#96 The G|O Briefing, May 5, 2022

With the war, is international cooperation still possible? An interview with Michael Barnett - And expect tensions at the next WHA meeting

This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter

Today in The Geneva Observer, we pursue our exploration of the impact and effects of Putin’s war in Ukraine on multilateralism and the UN Geneva scene, with an interview with Michael Barnett, Professor of International Affairs and Political Science at George Washington University and one of the foremost thinkers on global governance.

With Ukraine pushing to exclude Russia from all international organizations, Geneva has turned into a political and diplomatic battleground. The next confrontation will happen when the World Health Assembly (WHA), the decision-making body of the WHO, meets on May 22 for its 75th session. Jamil Chade reports on efforts by Ukraine and its western allies to sanction Russia.

Is international cooperation still possible under such circumstances? Can agreements still be reached? Is it wise at this point to further isolate Russia? These are some of the questions I asked Michael Barnett. His interview is below—along with a brief note about his latest book, Global Governance in an Age of Change.



•    “International organizations are not going to be able to move great powers where they do not want to go, and they are likely to be in survival mode.”

•    “The issue is not just Ukraine. The fact is that two major great powers, China and Russia, have had very different views about the existing multilateral setting for quite some time.”

•    “Russia has started not just a war of aggression but has committed countless war crimes. It has left a trail of bodies over the last two decades. The Russian way of war cannot be the way of war.”

How much has the war shaken the multilateralism system?

I think it’s pretty shaken. But context is critical. We already saw an erosion of multilateralism, beginning with the perception of American decline and a series of trends and shocks that occurred under Obama’s watch, before Trump. A lot of these tremors were set off by the rise of China, and trying to figure out where China fits in, what China’s interests are, what rules of the game the US wanted to keep and which ones it was ready to let go. And then you have Trump, a raging bull without a cause beyond himself. Exit Trump and enter Biden. There is heightened expectation that Biden will be Obama-esque, or Obama as some remembered him. But Trump’s policies, in many areas, were not a radical shift from Obama’s, and Biden hasn’t expeditiously returned the U.S. to the fictionalized view of the Obama years. Still, there’s hope that “America is back”—but you can’t go home again. The multilateral system had already begun to adapt to Trump and a U.S. that wanted to lead from behind.

We now have Ukraine. But the issue is not just Ukraine. The fact is that two major great powers, China and Russia, have had very different views about the existing multilateral setting for quite some time, and the multilateral system was already in crisis. Ukraine will most definitely make cooperation harder, except on the narrowest issues. International organizations are not going to be able to move great powers where they do not want to go, and they are likely to be in survival mode.

Seen from Geneva, there was a relief when the Biden administration announced the return of the U.S. to the multilateral table. But there was also some skepticism, because the world was no longer the same. And now, with Ukraine, it’s clear that there is a concerted pushback against the US, the Western powers, and their allies. The BRICS are leading this effort; and the two recent votes at the UN General Assembly, on condemning the war and excluding Russia from the Human Rights Council, are a good indication of the state of international affairs. Would you agree?

Yes. In terms of Biden, I think the U.S. has tried to put the Trump years behind us; if not in substance, then in tone, rhetoric, and collegiality. But there remains the fear in the U.S. and around the world that Trumpism, if not Trump himself, are about to return, that the U.S. is a divided nation and looking more split all the time, and is no longer the ‘indispensable nation,’ even if it wanted to be. So, I don’t blame Europeans for questioning whether the U.S.  that they of their long for will return anytime soon.

Moreover, there’s no new vision by the Biden administration at least not that I can tell.  They began by having a sort of a summit with the democracies, which I don’t think enthused many people. I didn’t see a lot of grandeur there. Especially given that this was a democracy that had an attempted coup only a few months before, and whose democracy was being dismantled through lies and changes in voting rules.

One of the impacts of Ukraine is that it has allowed many liberal internationalists to get their mojo back. Ukraine demonstrates the need for a solid Western order. Maybe not liberal, but certainly Western. At the same time, I agree with you that the public statements and UN votes are something of an MRI that exposes a much more divided world than we might have expected given the audacity and brutality of the Russian invasion.

You would have thought that many states in a precarious situation would have voted to condemn Russia. But it shows that there’s been a decline in Western dominance—the US and the West cannot bring the global South to heel in the way they used to. China has also peeled many of these countries away, and they no more want to bite the Chinese hand that now feeds them than they wanted to bite the Western hand that used to feed them. It’s quite a new game.

Can we still talk about global governance and ‘all-inclusive multilateralism’ when you have a member of the five permanent members of the UN (P5) considered a pariah state by the Western powers, but being supported by countries that represent about two thirds of the world population?

Yes. We have a model for this, which is the Cold War. What you’re describing resembles what was taking place for most of the Cold War, where you had a Security Council divided by bipolarity and Cold War politics. It meant that there were lots of areas and arrangements that were out of bounds, but it didn’t stop a variety of global governance agreements. It was an era in which you were able to get some things done, even on human rights with the Convention Against Torture, and there were various GATT rounds that were taking place.

