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The Psychopathology of International Organisations

In the years since the Brexit referendum all possibility of rational debate about the issue seems to have evaporated and has been replaced by a combination of boredom and hostile emotion. Instead of argument we get a shabby sort of deconstruction of the opposition: it is difficult to get enthusiasts for the European Union to say what it is they are in favour of, but all too easy to get them to characterise the two sides. Remainers are progressive, modern, cosmopolitan, out-going etc. Brexiteers are racist, chauvinist, nationalist, populist and nostalgic – specifically, imperial-nostalgic.

It ought to be difficult for supporters of “European solidarity” who favour the systematic preference for Polish immigrants over Barbadian to dish out allegations of racism, but they do it effortlessly. And it is merely laughable for plutocrats to stigmatise as “populism” what they would call democracy if they could succeed in getting people to obey orders. Anyone who doesn’t realise that modern England is formed by the British Empire – demographically, culturally and linguistically – can’t actually have been here. As for nationalism: moi? I’m an Englishman. Nationalism is for the little people, the incest-and-folk-dancing types, to borrow from Sir Thomas Beecham. I wouldn’t even know which nation to be ismic (or istic) about: England? Britain? I’m global in outlook, but profoundly anti-internationalist. The two are not merely compatible, but reinforce each other.

The most important element of rational investigation which has been ignored completely is a consideration of what the European Union is and therefore what its limitations and possible lines of development will turn out to be. It runs a currency and passes “direct effect” laws so it looks, prima facie, like a state. It is not possible to name any other non-states which do these things. So the question arises as to whether it is a state, a quasi-state, a pretend state or what. I take it as read that, though it has a currency, it’s only the main currency of a part of the area and (only slightly more controversially) that it has proved incapable of managing its currency in the way that states normally manage currencies.

But it is also the case that its laws are not real laws. My favourite example is the Bathing Water Directives which have been “in force” since 1975. These are nothing to do with your bath water, but stipulate the standards of cleanliness of any water in which people swim or immerse themselves, including, most importantly, those bits of the sea in which they do. Like all European laws they are made centrally, but implemented locally. In the UK this was largely a matter for the Pollution Inspectorate, a professional and national organisation. In most of Southern Europe the job was done by local government officials often based in resorts – a bit like asking cycling teams to do their own drug testing. Naturally, the result was that Britain developed the reputation of being “the dirty man of Europe”, an assumption flatly contradicted by Consumer Association research on which bathing areas made people ill. One must acknowledge the complexities of comparative research, because it is apparent that the proportion of people who “bathe” in the UK is a small fraction of that in many parts of Europe and they may be a different sample altogether. In this context one should also remark that the matter would have a completely different level of priority in the UK than in (say) Spain and there are a lot of environmental things we should be bothering about before bathing water.

So we are talking about “laws” which are locally implemented in countries as different as Greece and Denmark, the latter being one of the least corrupt countries on the planet according to the Transparency International and the former languishing at the level of Peru and Thailand. Such laws are not really laws at all and the body making them is not really a state, but an étatiste aspiration or direction. However it is relatively successful compared with other attempts at amalgamated states. I don’t primarily mean the likes of NAFTA and ASEAN whose objectives were always pretty limited, but the United Arab Republic (1957-61) or its successor the Federation of Arab Republics (1972-77) or the various post colonial efforts like the Central African Federation. But being relatively and even remarkably successful is not the same as being successful.

A second possibility is that the EU is simply sui generis and no arguments about how other institutions work or have worked are applicable to the EU. I can’t really buy that either from the point of view of comparative politics or from the standpoint of conservatism; to favour membership of such an organisation is to favour faith over reason. So the judgment must be that, though the EU has state-like features and aspirations it is principally an international organisation. If that is true then one of the most worrying features of any debate that has taken place is that the participants generally show no understanding whatsoever of the nature and propensities of international organisations.

Fortunately, I am an expert on international organisations; at least, I have (jointly) written a book about them, which counts for normal purposes. If you happen to know you might comment that I am only an expert on international sporting organisations. To which I must reply that such organisations as FIFA and the IOC are peculiarly powerful and well-developed examples of the type and offer uncannily accurate insights into the characteristics of the field as a whole.

The most obvious of these characteristics is a deficit of accountability. In the international field there is no international press to hound you and no international political parties to run campaigns against you. There is no culture of accountability and you can hide away wherever on the planet your “privacy” is most respected – it is usually Switzerland. You can justify this by the need to be above petty national considerations. I have normally illustrated this point by saying that FIFA under Sepp Blatter regarded the British press as the most hostile to his organisation, but actually they were supine for decades until the levels of corruption and the absurdity of decisions became super-risible. A World Cup in Qatar in the summer, indeed! If Blatter had headed the FA the press would have been camped outside his front and back gates.

