Monday 18 Jan 2021 | 19:16 | SYDNEY
Monday 18 Jan 2021 | 19:16 | SYDNEY

Life skills for international organisations


Graeme Dobell

18 October 2010 14:28

It's hard to create an international organisation, but the truly difficult thing is to kill one off. Exhibit A: The Commonwealth.

Two columns have discussed the wither and whither of the Commonwealth, including the issue of why the re-badged British Empire hasn't been dispatched to the knackery. The fact that the Commonwealth has got to 60 and looks good for a while yet prompts this column devoted to the realpolitik of running an international organisation (henceforth, 'the int. org.'): how to avoid institutional death. Please put aside concerns about whether the int. org. is doing a good or bad job and whether its budget could be better spent elsewhere; this is all about survival.

The seminal rule – the prime directive – is the creation of a secretariat. Once an int. org. gets a secretariat it has a beating heart devoted to its continued existence. The attention of the various members of the int. org. fluctuates, but a secretariat creates people with careers to build and constant interests to promote.

The secretariat speaks to the internal existence of the int. org. An equally important rule for external relations is the decision about where to site the HQ. No matter how many third world members belong, the HQ must be in a first world capital. Grab a former palace or mansion or build a big bureaucratic bauhaus for the HQ by all means. But the key lesson is to be in a city that officials and their ministers, NGOists and activists, bankers and business types, accountants and actors will always want to visit. Much easier to promote good works in a great or at least civilised city.

The big examples prove the rule: the UN in New York, the OECD in Paris, the WTO in Geneva, the Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome and – an elegant illustration of the rule – the Christopher Wren-designed Marlborough House (pictured), home of the Commonwealth in London.

The next rule calls for lots of meetings. And if your constituency is governments, that means annual ministerial councils and leaders' summits. Summits can terrify individual foreign ministries and even governments. As Kissinger observed, no problem is so bad that a mishandled summit can't make it worse. But for int. orgs., summits are pure cream. And the more leaders, the more cream: profile, cash and maybe even relevance or influence.

Summits are an example of what the US journalist and former deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbot, calls 'higher schmoozing'. Preparing in the State Department for his first general assembly at the UN, Talbot recounts the advice of one of the diplomats briefing him: 'multilat is hell'. Hell for individual ministers and ministries which must seek wins and minimise losses, but heaven for the int. org., which can draw sustenance just from turning the wheels.

Credit the Commonwealth with coming up with and institutionalising one of the exquisite refinements of the summit – the leaders' retreat. This is such a winner it has been adopted by lots of other int. orgs. The leaders must retreat together to a quiet place to bond while their great minds meet. Any int. org. that can facilitate such congresses of the intellect must be worth having.

The smart int. org. with an eye to long-term existence seeks to make the mere fact of holding its meetings a firm achievement. ASEAN is good at this: the meeting is the message. The aim of the meeting, the summit, the retreat, the committee and the communiqué is to bring minds together. Seek not decisions, nor – perish the thought – results. The aim is to achieve consensus. Elevate consensus. Just as the very convening of the meeting is an achievement, so the search for consensus is an activity that produces its own benefits. Agreement, surely, is better than disagreement.

Writing nearly 50 years ago, Richard Casey knew all about this syndrome. Drawing on his long service as Australia's External Affairs Minister, Casey remarked wryly that the very fact of a periodical leaders' summit was frequently regarded as evidence of Commonwealth solidarity:

However, useful as they undoubtedly are, they are no more than discussion conferences, principally for an exchange of views on current matters, without necessarily or even probably altering the attitude of mind of many of those who take part in them.

The polite agreement to disagree played to Commonwealth convenience, Casey said, and leaders needed to consult nothing but their own convenience.

The consecration of consensus leads to another important rule. The int. org. must always be careful what it wishes for. Although it might seem counter-intuitive, the life of the int. org. is often best served by failure rather than victory. Success can mean the task is completed and thus the int. org. has served its purpose. That way leads to oblivion or merger with some other body. Far better to aim high rather than to reach for smaller, more achievable goals. To fall short in a mighty endeavour merely means the int. org. can call for a doubling of resources and a redoubling of effort.

The framing of the higher aim is crucial. The int. org. can go two ways: a big and fuzzy laudable aim or a specific but long-term goal. If adopting the specific goal as the mandate, the int. org. must be careful to specify the target but never a due date. Failure can be embarrassing, not to mention discouraging to those paying for the budget. On balance, then, far better to go for the big and fuzzy target. The Commonwealth again offers a great model. It aims to achieve democracy with development. Who could argue with the goal' Who could ever say it had been reached' Masterful.

One thing that does send an int. org. off to the killing yard is being on the wrong side of a war. Note the fate of the League of Nations after World War II and SEATO after the Vietnam War. The moral is for the int. org. not to get too close to issues of war, but always to be in favour of peace. Or perhaps to go in search of even more important reasons to exist. We need a summit to discuss this further.

Photo by Flickr user David Wilmot, used under a Creative Commons license.