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Obama Likes Alphabet Soup

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In its new National Security Strategy Report, or NSS, the Obama administration has finally and fully embraced the importance of international institutions. And not a moment too soon. With neoconservatives advocating an outdated and rigid concept of sovereignty, the administration needs to bolster its case for strong engagement in international architecture.

When it comes to closing Guantanamo and the war in Afghanistan, the Obama administration is saying all the right things but implementation has fallen short. It’s been exactly the opposite with international institutions. Especially when compared to the Bush administration, this team has been frenentic—paying our dues at the United Nations and joining its Human Rights Council, finding more money for the International Monetary Fund, cooperating with the International Criminal Court (though not yet joining), and making the G-20 permanent.

But until his West Point speech last week that previewed the National Security Strategy Report, the words "international institution" never appeared in any Obama speech. That absence has been surprising, given that institution-building had been a priority for progressive presidents past, and a major necessity now.

The new National Security Strategy Report not only discusses international institutions, but makes "international order" one of four major goals of American foreign policy, along with security, prosperity, and values. That is a welcome shift because if the administration does not start educating Americans about the importance of international institutions, the champions of a rigid 19th century sovereignty will continue to dominate the debate.

How many Americans could tell you what the International Atomic Energy Agency, International Monetary Fund, or World Health Organization do? It is telling that that polling data itself doesn’t seem to exist, but my guess is: few. There is reason to think that if Americans did know about their critical work in tracking nuclear material (IAEA), staving off financial crises (IMF), and battling pandemics (WHO), they would be supportive; strong majorities of Americans for decades have told pollsters that the United States is better off when it works with other countries and through the United Nations.

America needs international institutions more than ever. The threats we face today, from the global financial crisis to terrorism, pandemics, and climate change demand international coordination. Only central nodes can coordinate dozens of countries cooperating at once. Through international organizations, states develop habits for working together and do not need to marshal new coalitions for each new threat. Institutions encourage cooperation because they attach a penalty, in reputation or lost privileges, when countries break the accepted rules.

Importantly, working through international institutions, when effective, can be a bargain. A RAND study found that U.N. nation-building operations are better and less expensive than U.S. efforts. America only paid a fraction of the cost of recent IMF bailouts—and America could not have let Iceland, Hungary, or Greece fail without a serious risk to our own economy.

The NSS takes pains to explain that many of these institutions are broken, designed for a different time. That is certainly true. Moreover, these institutions are only as good as the political will of the many countries that comprise them. It will be a constant challenge to gather the momentum within them to solve our biggest challenges.

But that is what the United States must do. Those who think America can remain safe and prosperous outside the international system are not seeing, in the words of the NSS, "the world as it is."

Nina Hachigian is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.

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