International organisations are also systematically clientalist in their mode of operation. In a way this is like the US Senate where California and Rhode Island have the same amount of representation. In FIFA, Trinidad and Tobago and Burundi count for as much as England and Germany and can be bought for a fraction of the price. Systematic clientalism at FIFA really began in 1974 when João Havelange defeated Sir Stanley Rous for the presidency. Sir Stanley thought that, as he was the incumbent and things had gone well and that he had a wide network of friends, particularly in Commonwealth countries . . . . Meanwhile, Havelange was out there making promises. Apologists for FIFA say this structure benefits poor and small countries whereas in reality it usually benefits a handful of corrupt individuals in small and poor countries, Jack Warner of the Trinidad and Tobago FA being perhaps the most notorious example. The clientalist structure of the EU is summarised by the phrase my Irish relatives (by marriage) use to wind me up: “dose lovely fellahs in Brussels”.

International organisations invariably demonstrate what I would describe as a manic tendency to inclusiveness. Unlike London clubs they want everyone to be a member and loathe the thought of a potential member thriving outside the organisation. An early example was the negotiations of Avery Brundage (who was later president of the IOC, but was then acting on behalf of the USOC) with the Third Reich to keep both versions of the Olympic Games in Germany in 1936 – some anti-Jewish posters were removed from the immediate vicinities. A very recent one was the statement by the UEFA president Alexander Cefarin that the 2019 Arsenal-Chelsea Europa League final could not be moved from the inaccessible location of Baku because there were homo sapiens in Baku just as there were in London. (To which one should reply, I suppose, that there are homo sapiens in Helmand province, but it’s not on my holiday list.) The universalism is religiose in nature, like the mystical striving for “ever closer union” in the EU.

Low to zero accountability, an unprincipled mania for expansion and inclusion and systematic clientalism; thus, a World Cup in Qatar and Greece in the Euro. Thus, also, risible levels of corruption. It is extraordinarily difficult for any particular individual to combat the lowest common denominator effect. Suppose, for example, you are an honest person from a relatively honest country, newly elected onto an international body, keen to make friends, keen to establish networks, keen to get things done . . . and then you find out how they really are done. Complicity is the reaction in the vast majority of cases.

I think I roughly knew all this before I researched it, though it was worse than we thought. What I understood much less well was the psychopathology of international politics, which is quite shocking. The leading figures are almost always messianic and egotistical in ways that would be impossible for elected national leaders; no moderation or modesty is possible for those who head the great universal churches of global governance. Juan Samaranch, for example, had to be addressed as “Excellency” despite there being no established etiquette which allotted him that mode of address. He refused to meet Rupert Murdoch in circumstances in which it would have been sensible for them to meet on the grounds that his dignity required approaches only through formal channels. Havelange had FIFA produce a book about his youth, The Young Havelange, which is one of the most jaw-dropping tomes I have ever seen. It portrays him as a God-like figure and goes well beyond anything Hitler or Stalin had printed about themselves. Mein Kampf is, after all, an account of a human being. More significantly, in many ways, Sepp Blatter casually rejected the kind of technology used to make decisions in every other sport on the whimsical grounds that he liked an element of human error.

The self image of this kind of international figure is one of the senior servant of a supreme global mission rising far above the petty concerns of ordinary politicians. It easily enables them to re-invent themselves and transcend normal political positions. The Republican Brundage became an officially “progressive” figure in Soviet doctrine. The former Falangist, Samaranch, trembled with rage when his allies in the People’s Republic of China were denied the 2000 Olympiad. Kurt Waldheim, once a Nazi, was able to portray himself as a bearer of universal human values as UN General Secretary. The mission must be seen to override petty doubts and compromises. The European equivalents are the various versions of “Jacques Delors’ bicycle”: if we stop going forwards at pace we will fall to the ground. In terms that could be understood by a four-year-old, these are fairly bad people who think they are very, very good people.

Many textbook accounts of the growth of modern international organisations and the movements associated with them begin with the foundation of the Red Cross in 1863. Since then the number has grown exponentially into the hundreds of thousands. But it is impossible to ignore a much older prototype, the real Great Universal Church of Roman Catholicism. The supreme paradigm figure of exultation in the superiority of universality and the global mission has to be Giovanni Ferretti (1792-1878), better known as Pope Pius IX. He was actually a complicated figure living in complex times and his views moved from relatively liberal to unambiguously reactionary during his time in office. But for several reasons he is a proper symbol of the psychopathology of internationalism. For a start, he was the longest reigning pope, thirty two years in office; international officials, given the benefit of clientalist structures, normally stay in office two to three times as long as the most successful democratic politicians. Then there is the matter of his being declared “infallible in matters of doctrine” by the Vatican Council of 1870, a result achieved by truly corrupt methods. (See the account of a deeply shocked Lord Acton, who was present.) And in true fantasist fashion, the Council was cut short by the Savoyard monarchy abolishing the Papal States so that Pius lost sovereignty over three million people while gaining infallibility. This makes him, to my mind, the proper symbol of the psychopathology of the major international figure; we should call it “Pius IX Syndrome”. Incidentally, he remained a hate figure for Italian nationalists for many years, but was finally beatified in 2000.

Lincoln Allison November 2019

(An edited version of this essay was published by The Critic in March 2020.)