Donald Trump and the survival strategies of international organizations:
When can institutional actors counter existential challenges?
11 May 2021
Hylke Dijkstra, Laura von Allwörden, Leonard Schuette, and Giuseppe Zaccaria
Maastricht University, The Netherlands
This is a working paper of the NestIOr research project. Feel free to use, share, and cite.
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The Trump administration posed an unprecedented challenge to many international
organizations (IOs). This article analyzes the ability of IOs to respond and explains variation
in the survival strategies pursued by the international actors of IOs. It argues that leadership,
organizational structure, competences, and external networks affect whether institutional actors
can formulate responses to existential challenges. Providing evidence from the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization (NATO), United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
(UNFCCC), and World Trade Organization (WTO), this article shows how institutional actors
varied in their ability to pursue survival strategies toward Trump. NATO officials publicly
leveraged the Trump challenge on burden-sharing while quietly shielding the alliance from
Trump on Russia policy. UNFCCC officials considered US withdrawal from the Paris
Agreement as inevitable and focused on preventing further withdrawals through coalitions with
non-state actors. WTO officials lacked the leadership and organizational structure to formulate
a strategic response toward Trump.
International organizations, Donald Trump, survival, NATO, UNFCCC, WTO
This article is part of a project that has received funding from the European Research Council
(ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant
agreement No 802568).
Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ approach has been one of the biggest challenges to the liberal
international order since the end of the Cold War. Under his administration, the United States
left the Paris Agreement on climate change, reneged on the Iran nuclear deal, quit United
Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), set in motion a process
of exiting the World Health Organization (WHO), obstructed the appointment of the new
Director-General for the World Trade Organization (WTO) and blocked judges for the
Appellate Body, sanctioned the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and put
the future of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in serious doubt.
There is no shortage of scholarship discussing this populist assault on the liberal international
order and international organizations (IOs) in particular (Copelovitch & Pevehouse 2019;
Mearsheimer 2019; Lake et al. 2021; de Vries et al. 2021). In contrast, we know less about how
IOs and their institutional actors—IO leaders and their bureaucracies—have tried to cope with
and counter these existential challenges. This is surprising as IOs are typically considered as
lasting institutions with a key interest in survival (Keohane 1984; Strange 1998; Ikenberry,
1999; Chorev 2012; Jupille et al. 2013). Gray (2018) and Debre and Dijkstra (2021), in this
respect, show that autonomous IOs with quality staff and administrative capacity tend to thrive
and survive. We should therefore also consider IO responses to key instances of contestation.
This article analyzes to what extent the institutional actors of IOs had the ability to formulate
a response and fend off the challenge posed by Donald Trump.
While Donald Trump challenged many major IOs, this article argues that not all IOs have
similar abilities to develop survival strategies. Institutional actors within IOs need to recognize
the challenge, pick a strategic response out of a range of available options, and have the prowess
to implement it. Even if institutional actors have considerable latent resources, such as budgets
and staff, much depends on their leadership, organizational structure, formal competences, and
external networks. Providing evidence from three IOs and 68 interviews, this article shows that
institutional actors in different IOs indeed varied in their ability to pursue survival strategies
toward Trump. NATO officials publicly leveraged the Trump challenge to increase burden-
sharing among allies while quietly shielding the alliance from Trump’s position on Russia.
Officials from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)
considered US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement as inevitable and focused on preventing
further withdrawals through coalitions with non-state actors. WTO officials lacked the
leadership and organizational structure to formulate a strategic response to Trump and did little
to save the Appellate Body from becoming defunct.
These findings provide us with new insights for the broader literature on the resilience of IOs.
First, this article underlines the key role that institutional actors play in addressing challenges
(Strange 1998; Gray 2018; Debre & Dijkstra 2021; Morais de Sa e Silva 2021). Second, it
expands research on IO responses to external pressures on policy questions (Chorev 2012; see
also Oliver 1991; Barnett & Coleman 2005; Weaver 2008), and the role of international public
administrations in general (Knill & Bauer 2016; Eckhard & Ege 2016), to existential challenges
of life and death (cf. Hirschmann 2020). Third, by providing three in-depth case studies, the
article adds to our empirical understanding of how IOs have responded to a hostile American
president (Sperling & Webber 2019; Hopewell 2020; Heinkelmann-Wild & Jankauskas 2021).
This article starts by outlining why institutional actors are important to the survival of IOs and
have, under certain conditions, the ability to provide strategic responses to external challenges.
