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How Washington, D.C., Interacts with International Organizations

International organizations are institutions that exist among or above national governments, and they have a presence in Washington, D.C. They are established to address transnational problems and facilitate intergovernmental cooperation on issues that require a multilateral approach.

To the chagrin of isolationists, and to the horror of conspiracy theorists, international organizations can sometimes take on degrees of supranational authority. Think of the U.N. Security Council authorizing military action against Iraq (that would be the first Gulf War) or the World Trade Organization finding a country’s trade policy noncompliant with global trade rules.

This latter case is a good example of how international organizations play a policymaking role in Washington. Quite literally, they can compel the U.S. government to adjust its policies when those policies are found to be inconsistent with the obligations the United States has pledged to uphold.

Washington politicians may not always accept outside advice with open arms, but as the world becomes more interconnected, and sovereignty becomes less rigid, outside organizations will inevitably play a greater role in Washington decision-making.

The very nature of international organizations means that the U.S. government is often a stakeholder in them and can leverage them for its own purposes, which makes them unlike other operators in Washington.

In the 1990s, for example, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which often serves as a lender of last resort for countries suffering from acute budget deficits or plummeting foreign reserves, demanded that countries receiving its loans implement economic reforms known as the “Washington Consensus.” These policy recommendations, which included trade liberalization, privatization, and deregulation, closely mirrored the economic policy prescription that U.S. officials had advocated with foreign governments.

Having a third party convey such a message is useful for Washington, especially because the United States is still looked upon suspiciously in certain corners of the world.

Sometimes the United States takes a more direct and forceful approach. For example, determined to increase pressure on Argentina to start living up to its international obligations and repay billions in debt to creditor nations (like America) and bondholders, in September 2011 the Obama administration announced that it would use its voting share in the Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank to vote “No” on all new lending to Argentina.

In this case, an international organization literally expanded the options available to U.S. policymakers to tackle this issue.

The federal government is one of the largest funders of international organizations, which often rely on a few rich country members to finance their activities. In fact, the reason poor countries are often very active in international organizations is that their participation (their airfare, hotel, and board) is paid for by the organization, and thus ultimately, the U.S. taxpayer.

This dependence on the largesse of Washington can backfire for organizations that cannot read U.S. politics. In late 2011, for example, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted to admit Palestine as its newest member, even though the Obama administration loudly warned that U.S. law prohibited it from funding U.N. agencies that recognize Palestine as a state.

The administration wasn’t bluffing: A scheduled payment of $60 million was immediately put on hold, and UNESCO faced the very real potential that 22 percent of its annual budget would disappear.

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