That is precisely the reason we should strengthen enforcement of international law and our commitment to engage and modernize international institutions and frameworks. Those nations that refuse to meet their responsibilities will forsake the opportunities that come with international cooperation. Credible and effective alternatives to military action—from sanctions to isolation—must be strong enough to change behavior, just as we must reinforce our alliances and our military capabilities. And if nations challenge or undermine an international order that is based upon rights and responsibilities, they must find themselves isolated.
We succeeded in the post-World War II era by pursuing our interests within multilateral forums like the United Nations—not outside of them. We recognized that institutions that aggregated the national interests of many nations would never be perfect; but we also saw that they were an indispensable vehicle for pooling international resources and enforcing international norms. Indeed, the basis for international cooperation since World War II has been an architecture of international institutions, organizations, regimes, and standards that establishes certain rights and responsibilities for all sovereign nations.
In recent years America’s frustration with international institutions has led us at times to engage the United Nations (U.N.) system on an ad hoc basis. But in a world of transnational challenges, the United States will need to invest in strengthening the international system, working from inside international institutions and frameworks to face their imperfections head on and to mobilize transnational cooperation.
We must be clear-eyed about the factors that have impeded effectiveness in the past. In order for collective action to be mobilized, the polarization that persists across region, race, and religion will need to be replaced by a galvanizing sense of shared interest. Swift and effective international action often turns on the political will of coalitions of countries that comprise regional or international institutions. New and emerging powers who seek greater voice and representation will need to accept greater responsibility for meeting global challenges. When nations breach agreed international norms, the countries who espouse those norms must be convinced to band together to enforce them.
We will expand our support to modernizing institutions and arrangements such as the evolution of the G-8 to the G-20 to reflect the realities of today’s international environment. Working with the institutions and the countries that comprise them, we will enhance international capacity to prevent conflict, spur economic growth, improve security, combat climate change, and address the challenges posed by weak and failing states. And we will challenge and assist international institutions and frameworks to reform when they fail to live up to their promise. Strengthening the legitimacy and authority of international law and institutions, especially the U.N., will require a constant struggle to improve performance.