This is a trying time for international institutions, and the alphabet soup of aging bureaucracies often proves too slow, too legalistic or too corrupt to meet today’s most demanding tests.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization must cope with a world in which Turkey is increasingly hostile to its values and objectives. Neither Mercosur (the South American trade bloc) nor the Organization of American States has dealt effectively with the Venezuelan crisis. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is increasingly divided in the face of Chinese maritime claims. Unesco has lost its largest donor as the U.S. pulls out, while the World Trade Organization no longer produces new global trade agreements.
FIFA (the soccer federation) and the International Olympic Committee have seen their prestige collapse as corruption scandals widen. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has become less effective as the Continent’s security challenges rise. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries is a shadow of its former self, and the Arab League hardly exists. Even the European Union, the world’s most successful international institution, struggles against a nationalist and populist backlash.
There is an important exception to the trend—an international coalition that influences global affairs but doesn’t have an official name, a headquarters, an entrenched bureaucracy, a charter or a set of bylaws. This is the group of countries in the “Five Eyes” network: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. The name comes from the world of intelligence, where certain types of sensitive information are shared only among these five countries.
There is no formal requirement that they act together. They have no joint decision-making process. Teams of diplomats don’t negotiate long and detailed memorandums governing their plans for common action. Nor do these countries force a consensus where one doesn’t exist. Each partner moves at its own speed, on its own path, and there is no obligation or expectation that they will agree with one another or work together on every issue. Each of the Five Eyes countries is jealous of its independence. They seek to maximize their sovereignty through cooperation rather than pooling it.
Yet their cooperation is real. They share a common cultural and institutional outlook, and they are all engaged in global trade and concerned for the security of an international system that promotes the free flow of information, money and goods. Over and over since World War II, the Five Eyes countries have found themselves with similar interests and priorities. Over time, this habit of cooperation has led to deepening institutional links, but their loose association has never taken the top-down and bureaucratic form that makes most international institutions so cumbersome.
As British policy makers struggle with the consequences of Brexit, some hope the Five Eyes will come riding to the rescue. In population and gross domestic product, these countries are a formidable potential trading bloc: With more than 450 million citizens and a GDP of around $24 trillion, a trading system built around the Five Eyes could offset many of the problems Britain expects to encounter once it leaves the EU.
But that is not how this group works. Anyone who expects some kind of formal trade or political bloc to emerge doesn’t understand the Five Eyes’ ethos. But even without the creation of a formal trade or political bloc, membership in the Five Eyes will help Britain avoid isolation in a post-Brexit world. In the fields of trade, investment and migration, the Five Eyes countries will continue to be relatively open to one another. Their diplomats and policy makers will continue to work toward the kind of world in which Britain, and the rest of the coalition, can flourish.
The Five Eyes coalition has always disappointed those who sought to turn their partnership into something more formal. But it has also disappointed those who expected it to fade away. Flexible, pragmatic and open, the world’s least organized international coalition is among its most effective. As the new century unfolds and bureaucratic, legalistic institutions struggle in an increasingly fast-paced and turbulent international environment, looser associations on the Five Eyes’ model could well play a growing role in world affairs, supplementing or in some cases replacing the legacy institutions and bureaucracies that dominated the international landscape of the late 20th century.
That would be a positive development. This difficult century will require more international cooperation, not less. With legacy institutions in disarray, countries need to find new ways to cooperate across borders on problems that no single country, however powerful or rich, can solve on its own.