Dizzying market plunges, dramatic last-minute rescues, riots and the ever-present possibility that the crisis of the euro could trigger a global depression have kept the eyes of the world on Europe. With the European Central Bank (ECB) now snapping up Italian bonds to prevent global financial disaster, the halcyon days of 2008 when we worried about Ireland seem distant.
But compelling as the contemporary euro-drama is, it takes our attention away from what may be its most important long-term lesson. Despite the ECB's starring role in the latest phase of Europe's crisis, we have reached the end of the age in which serious people could believe international political institutions would replace sovereign governments as the chief actors in international political life.
The belief that global institutions operating on the basis of law could radically change the nature of international life has deep Western roots. Long before Immanuel Kant dreamed of perpetual peace during the Enlightenment, thinkers in the Dark and Middle Ages such as Thomas à Becket and Pope Boniface VIII hoped that the Catholic Church would grow into a multinational institution that could regulate the relations among Europe's crowned heads while imposing human rights standards on feuding nobles.
The ancient dream of a multinational bureaucracy replacing the rule of force with the rule of law got a boost when Woodrow Wilson placed the League of Nations at the core of the Versailles system after World War I. But the golden age of international institutions came with the end of World War II.
Of the many circumstances promoting international institutions after 1945, two merit particular mention. The first was the historical and diplomatic deep freeze brought on by the Cold War.
Beginning after the Peace of Westphalia in the mid-17th century, and especially in the 19th century, great power politics moved at a blinding speed as nations changed partners and policies. During the Cold War, events slowed. The U.S-Soviet Union contest ground on for 40 years, and during that time (except at moments of crisis) international alignments stayed frozen and events moved slowly.
A single nuclear missile agreement between the United States and the USSR could take more than a decade to grow from the larval stage in think-tank discussions until reaching final treaty form. With alignments stable and events moving slowly if at all, international organizations and their cumbersome bureaucracies were suited to the tasks they faced. It might take NATO or the European Union a long time to make a decision, but generally speaking that time was theirs to take.
Second, the number of states involved in serious international negotiations was small, and the cultural and ideological differences between the key players were not great. States with radically different political ideas, like China and the Soviet Union, were not part of key institutions like NATO, the EU, or the Bretton Woods financial institutions. With the exception of defeated and shell-shocked Japan, the major non-communist powers shared a Euro-Atlantic culture and history, and they were all more or less committed to liberal democracy and various forms of a social-market economy.
These were ideal conditions for the development of international political institutions, and develop they did. Placid, slow-moving behemoths grazed peacefully on the vast and grassy plains of the Cold War-era world, and many assume they will continue to play an ever-growing role in global governance.
These days, however, events economic and political move faster than bureaucracies (especially intergovernmental bureaucracies) can respond. And major global bodies have so many members with so many conflicting interests that consensus in many cases cannot be reached.