Watching the Olympic games, one cannot help but wonder at the dichotomies at play both within and outside of the arena. On the one hand, fierce displays of nationalism abound; while on the other, internationalism is highlighted as a defining characteristic of the “Olympic Spirit.” Whether real or imagined, this fraternity among nations is certainly inspirational and leaves us all wondering why countries don’t simply settle their differences through athletic competition instead of armed conflict. But the games are also striking for their artificiality – sport is a spectacle after all – and in this respect they remind us that even though the world’s nations may play well together in some circumstances, the differences among us are still very real. These dissimilarities manifest themselves in countless ways, and have increasingly worked as a foil to the movement towards global normalization that is best exemplified by international organizations and transnational alliances. The United Kingdom’s decision earlier this summer to leave the European Union (Brexit) illustrates the power of these differences to challenge efforts at global normalization and, moreover, serves as a stark reminder that there is no such thing as Team World.
Indeed, while the real fall-out from the recent Brexit vote remains to be seen, the U.K.’s fraught decision to leave the European Union serves as a cautionary tale of the limits of international organizations. Indeed, though even the British electorate itself now seems somewhat dismayed by the result and uncertain of what to do next, the very fact that the referendum occurred reveals that lofty ideals about harmony and cooperation are often no match for national and cultural identity. For many British citizens, being European was a nice perk, but it certainly didn’t define them and, more importantly, certainly was not worth the imposition of European regulations, quotas, and rules. This resentment and suspicion of the EU was particularly acute with respect to regulations concerning immigration, which many British citizens feared would open up their country to a flood of refugees, but was also spawned by interference by Brussels in even the most mundane aspects or everyday life; regulations concerning the legally allowed curvatures of bananas and cucumbers were simply too much to bear. “We like the duty free,” they said, “it’s the directives we can do without.”
When the technocrats in Brussels rejected that possibility, the choice for many British voters appeared to be between more rules from the continent – in other words, from people who were not British – and the renewed ability to make decisions for themselves. This is why so many voters in favor of Brexit stated that they were not rejecting Europe, but instead were saying no to Brussels and all that it represents. They were, in essence, affirming that there is no such thing as “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to international politics and governance. Just as a square peg cannot fit into a round hole, EU leaders couldn’t force EU ideals on a staunchly British electorate who chose to drop out of the team all together rather than to surrender individual identity to the normalizing forces in Brussels. Apparently, there is no such thing as Team Europe either.
Although there are number of lessons to be learned from this historic vote, perhaps the most pertinent for international organizations is that “all or nothing” membership requirements may not always be the best, or the most productive operational model, and that it is oftentimes wiser to make exceptions as opposed to blanket rules. Many of today’s largest international organizations are characterized by such rigidity, including the United Nations and its many subsidiaries / specialized agencies, which limits their effectiveness and, as exemplified by the Brexit vote, has the potential to alienate members to the point that they seek withdrawal. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) has repeatedly criticized a number of countries and institutions, including the Vatican in 2003, for their stance over birth control, despite the fact that these positions represent deep-seated religious and cultural values that should be respected rather than condemned outright.
Moreover, many international organizations today use membership “qualifications” as a means to impose their own set of values upon current or potential member states, often creating requirements that have little or no relationship to the organization’s core mission or that strong-arm countries into acting against their own self-interest as a pre-requisite for membership. The policies of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which often require potential members to rescind or rewrite trade laws without considering the cultural and economic ramifications, illustrate the power of intergovernmental organizations to exact a high price to achieve uniformity at the expense of real people, their values, and their beliefs. While it is permissible to hold member states to certain standards, it is incumbent upon all responsible organizations to remain sensitive to the cultural, religious, and traditional values of their member states. It is fundamentally wrong, and often acts as a detriment, for an international body or organization to single out particular practices or traditions of one member, and yet the practice of imposing “universal values” upon all states is today more widespread then ever before.
This tendency towards normalization on the global level is unfortunate, and it is no wonder that international organizations and unions will face a fair amount of backlash if they continue to make membership contingent upon adherence to standards that simply will not work for some members. Clearly, the EU was not successful in convincing the British that it knows better than they do and that their values were secondary to European ideals, and it is possible that other countries may also choose to reject Brussels if the bureaucrats there remain unyielding. International organizations can learn much from the Brexit vote, and hopefully will become a bit more cautious in their attempts to regulate culture and tradition from afar as they witness the U.K. begin the process of extricating itself from what was once believed to be an unbreakable union, in the service of all.