It continues with the three case studies where it focuses on burden-sharing and Russia policy
in NATO, the Paris Agreement of the UNFCCC, and appointing judges to the WTO Appellate
Body. The conclusion compares the findings and reflects on the implications for the study of
IOs more broadly.
Ability of IO actors to respond to existential crises
The Trump administration posed a significant challenge to many IOs by frustrating
proceedings, blocking appointments and policies, withholding funding, and even withdrawing
membership. While this populist assault by the world’s most powerful state has been difficult
to ignore, IOs are not powerless institutions at the mercy of major or hegemonic members.
They have options to respond. Scholars have previously identified institutional actors as critical
to the survival chances of IOs, but it remains unclear which institutional actors have such
abilities, when and how. This section argues that leadership, organizational structure,
competences, and external networks are four conditions that affect the ability of institutional
actors to cope with and counter external pressures.
It has long been established that institutional actors within IOs have a degree of agency (Cox
et al. 1973; Barnett & Finnemore 2004; Hawkins et al. 2006; Biermann & Siebenhüner 2009;
Eckhard & Ege 2016).1 States regularly delegate policy implementation to institutional actors
which gives them some discretion (Pollack 2003; Hawkins et al. 2006). Institutional actors
facilitate deal-making between states while skewing outcomes in their own favor (Beach 2004).
They increase the performance of IO programs (Heinzel & Liese 2021). They put their stamp
on newly created IOs (Johnson 2014). Institutional actors can develop new norms and help
expand IO mandates (Weinlich 2014; Hall 2016). While many institutional actors are under
stringent control mechanism, collective oversight of agents is normally incomplete and ex post
sanctioning is difficult (Tallberg 2002; Dijkstra 2016; Abbott et al. 2020). Major member
states, such as the United States, do have unilateral channels to influence institutional actors
(Urpelainen 2012; Kleine 2013; Parizek 2017; Clark & Dolan 2021), but that they actively do
so only underlines that institutional actors are consequential actors.
Most research on IO agency concerns the role of institutional actors in everyday policy-making.
But institutional actors are also likely to play a role when their IOs are threatened. With their
jobs and pension plans potentially on the line, and many other interests at stake, they will use
their agency to fight for survival (e.g. Strange 1998). As Kaufman (1976) notes about public
agencies facing termination, “[t]hey are not helpless, passive pawns in the game of politics as
it affects their lives; they are active, energetic, persistent participants” (p. 9). This also applies
to IOs: Gray (2018) and Debre and Dijkstra (2021) find that autonomous IOs with quality staff
and administrative capacity thrive and survive. We can therefore logically deduce that
institutional actors did not simply sit back as Donald Trump put their livelihood at risk but had
a key interest in survival and used all the opportunities available. Yet while the empirical
studies by Gray (2018) and Debre and Dijkstra (2021) point at the relevance of institutional
actors for survival, they do not provide a causal explanation of which institutional actors help
IOs survive, when and how, by responding strategically to external challenges.
We use the term institutional actors to include both the political leadership (e.g. Secretaries-General) and the
underlying administrations and secretariats. Political-administrative relations vary across IOs and, as we will
show, the political level is of considerable interest for survival strategies. This makes us reluctant to use more
bureaucratic terminology such as international public administration.
The arsenal of institutional actors to existential challenges, such as the ones posed by the Trump
administration, is potentially wide. It is useful to discuss the ways in which IOs can respond to
existential challenges along four possible survival strategies and, subsequently, to determine
how institutional actors play a role in developing and implementing such strategies. Essentially,
IOs can try to adapt and give in to the demands of Trump or try to resist these pressures, both
of which can be done through behavioral and discursive strategies (Tallberg & Zuern 2019;
Hirschmann 2020; Heinkelmann-Wild & Jankauskas 2021; see also on IO change Barnett &
Coleman 2005; Weaver 2008; Chorev 2012; Lipscy, 2017; Kruck & Zangl 2020). These are
not mutually exclusive strategies. IOs can, for instance, be accommodating and sympathetic in
public to demands of Trump but quietly resist meaningful behavioral change. Furthermore, IOs
can adapt on some issue areas to the demands of Trump, while resisting pressures for change
in other issue areas.