What we may see then is not this kind of broader, inclusive multilateral aid or participation—but quite candidly, I don’t know if we’ve had that for a while. In large measure because of global gridlock, the world has been heading toward regionalism, agreements of the willing, public-private partnerships, and new kinds of global governance arrangements that depart from the standard global multilateral formula. We see this with climate change. It is gridlocked, so we have a multiplicity of actors creating new networks and experiments. On the surface there has been little movement, but underneath there is.

Also, much of global governance has been and continues to be based on clubs. There were always those who are outsiders, while the real action was happening among the most powerful western states, with China and Russia looking in from the outside. Multilateralism might be collateral damage from Ukraine. But the world didn’t stop seeking areas of cooperation during the Cold War, and there has been a fundamental change in global governance over the last two decades.

But I agree that we’re in for a bumpy ride. And clearly, many multilateral institutions and their Secretariats are going to be frozen, worried more than ever that they are going to make a misstep. International organizations are always worried about their survival and being publicly shamed. They are highly risk-averse and very worried about disappointing mom or dad. That will increase in the foreseeable future.

How long is the foreseeable future?

It’s going to depend on several things. How long is the Ukrainian war? Does it spread? Does it become further internationalized and lead to a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO? What’s the endgame, and how does it end? These are incredibly important factors. Also, the invasion has given the West a new sense of purpose—a reason to maintain the ties that bind—and there is no longer any belief that Russia can be a ‘normal’ power and that its ambitions were limited. That script has been thrown out the window. So, we’re back to a new containment. It will also be interesting to see whether and how this reevaluation shapes the West’s relations with China. It was already hardening, but it is quite imaginable that many Western governments will broaden the discussion from being Russia-specific to include all authoritarian governments.

But that doesn’t mean there can’t be areas of potential agreement. For instance, the U.S. has said that Ukraine will not affect our negotiations with Iran. Let’s see if that happens. As we know, even adversaries can have overlapping interests and an awareness of miscalculations and missteps that leave all sides worse off. This happened during the Cold War, with Russia, and continues with China. Interests shorn of values leading to rules-based agreements. So, it’s not impossible, but it will be much more limited. I think that there are a fair number of issues that this will apply to, even things like the SDGs.

When we talk about, let’s say, broader vaccine access, questions that refer to the global south, poverty, public health, I doubt you’ll get a lot of pushback from Russia. There are areas in which you can still, I think, get agreement. I do think that on those issues, China also will play its role given that it still sees itself as a leader of the Global South. So there are still lots of areas in which things can happen. On the security front, it will be nasty and testy. But if we can keep the security dimension separate, then I think you will still find, as we get through these initial months of the war and things begin to settle a little bit, that some of the multilateralism will come back.

Do you think it is wise to keep isolating Russia?

I do, but could easily argue the other side and am happy to change my mind. The argument for keeping the pressure on relates to both interests and justice. Russia will only ‘surrender’ when the costs have become unbearable, it has become persona non grata, and is suffering the costs of isolation. Also, while Russia is experiencing a lot of self-inflicted pain, it cannot be let off for ‘time served.’ What sort of justice is that?

Also, what happens if Russia is prematurely released from its isolation? Could it use this as a sign of weakness and continue its wars of aggression? The Poles and the Baltic states don’t know but are clearly worried. Also, Russia has started not just a war of aggression but has committed countless war crimes. It has left a trail of bodies over the last two decades. The Russian way of war cannot be the way of war. Serial perpetrators deserve more than a slap on the wrist.

At stake, moreover, is not just this conflict but also global order. Sovereignty is a fundamental principle of international order. These are rules that were accepted by Russia, they were not imposed on them when the multilateral system was built. These were rules that states devised because they are fundamental to a rules-based order. For instance, when the Chinese say a rules-based order, what they mean is a rules-based order that liberal and illiberal states can agree on, not necessarily an order that was set up by the West. The rules I’m talking about were not established by the West. They were that multilateral inclusiveness.

Some people argue that with the UN Security Council now completely deadlocked, Geneva’s UN hub could assume new importance as a platform for continuous dialogue. Do you agree?

So New York’s loss becomes Geneva’s gain? Is this the silver lining as seen from Geneva? I am not sure that location will matter, but if the blue skies and waters, and beautiful mountains can coax agreements, so be it. There are lots of issues that are debated In Geneva that continue to have resonance, and matter to the world. Maybe getting out of the bright lights of New York, and moving to the pastures of Geneva, will make negotiations a bit easier.


‘International Geneva’ remains an expression in search of a definition. At The G|O and elsewhere, we use the phrase as shorthand, almost a code word. Outside of Geneva, it has no real meaning. International Geneva talks a lot, in mostly self-serving ways, about what it does. But this very dense network says almost nothing about how and why it operates, what forces and influences shape its contours and its interactions. It is one of the chief merits and virtues of Global Governance in a World of Change, but by no means the only one, to address these questions and answer them, by providing a conceptual framework to better understand this unique ecosystem.

