Military alliances and economic unions around the world are crumbling. International organizations are being tested and are splintering as evidenced by the United Kingdom’s impending, messy divorce from the European Union (“EU”), and the threats that US President Trump’s “America First” outlook and Turkish President Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic actions pose to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (“NATO”). Nationalism is on the rise with many nationalists promising to shift sovereignty back to national capitals and away from multinational alliances if, and when, they take power. In fact, many have suggested that the EU can only be saved if it shifts the balance of power back to the capitals of its Member States and grants member states enhanced control over the EU’s decision-making processes. The argument that a military alliance or economic union will be more successful if the decision-making process is decentralized and more sovereignty is preserved by member states is becoming increasingly popular.
An interesting international organization for a case study is the Arab League, one of the oldest regional organizations in existence. The Arab League was formed in 1945 by seven Arab countries, at the behest of the British, to stimulate economic growth, resolve disputes between its members, and coordinate political aims, with each state receiving one vote in the League Council. In 1950, the Arab League nations signed a mutual defense treaty, and in 1965, the Arab League created a common market. Since its inception, fifteen more Arab nations, including Palestine, which the League regards as an independent state, have joined the Arab League. The Arab League currently represents over four hundred and twenty-two million people and jointly controls over five hundred and twenty-five million square miles of territory.
The Arab League has been plagued by political disagreements and differences since its existence and has often been perceived as ineffective. The Arab League has generally failed to address the economic, political, and social problems that Arab nations have been grappling with for years, including failing to further integrate member states and reduce tensions and prevent wars between member states. For example, the Arab League was unable to prevent the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the current crises in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and the rise of terrorism and radicalism throughout the Middle East. The Arab League also failed to prevent the creation of the State of Israel, one of its primary goals when it first formed in 1945. An early example of this type of failure was the Arab League’s inability to defeat Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, which took place shortly after Israel declared independence. The Arab League was also unable to prevent Egypt from signing the Egypt-Israeli Peace Treaty with Israel in 1979, though, because of this betrayal, Egypt’s Arab League membership was suspended and it was not readmitted until 1989. Finally, in 1994, the Arab League failed to convince the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf to continue its secondary and tertiary trade embargoes against Israel, arguing that the decision to lift the trade embargoes should be left to the Arab League’s League Council.
Critics of the Arab League have pointed to several flaws in its internal structure that impede its ability to effectively respond to crises. First, Article VII of the Pact of the League of Arab States that created the Arab League states that “[t]he decisions of the Council taken by a unanimous vote shall be binding on all member States of the League; those that are reached by a majority vote shall bind only those that accept them.” Essentially, Article VII requires absolute consensus, a hopeless task in a perpetually divided Arab World. Second, the League lacks a formal and mandatory mediation mechanism that may help member states resolve their differences before these differences lead to armed conflict. Third, the Arab League lacks the power to compel members to comply with its resolutions. Many Middle East experts believe that the Arab League is unlikely to improve its record until member states agree to sacrifice some sovereignty and comply with resolutions.
There are several reasons why the members of the Arab League chose not to bind themselves in a more robust manner. First, when the Arab League was initially established, many Arab states were in the process of becoming independent from European colonial powers, and they were not interested in surrendering their hard-fought and newfound independence to a third party, even if the organization was composed only of other Arab states and founded on concepts of cooperation. Second, many Arab states were, and several continue to remain, autocratic, and are, therefore, led by governments who are adamantly opposed to third parties undermining their absolute power. Third, Arab states recognized that they inhabit a strife-prone region and, therefore, decided that incorporating a use of force provision into the Arab League charter would inhibit Arab unity. Finally, wealthy Arab states were concerned that poor Arab states would try to redistribute wealth through the Arab League and, therefore, wealthy Arab states deprived the Arab League of the ability to effectuate such transfers.
The core documents of the Arab League support the proposition that the Arab states were unwilling to grant the Arab League meaningful power. Article II of the Pact of the League of Arab States emphasizes that the purpose of the Arab League is to “draw closer the relations between member States… [and] to safeguard their independence and sovereignty…” (emphasis added). Additionally, the preamble to the Treaty of Joint Defense and Economic Cooperation Between the States of the Arab League declares that the treaty is to, among other things, “maintain … [the] independence” of the signatory states.
The desire of the member states of the Arab League to preserve their independence and sovereignty has fundamentally undermined the foundations of the Arab League and has crippled it from its inception. Far from successfully promoting unity and executing collective decision-making among its members, the Arab League is viewed by several critics as a “glorified debating society.” The periodical Arab News, in a 2006 editorial, stated that “if success can be qualified in terms of man hours spent talking, the Arab League must be the most successful organization on Earth.” The Arab League’s continued disunity and dysfunction should serve as a cautious reminder that, while the integration and centralized decision-making processes of the EU come with a cost, the EU has also led to a stable and prosperous Europe. The Arab League demonstrates the dire need for a strong, centralized decision-making body and robust enforcement mechanisms responsible for implementing and enforcing its decisions.
Mark M. Pollak is a 2L at Columbia Law School where he is focusing on international and transactional law. He is currently externing at the District Court for the Eastern District of New York.