The Role of Global Institutions When Democracy is Under Siege

By Augusto Lopez-Claros.

In October of 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a Special Report on Global Warming in which it stated that “limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”[1] It noted that we are well on our way to breach that threshold, something that has not happened in over a million years (perhaps longer), taking us into uncharted territory.

But climate change is not by any means the only global catastrophic risk that we confront.

We, in fact, face a range of unresolved global problems.

– Nuclear proliferation has been a constant during much of the last 75 years and did not disappear as a problem with the end of the Cold War.

– Widening income disparities have ceased to be merely an economic problem and have become deeply intertwined with national politics. It is increasingly evident that unless addressed in some meaningful way, income inequality has the potential to undermine our social and political order.[2]

– According to the World Bank, 48% of the world’s population lives on less than $5.50 per day. Much of the progress made in reducing extreme poverty in recent decades has largely been on account of China’s rapid economic growth. The number of poor in Africa has in fact risen, with some 736 million in sub-Saharan Africa living on less than $1.90 per day.[3]

– There has been a sustained loss of faith in our leaders, in their ability to solve a whole range of global challenges and this has fed the reemergence of populisms and nationalism, which Albert Einstein called “an infantile disease.”[4] In many parts of the world democracy is indeed under siege.

The last time that there was a serious debate about the kind of global order that needed to be created to ensure peace and security and to create a basis for human prosperity was when the United States entered World War II and President Roosevelt called for the creation of the United Nations, in January of 1942. In the initial consultations for what would eventually become the UN Charter, the thinking centered on the future establishment of some type of international entity founded on federalist principles, not unlike in conception to the model adopted by the United States during its Constitutional Convention in 1787. This would have implied the creation of a legislative body with substantial powers to enact laws that would be binding on member states.

But this expansive vision soon confronted two major constraints:

– Firstly, the need to get the support of the Soviet Union, where Stalin was not at all interested in creating an organization which might interfere with Soviet sovereignty and prerogatives; and

– Secondly, the need to ensure US Senate approval of the UN Charter to avoid a repetition of President Wilson’s failure in 1920 to secure US participation in the League of Nations.

In the late 1950s, Grenville Clark and Louis Sohn, in their magnificent World Peace Through World Law,[5] offered a comprehensive range of proposals to address the built-in flaws of the UN.

But, while much admired in many policymaking circles, their proposals had little impact. By then the world was in the midst of the Cold War and we were about to enter into a decades-long process of arms build-up by the major powers, with multiple conflicts across the planet; great losses in human life; and delayed economic and social development.

Sixty years later, we need to go back to the proposals put forth by the likes of Grenville Clark, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and others, because it is becoming increasingly evident that our current UN-based order is not a problem-solving system and has not led to a sufficient strengthening of the mechanisms of international cooperation that are so vital to address common global problems.

The argument can be made that the time is ripe to do this now in a way that was not possible in the 1940s and 1950s because there are other catalysts for the development of global organizations that have emerged and that we cannot ignore:

1. Few credible people think that the current system is sustainable, that we can just muddle through the next several decades without meaningfully addressing some of the risks that cast a shadow over the future of mankind. Climate change, vulnerabilities in the global financial architecture, the heightened risk of war as China displaces the US as the world’s largest economy – they all explain why our current system has few defenders.

2. The world is a thousand times more integrated today than half a century ago. The costs of non-cooperation are much higher today. A war between two global powers, in the age of nuclear weapons, is infinitely more catastrophic in its consequences than it would have been before 1945. And we saw in 2008 how a financial crisis in one country can rapidly spillover and become a global, deeply destabilizing, phenomenon.

3. Civil society and the business community are empowered today in a way that was not the case back in the 1950s. All of the major successful initiatives in the area of international cooperation in the past two decades, from the creation of the International Criminal Court to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, could not have been undertaken without the involvement of other non-governmental stakeholders.

4. Science and technology have made it much easier to mobilize public opinion and there is much greater awareness, globally, of the problems we face and the risks that they carry.

So, what does this mean for the future of global institutions? Let me put before you three concrete suggestions which could contribute greatly to reforming the current UN architecture, to improve its structures, to enhance its effectiveness and to empower it to help in finding sensible solutions to global challenges. I draw from the forthcoming book, Global Governance and the Emergence of Global Institutions for the 21st Century (Cambridge University Press).[6]

The General Assembly: Voting Power and Functions

One key problem is that the General Assembly (GA) operates under the principle of one-country-one vote. China, with a population of close to 1.4 billion people, has the same voting power as Nauru, a country with a population of about 13,000.  Switzerland’s contribution to the UN budget (1.15 percent of the total) exceeds the cumulative contributions of the 120 countries with the smallest contributions.

In Global Governance, we suggest the allocation of voting power in the GA on the basis of three factors:

– a country’s population share;

– its share of world GNP; and

– a membership share, which would be equal for all 193 UN members.

Under this system there would be a reallocation of voting shares that would be more representative of current economic and geopolitical realities, and this new distribution of power would empower the GA to do much more because its legitimacy would be enhanced. This in turn could allow a Charter amendment giving the GA power to legislate in a narrow set of areas, mainly to do with peace and security and management of the global environment.

