Research Matters: Daniel Abebe on "Rethinking the Costs of International Delegations"

Research Matters is a biweekly feature in which a member of the faculty talks about some of his or her latest work and its impact and relevance to law and society.

Professor Daniel Abebe, Walter Mander Teaching Scholar, wrote, “Rethinking the Costs of International Delegations” for the University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law. In the paper, Abebe argues that United States participation in international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization does not involve the perils that other scholars claim. Those who think the U.S. should avoid these organizations believe that American interests are not well-protected in international bodies. Abebe finds these concerns unfounded.

Q. How did this work originate?

A. There has been a debate about whether it’s good for the U.S. to delegate decision-making authority to international organizations. Much of this debate is prompted by concerns that international organizations are not responsive to U.S. interests, and that the international organization could make decisions that would be binding in the United States. The concern is that these decisions won’t have the democratic accountability that decisions that are made domestically would. That is, if the legislature delegates something to an independent agency, and we don’t like it, we can vote out Congress or vote out the president. With respect to an international organization, we can’t do that. So the scholarship tends to suggest that we shouldn’t do these international delegations at all. And I thought that was an interesting question. I wasn’t sure it made sense that we should treat it as a binary: domestic delegations are good and international delegations are bad. So I started to explore what the real costs are of these international delegations, and I eventually concluded they might not be as problematic as some people in the literature assume.

Q. Why does this topic interest you?

A. The courses that I teach tend to have an international orientation, and my training has an international focus as well. I did a PhD in political science and I focused on international relations and international politics. So questions about international law and international organizations have always been prominent in my mind. Part of the attraction of writing legal articles about this is that there’s a significant interaction in a globalized world between the domestic rules we create and the international organizations that may have some role in shaping how we act. That interesting overlap between domestic sovereignty concerns and the benefits of delegating to international organizations is something that is quite interesting for me.

Q. What conclusions did you reach?

A. The concern is that international organizations don’t have any of the characteristics that domestic organizations do when it comes to being responsive to the American public’s interests. Their leaders aren’t approved by the Senate, the president can’t fire somebody at the international organization, and we can’t vote out its members. Thus, whatever rules they create, if those rules are binding in the U.S., may not be responsive to American interests.

I wanted to look at the structure of the various international organizations to see if indeed the U.S. has a limited ability to shape what the outcomes might be. What I find is that due to the U.S.’s economic and military power, it’s often able to get results out of international organizations that are more consistent with U.S. interests than some assume. And when it’s not able to do that, it’s able to block the international organization from doing something that’s inconsistent with U.S. interests. And then finally, if it doesn’t like what the organization is doing over the U.S. veto, then the U.S. tends to ignore it. So it’s not clear how the international organization is not responsive to the U.S.

I studied specific rules and procedures of these organizations, things like voting rules, funding, agenda-setting power, appointment of various organizational heads, etc., to see if the U.S. has the capacity to influence these organizations. And I find, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the U.S. has an outsize influence on many of these international organizations, and by extension it has significant influence on the product of the organization, that is the rules they create.

Q. So can these organizations be effective, if they’re so controlled by U.S. interests?

A. That’s the question: if the U.S. can control these organizations in many instances, is it really delegating any authority? I do think the U.S. is delegating, because we can imagine the U.S. might like the structure of the organization itself even though it might lose out on particular votes, because on the whole it tends to win. That is, we can imagine the U.S. liking an organization because over the next 100 issues, maybe the U.S. wins on 80 and loses on 20. The idea of having an organization that it can influence 80 percent of the time is worth the 20 percent of the time that the U.S. is not successful. So it’s not a situation in which we have complete control, or where the organization can’t do what’s it’s supposed to do. It’s that there are times when the U.S. will lose, but the loss there might not be as costly as the benefits of having this organization making decisions in the end.

Now, there’s a big debate as to what the organizations should promote. Should they promote maximizing the welfare of the world? Should they promote the international community interests? If so, how do they figure that out? Should the voting be based on population, which would mean that presumably China and India would be successful much of the time and presumably the U.S. and others would not be. Should it be one country, one vote? Those are huge debates that haven’t been solved. There isn’t much of a consensus.

Q. Do you have an opinion on what the goal of these organizations should be?

A. I tend to think that international organizations are reflective of the interests of the countries that create them, and most of the international organizations are created by the most powerful countries. So I think it’s somewhat of a moot debate because the big countries will promote their interests, whatever they might be, through the organization. We could talk about how we wish justice were promoted, or other things, but we’re likely to get things that are more consistent with the interests of the big countries. What we can do is hope that the big countries are thinking less about themselves all the time and more about the international interests, but I don’t know how we would get there, pragmatically. The American people wouldn’t want their representative to vote for international interests over American ones, for example.