largest REO is ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Since Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand founded ASEAN in 1967, it has expanded to include Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia. ASEAN has both security and economic priorities. It has become one of the largest free-trade areas in the world.
Other Types of Regional IGOs
Some regional IGOs, like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Arab League, are organized around a common identity. Others, like the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), are organized around shared economic interests. The 13 member countries of OPEC own approximately 75 to 80 percent of the world’s known oil reserves. OPEC is open to any oil-producing state, and only the most powerful oil-producing states, such as Russia, China, and the United States, have opted not to join the organization. OPEC seeks to “coordinate and unify the petroleum policies of its member countries and ensure the stabilization of oil markets in order to secure an efficient, economic, and regular supply of petroleum to consumers, a steady income to producers and a fair return on capital for those investing in the petroleum industry.”56 The organization helps its members coordinate oil supply and pricing, which can (but does not always) provide relative stability and predictability in the petroleum market and avoid contentious trade wars.
OPEC Prepares for an Age of Dwindling Demand
The actions and oil production levels of OPEC countries affect oil prices around the world. Decreasing oil consumption, technological advancements, and efforts to lessen dependence on OPEC oil have provided incentives for some countries to leave OPEC, as Ecuador did effective January 1, 2020.
How Do Regional IGOs Contribute to Global Governance?
From a realist perspective, which focuses on the primacy of states, IGOs are most important as tools states can use to their own advantage. No IGO can act independently of its member states, and the largest states typically have disproportionate influence over an organization’s actions.
While realists might point to persistent war and poverty as evidence of the ineffectiveness of IGOs, liberal internationalists and constructivists tend to highlight how IGOs constrain state action, increase areas of cooperation, draw states together in unprecedented ways, and help alleviate the scourges of war and poverty, even if they have not yet eliminated them. For instance, both the number of people dying in war and the number of states engaged in war have dropped significantly since World War II.57 Also, since they are most directly impacted by the events in their own region, regional IGOs are better able than outside observers to monitor the actions of member states. For instance, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recently held a meeting for regional IGOs to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on various cultural activities around the world and to elicit promises from the participants to monitor and support the cultural and creative sectors in their regions as countries recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic.58
IGOs that begin with a narrow scope are prone to expansion, particularly when member states see the benefits of working together. Organizations like the United Nations use language—like urging “global citizenship,” promoting “the good of all nations,” and being a member of an “international community”—to encourage states to rise above sovereign individualism and see themselves as contributing to and benefiting from membership in a valuable, cohesive group. The use of language reinforcing desired norms can change state behavior, reducing uncertainty and enhancing cooperation.