A Second Chamber or World Parliamentary Assembly

The idea has been around since the UN’s inception, as a way to enhance its democratic character by establishing a firmer linkage between the organization and the peoples it was meant to serve.

The preamble to the UN Charter starts with “We the peoples,” but the men and women who serve on the GA are diplomats representing the executive branches of their respective governments.

There is no meaningful, direct linkage between them and the people they represent. In fact, for non-democratic member states one could say there is no linkage at all between the governments and the people they rule over.  In time, because changing voting weights in the GA would require amendments to the UN Charter, proposals emerged for the creation of a second chamber, a WPA, complementary to the GA and which could be established within the existing Charter.

A WPA would establish a direct connection between the UN system and the global citizenry which now either does not exist or is too weak to make a difference. Having a larger measure of democratic legitimacy, its deliberations and recommendations would be imbued with a decree of credibility and urgency that existing organs such as the Security Council and the GA have lacked, at great cost to global welfare and our collective future. It could thus become a powerful catalyst for actual change.

In this respect, we think that there is great merit to the idea of formalizing in some way what was done by the UN in 2000. Ahead of the Millennium Summit that year, the Secretary General invited 1,400 civil society representatives to the NGO Forum to consult on critical global problems and issue recommendations to Heads of State. The representatives came together later that year in what was the largest such gathering ever. Such a Forum, meeting regularly, would recognize that solutions to some of our most critical problems require multi-stakeholder engagement and could over time facilitate the transition to a WPA.

The Need for an International Peace Force (IPF)

The creation of a United Nations IPF, firmly anchored in the notion that force may at times be necessary to deliver justice and the rule of law, would address one of the main flaws of our current UN system: the absence of a reliable international enforcing mechanism to carry out certain decisions made by the Security Council. Article 43 of the UN Charter, committing member states to “make available to the Security Council, on its call and in accordance with a special agreement or agreements, armed forces, assistance, and facilities…necessary for the purpose of maintaining international peace and security” remains an unrealized promise of the Charter and it has been enormously costly in human terms.

The IPF, consisting of a standby force maintained, operated and commanded by the UN, would enhance the credibility of the UN to prevent conflicts and maintain peace and security in the world. It would create a mechanism of collective security which would significantly reduce the pressure on countries to maintain extensive and expensive military establishments. Reductions in military spending at the national level could be re-allocated to other ends, including education, public health, infrastructure and other productivity-enhancing areas, thereby giving rise to a real “peace dividend.”

Clearly, the establishment of such a force would need to be accompanied by a process of disarmament. The aim is to move to a world in which we empower the UN to fulfill its Charter mandates in the area of peace and security, something that it has not been able to do in its close to 75-year history.


By implementing these proposals, the UN can sharply reduce the likelihood of a catastrophic collapse – a collapse of the present system which would have devastating consequences on a global scale.  If we do not act now to strengthen the international order, we may be forced to rebuild a global institutional framework after

– a third world war;

– the collapse of the global economy

– a pandemic wiping out a significant part of the world’s population; or

– extreme climate change producing famines and mass migrations, any of which would overwhelm existing institutions.

Because reshaping international governance is not ultimately about institutions, structures or even funding. Reshaping international governance is about protecting all that we hold dear. It is about ensuring mankind has a safe path during and past the 21st century. It is about leaving to our children a better world than the one we were born into, not one in which they will have to deal with the consequences of unprecedented global catastrophes.

*The featured image is an Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy: President Barack Obama addresses the 65th session of the United Nations General Assembly at United Nations headquarters September 23, 2010.

IMG_7096Augusto Lopez-Claros is an international economist with over 30 years of experience in international organizations, including most recently at the World Bank. For the 2018/2019 academic years he was on leave from the World Bank as a Senior Fellow at the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Between 2011 and 2017 he was the director of the Bank’s Global Indicators Group, the department responsible for the Doing Business report and other international benchmarking studies. Previously he was chief economist and director of the Global Competitiveness Program at the World Economic Forum in Geneva. Educated in England and the United States, he received a diploma in Mathematical Statistics from Cambridge University and a Ph.D. in Economics from Duke University. His latest book is Equality for Women = Prosperity for All (2018, St. Martin’s Press, with B. Nakhjavani). A list of recent lectures can be found at:

[1]Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 ̊C Approved by Governments, IPCC (Oct. 8, 2018),

[2] According to Branko Milanovic, 62% of the gains in global income over the past 30 years have gone to the top 5% of the income distribution. Branko Milanovic, Global Inequality by the Numbers: In History and Now 13, 16 (2014). PowerPoint presentation at the World Bank, 2013.

[3] Divyanshi Wadhwa, The number of extremely poor people continues to rise in Sub-Saharan Africa, World Bank Blogs (Sept. 19, 2018),

[4] Augusto Lopez-Claros, Nationalism as an Infantile Disease, The Ends and Means of Development (Oct. 30, 2017),

[5] Greenville Clark & Louis Sohn, World Peace Through World Law, xvii-xlii (3d ed. 1966).

[6] Augusto Lopez-Claros, et al., Global Governance and the Emergence of Global Institutions for the 21st Century (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Categories: Uncategorized
%d bloggers like this: