To any common media consumer, it may appear that international cooperation is on its way out. President Trump’s pledge to defy World Trade Organization (WTO) statutes on tariffs has upended the consensus on free trade that prevailed on both sides of the Atlantic for the past 30 years. Britain has formally begun to separate itself from the European Union, and if Marine Le Pen pulls off an upset in France’s presidential election in May, the EU’s prominence will continue to decline. These developments pose a formidable challenge to the post-WWII international system of cooperation and recognized legitimacy.
Despite recent events, the past couple of years have also witnessed a startling display of international collaboration, all hinged on the credibility of a single institution. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the formal name of the Iran nuclear deal – was inked in Vienna in July 2015, and its implementation depends on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). As the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA is the linchpin of the Iran deal, responsible for monitoring and informing the UN Security Council if Iran breaches the JCPOA. If the IAEA does report a serious violation, the international community – led by the Trump administration – will likely reimpose the banking and oil sanctions that brought Iran to the brink of economic failure in 2014 and the JCPOA will collapse. Unlike more heavily scrutinized international organizations such as the EU and the WTO, the IAEA has garnered the privilege of global trust. The international community trusts the IAEA to oversee a deal that has such a crucial impact on global security because it boasts a record of historical accuracy, has guarded itself against bias and politicization, and is limited to a technical mandate that does not compete with national sovereignty.
The IAEA’s diplomatic successes stretch back decades. From confirming North Korea’s underground nuclear activity to supervising the removal of ex-Soviet weapons from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, the IAEA has been a major actor in the modern push for deproliferation. John Tilemann, a fellow at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, explains that this historical involvement is why “the architects of the 2015 deal looked to the IAEA to perform the extraordinary international inspections mandated by the agreement.” The IAEA has also remained independent in its analysis even during controversial times, importantly contradicting the Bush administration’s stances on Iraq before the US invasion in May 2003. In February of that year, the IAEA’s Director-General Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, told the Security Council that he had “to date found no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear related activities in Iraq,” despite pressure for the Agency to accede to these claims of WMDs.
In addition to its historic accuracy, the IAEA’s credibility to supervise the JCPOA is burnished further by its readiness to push for nuclear safety and thoroughness in implementing existing agreements. Back in 2010, the IAEA actually called attention to the Iranian nuclear program and encouraged the international community to formulate a coherent response. Since the signing of the Iran deal, the IAEA has released mixed assessments of Iran’s compliance, generally verifying its adherence to the JCPOA, but sometimes citing minor violations. Just one day after Trump won the election, the IAEA accused Iran of exceeding a 130-ton limit on its possession of heavy water, a compound that allows natural uranium to be used as nuclear fuel.
Of course, the only reason the IAEA is trusted to properly note such a violation is because it has guarded itself against politicization and corruption – something other institutions have failed to do. The most prominent example of a global institution corrupted by politics is the UN Human Rights Council, which serves to oversee peacekeeping and human rights-related policy on behalf of the United Nations. Yet in an ironic political twist, current members include Cuba, Venezuela, China, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia – all guilty of their own human rights violations. Worse, the council’s reliance on unanimous support from its permanent five members (China, the US, the UK, France, and Russia) has imperiled measures to intervene in many of the world’s worst atrocities, such as the conflict in Darfur. Its involvement with international politics has left the council unfortunately ineffective. By contrast, the IAEA has shown devotion to its goal of nuclear security even in times of political turbulence; its current Director-General, Yukiya Amano, recently met with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and expressed confidence that he could work with Trump to continue the Iran deal. The IAEA censured Egypt even when Mohamed ElBaradei, an Egyptian politician, was the agency’s Director-General. In November 2015, Director-General Amano attributed confidence in the IAEA precisely to its studious avoidance of politics. “The IAEA was able to make a vital contribution by sticking to its technical mandate and not straying into politics,” he said. “We have been accused both of being too tough on Iran and of being too accommodating…That suggests to me that we have probably got it about right. By sticking to the facts and our technical mandate, we retained the confidence of all sides.”
But perhaps a deeper reason for the IAEA’s success is its technical and informational mandate. It has no policymaking or enforcement role. The IAEA simply compiles evidence for the Security Council to help countries make decisions, but it does not commit nations to specific policies like the WTO and NAFTA do. One provision of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that provoked intense opposition from the American public was the establishment of a quasi-judicial system that, under certain conditions, would enable corporations to bypass American courts and challenge regulations before international tribunals. Similarly, over the past two years the EU has been torn apart by internal debate over continent-wide migrant quotas. Germany demanded that every EU member accept a certain number of migrants, but Eastern European states flatly refused, leaving the EU in the precarious position of choosing whether to force quotas onto certain states and risk its political authority. On the other hand, the IAEA serves only to implement the agreements that countries autonomously create through other channels rather than imposing its own restrictions. In the modern era, institutions that usurp powers traditionally reserved for states have been mistrusted, resented, and disempowered over time; the IAEA is, so far, weathering this storm.
Further, to attract global distrust, an institution must first attract attention. The IAEA is insulated from public scrutiny because people are mostly unaware of the intricacies of its role. The details of nuclear arms politics are important to academics and policymakers but are not front and center in American media. Rather, treaties such as NAFTA and organizations such as the WTO have dominated media coverage, having come to symbolize economic malaise in the minds of many. Back in 2010, Pew Research Center found that Americans believed, by a 44-35 split, that the policies of NAFTA and the WTO were harmful to the United States and were divided along the familiar partisan lines observed in the 2016 election. The president and many rust-belt voters blame NAFTA and its kin for America’s hemorrhage of manufacturing jobs to less-developed countries. Because people vote with their wallets, debate over NAFTA, the TPP, the EU, and the WTO has a huge influence on elections, making voting something of a referendum on the legitimacy of these institutions. For less mainstream organizations such as the IAEA, election cycles don’t prove so pernicious.
The lack of public awareness of the IAEA not only gives it insulation but also enormous power over the success of the JCPOA. While campaigning, President Trump routinely attacked the JCPOA, insisting that it failed to extract meaningful concessions in exchange for the infamous “150 billion dollars” in unfrozen Iranian assets. He promised to “totally renegotiate” it – or “worse.” However, since taking office, Trump has remained mum about the Vienna accord, suggesting that he and his team recognize the difficulty of doing away with an agreement that, according to the IAEA, Iran is actually complying with. Now that the GOP has total control in Washington, the IAEA’s credibility will likely become even more important over the next few years; conservatives are wary of the JCPOA, and every Republican senator voted against the deal when it was presented to Congress in 2015. An IAEA assessment citing Iranian infractions could certainly disrupt the political inertia holding the deal in place. But this is also a result of the credibility the JCPOA has in the eyes of so many policymakers on both sides of the issue. Even when critics express concern over issues like the IAEA permitting limited self-inspection of some nuclear sites in Iran, they also imply that they fundamentally consider the IAEA’s own inspections to be honest oversight. The important point is not whether contempt for the Iran deal is warranted, but rather the IAEA’s centrality to this diplomatic feat. The fact that even skeptics of the JCPOA accept the legitimacy of the IAEA as an overseer makes it an important case study to show how multilateral institutions can remain relevant and useful.
In an age of populism, international cooperation and the institutions they create may seem to be in trouble. But attacks on instances of international collaboration don’t have to spell doom for the institutions charged with carrying them out. Worldwide organizations can learn a lot from the IAEA. By focusing their mandate on activities that are uncontroversial and well suited to multilateral action and remaining above politics, these kinds of organizations can build credibility vital to their survival. In turn, the world may see those organizations in the mold of the IAEA outlive rising skepticism, even if the international agreements they assist do not.