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Myth: International organisations have too much power

Myth: International organisations have too much power

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Myth busters

International organisations such as NATO and the United Nations were founded after the Second World War, just like the predecessor to the European Union, the European Coal and Steel Community. Some people feel that they are too powerful and that too much money is spent on them. But is that in fact the case?
Yes, international organisations have been given more powers and they interfere with matters for which they were not really founded. And sometimes they make the wrong choices, says Hylke Dijkstra, assistant professor in political science at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. “Just look at how the European Union came under fire during the Brexit campaign: the EU has become much more than an internal market, people predict a federation with its own flag, its own army, and its own headquarters. Or take the unpopular decisions taken during the crisis in Greece. Some found the interference went too far.” And sometimes international organisations, such as the Security Council in 1994 during the genocide in Rwanda, make choices that are severely criticised. “The UN peacekeepers were withdrawn. People ask: how could the United Nations abandon the inhabitants in such an explosion of violence?”

Dijkstra delved deeply into the offices of the EU, NATO and the UN for his research and published the book International Organizations and Military Affairs in 2016. He investigated where the ‘power’ lies by looking at the level of the civil servants – what is their role, who takes decisions, how well (or badly) do the departments for example work together within the UN Secretariat.
“It’s often been said that international civil servants - whether they work for the EU, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Trade Organisation - are power-hungry men, often highly intelligent and very specialised, and that they make decisions that the man in the street questions.” A feeling of powerlessness is what Dijkstra calls it. But he believes that the answer is much more differentiated.
“Within those international organisations, there are a lot of checking mechanisms that call civil servants to account. They can't just take decisions on their own initiative. Besides, important tasks are not delegated to international civil servants, but member states keep them to themselves.” He also knows that countries control matters through budget and staffing policies. “In NATO, the French have maintained the policy for at least the past ten years that the budget for staff may not grow beyond inflation. This means that additional civil servants cannot be hired just like that. And in the UN – in the field of peace operations - 85 per cent of the civil servants have a one-year contract. There are no employees who have become rooted in the organisation.” Another example: in the EU security bureaucracies, at least 50 per cent are national officials, so civil servants who are transferred to work for the EU for three or four years and then returned to their own country.”
If we look at the number of civil servants at NATO or the United Nations, then we can see that there are more of them than sixty years ago, but their number is certainly not excessive, says Dijkstra. “The European Commission has fewer civil servants than the city of Amsterdam. NATO has a few hundred. Approximately six hundred civil servants run sixteen United Nations peace operations. Just think that they support more than 100 thousand soldiers worldwide.”

Lastly, is there any truth to it when people say that a country, such as the Netherlands, would be better off without the memberships to all these international organisations? “Of course, you could try to solve some issues unilaterally, for example, by sending a couple of hundred Dutch soldiers to Africa to keep the peace, or by buying a load of Joint Strike Fighters to at least keep the Russians at bay. But the cost of these kinds of unilateral options is quite high and do not come anywhere near the added value of working together. If we ensure peace in the Sahel region in Africa, then we ensure a better life for the inhabitants and possibly in due course also less migration. But because the advantages are not gigantic, we as a small country won't tackle it by ourselves. Working together, like with the UN peacekeeping operations is therefore much more effective. Often people are not aware of what the results would be of not co-operating. Besides, the costs of international organisations are actually quite low, so people should really not be that worried. Interestingly, for instance, if you pay taxes in the United Kingdom, you get an overview of how your money is being spent. Only a very small part is allocated to the EU. People are often surprised by that.”

Mythbusters is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths on complex topics



2018-10-15: oiv

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