Global governance “came of age in the post-Second World era,” Barnett, Pevehouse, and Raustiala remind us in the introduction to their book. But if states and international organizations (IOs) continue to lead ambitious efforts to address global challenges through international cooperation, what is clear seventy-five years later, they write “is that global governance has become much more diverse and complex. States and IOs are still often the stars of the show, but they increasingly work with an ensemble cast, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), public–private partnerships, multi-stakeholder arrangements, transnational networks, private organizations, corporations, and foundations. A good example is the Global Alliance on Vaccines, known as Gavi. The primary partners include existing global institutions (World Health Organization, World Bank) as well as foundations (the Gates Foundation), private sector organizations (the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association), and governments.” The writers note that “Previous governance arrangements used to be formed by treaties and often overseen by secretariats in buildings. Now they can be quite informal and have the barest sort of physical presence.”

One of the most original contributions of Barnett et al’s opus is to introduce the notion of “modes of governance” in analyzing the evolving forms of global governance: “In order to better understand whether and how relations among the now myriad key actors have changed we use the lens of modes of governance. We focus our analysis on three ideal-typical modes drawn from economic and sociological institutionalism: hierarchy, network, and market. (...)Hierarchical modes are characterized by top-down, centralized, organizational forms that regulate relations between relatively dependent actors and enforce the rules through command and force. The traditional IO is a classic example of a hierarchical mode of global governance. Market modes are organized around non-hierarchical principles that regulate relatively independent actors, often associated with a ‘hidden hand’ or competition among independent actors. Whereas hierarchies are centralized, markets are decentralized. Network modes are characterized by relatively interdependent (and possibly formally) equal actors with a common purpose that voluntarily negotiate their rules through bargaining and persuasion and then maintain and enforce those rules through mechanisms of trust.”

Extremely useful and enlightening is the authors’ mapping of the underlying causes of these transformations of global governance: “We identify nine major drivers of change that are present to one degree or another, all of which reside at the structural level: (1) geopolitical change, such as the relative decline of US power and rise of China; (2) shifts in the global economy; the sheer ‘crowding’ in the global governance space, both in terms of (3) the number of actors and (4) the pluralization of actors; (5) the increasing complexity of global problems; (6) changes in ideology and trends in governance theory; (7) the global turn to expertise as a way to rationalize governance; (8) technological change; and (9) domestic political change, for example in the form of rising populism and nationalism.”

In the final analysis, the question is, of course, does it work? Are these changes proving effective in solving the world’s problems? The editors and contributors’ answers are, like their rich book, full of nuances. But as the world has become more complex, they admit that “these new governance mechanisms may also reflect and produce much less ambition and vision” than the ones they are replacing. “Global governance in the twenty-first century has become much less ambitious, characterized by provisional and improvisational action, piecemeal incrementalism, more modest goals, and experimentalism. Perhaps these more modest approaches will eventually provide the foundation for a more ambitious undertaking. Yet while these scaled-back ambitions might deliver more identifiable ‘successes,’ they might not sum to a solution.”

From tackling climate change to responding to the pandemic, it is, sadly, hard to disagree with their assessment.


Global Governance in a World of Change, edited by Michael N. Barnett, George Washington University, Washington DC, Jon C. W. Pevehouse, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Kal Raustiala, University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law. Cambridge University Press, 381 pages, December 2021. You can download the book here.-


By Jamil Chade

Since the start of Russia’s war, the WHO has recorded over 177 attacks on healthcare facilities in Ukraine, with 73 deaths. It should come as no surprise that with such dramatic figures, the Russian army’s behavior in Ukraine will rank high on the agenda of the World Health Assembly’s (WHA) next annual meeting. “These attacks deprive people of urgently needed care, endanger healthcare providers, and undermine health systems,” the WHO said in a statement. It is likely that such attacks will be investigated as possible war crimes by Ukraine and others.

The May session was supposed to deal with the global efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and begin the process of strengthening the international body. This could now take second billing, as diplomatic sources and WHO watchers tell The G|O that Ukraine, with the Western powers and their allies, will aggressively challenge Russia—and they have laid out several scenarios to do so.

Initially, the most extreme measure considered was to push for a resolution to altogether suspend the Russian Federation from the WHO. But it became clear in the first discussions that the votes for such a drastic measure would be lacking.

According to knowledgeable sources, Ukraine and the EU will now demand that Russia be excluded from participating in technical groups and that the WHO’s Moscow office be closed. The text may also condemn Russia for the attacks on Ukrainian health facilities.

Last week, Ukraine and some thirty countries wrote to the World Health Organization requesting an urgent meeting to discuss the consequences of Russia’s invasion on health care in Ukraine. The meeting was coordinated by WHO’s European Office.

For many in the organization, the fear is that the war and the diplomatic disputes will again, as in other fora, end up overshadowing other longstanding issues—in this case, the need to strengthen the agency’s capacity to respond to future pandemics.

Another issue on the agenda is the budget. A preliminary agreement indicates that governments have reached an understanding that the agency’s budget will be increased by 50 percent by 2031.

The discussion about the Russian crisis is also likely to draw focus from one of the most contentious issues of the last two years: the investigation into the origin of COVID-19. On that front, China is still refusing to accept a new visit by an WHO delegation.


Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade

Editorial Assistance: Ciara O'Donoghue

Edited by: Dan Wheeler