International institutions as great-power buffers

By David Bosco

In his recent column, Richard Gowan makes a helpful point about the value of international institutions in an era of renewed great-power competition:

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, there has been a tendency to think that the international community can “solve” crises, whether they emerge in Afghanistan, Libya or Mali. Peacekeepers have been grandiosely redefined as “peacebuilders” and deployed to quell crises in places where, as I discussed last week, they are regularly coming under attack.

In the current volatile climate we may need to redefine peacemaking again and give renewed attention to various forms of “big-power buffering” in high-value trouble-spots like Ukraine and the Western Pacific. There can be no certainty as to when and where a big-power standoff might run out of control. Should that occur, organizations such as the OSCE, the EU and the United Nations will need to be ready to throw themselves between the big powers to stop their brinksmanship from resulting in a full-on car crash.

I’ve made a related argument about the diplomatic function of the UN Security Council in particular (see here and here). Specifically, I’ve tried to distinguish between the “concert” function of the Council (in essence, its role as a facilitator of great-power relations) and its role as a broader provider of “governance.”

About David Bosco

Assistant Professor at American University's School of International Service. Contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine. Author of Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court in a World of Power Politics and Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World
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