When IOs are existentially challenged by a major member state, the rest of the IOs needs to
respond. This includes the institutional actors and the other member states. Our focus here is
on the institutional actors, since they play a central role in the engine room and the other
member states also often take their cues from the institutional actors.2 Institutional actors can
potentially initiate reforms and facilitate compromise between the United States and the rest of
the member states (adapt; behavioral). They can use their formal competences, such as agenda
management and policy implementation, and/or build coalitions with like-minded member
states and non-state actors (resist; behavioral). They can use discursive strategies through their
communication departments to placate Trump (adapt; discursive) or go on a public relations
offensive and provide factual information (resist; discursive). In other words, institutional
actors can play a central role in developing and implementing survival strategies. Among these
options, there are trade-offs that need to be carefully weighed (Walter 2020, for instance,
suggests an “accommodation dilemma” which implies that adaptation comes at a cost); and not
all options may be available to all institutional actors. Indeed, some institutional actors might
not be able to respond at all in a meaningful way.
Institutional actors thus potentially have a range of survival strategies, even though the range
varies for the different institutional actors. Yet Chorev (2012: 28-41) also reminds us that a
strategic response is not a given. Institutional actors should be able recognize the challenge on
time, pick an appropriate strategic response out of a range of available options, and implement
the response. Latent resources, such as budgets and available staff, are necessary conditions as
without those any strategic response is unlikely (Gray 2018; Debre & Dijkstra 2021). But they
are not sufficient conditions. After all, IOs are regularly gridlocked (Hale et al. 2013) and
bureaucracies are slow to adjust (e.g. Barnett & Finnemore 2004; Weaver 2008; Bayerlein et
al. 2020). It is thus important to further investigate the ability of institutional actors to change
their fortunes. While there are potentially many variables that affect the ability of institutional
actors (for an overview: Biermann & Siebenhüner 2009), this article focuses on four key
conditions: leadership (cross-cutting), organizational structure (within institutional actors
themselves), formal competences (within the IO), and external networks (outside the IO).
Leadership by Secretaries-General, Directors-General, and Executive-Secretaries is critical
when dealing with existential crises, even more so than during everyday policy-making in IOs.
Institutional actors need leadership to recognize the effect of existential challenges on the
organization, choose and formulate responses, and implement those. Leaders fulfil, in this
respect, multiple roles (within the institutional actors themselves; within their IO; and toward
Walter (2020) focuses on the other member states in the case of Brexit.
the external world, see also Mathiason 2007) and leadership is thus a cross-cutting condition.
Leadership is not guaranteed and there is variation both across IOs and within IOs over time.
Hall and Wood (2018), for instance, show that IO leaders face considerable constraints within
their own bureaucracies and the IOs more generally, including legal-political, bureaucratic, and
resources constraints. IO leaders also vary in how they maintain diplomatic relations with
ministers and heads of state and government of the member states. They are the most visible
spokespersons for their IOs in terms of public communication and press (Gronau & Schmidtke
2016: 542-546), but some have a stronger external profile than others.
It is less clear what makes for good IO leadership either in day-to-day policy-making or during
crises, because it often involves idiosyncratic personal traits. While WTO Director-General
Pascal Lamy, for instance, was considered strong, his successor Roberto Azevêdo resigned
before the end of his mandate (see further below). Similarly, while James Wolfensohn was
effective at the World Bank, James Wolfowitz was not (Park & Weaver 2012). The same goes
for virtually all IOs which have seen stronger and weaker leadership (e.g. Kille & Scully 2003;
Hendrickson 2006; Chesterman 2007; see also Moravcsik 1999). Mathiason (2007: 76-82)
nonetheless lists several functions which include the ability to navigate the external
environment, such as promoting agreement among states, responding to crises, articulation of
vision, public and media relations, but also maintaining relations with the United States:
“executive heads must get along with the United States” (p. 80). Biermann and Siebenhüner
(2009) find that strong leaders, defined as “charismatic, visionary, and popular, as well as
flexible and reflexive” (p. 344), correlate with autonomous external influence across nine
environmental case studies.
The organizational structure of institutional actors should also be considered when assessing
their ability to strategically respond to external challenges. This concerns the effectiveness of
the bureaucracy itself. Only if institutional actors can strategically leverage the full weight of
their resources (including budgets and staff), they are able to withstand external pressures. This
is not an automaticity. For institutional actors to craft strategic responses it matters whether
they are integrated bureaucracies with clear reporting lines (such as the European Commission)
or a loose and fragmented collection of directorates dealing with different issues or separate
treaties and with a diffuse set of preferences. In the worst case, institutional actors can consist
of uncontrollable sub-units, islands of authority with their own operating procedures and
cultures, which compete with other sub-units over turf. Particularly in crisis situations, such as
existential external pressures, command and control is important, and fragmentation can be
Scholars have only recently started to study the structure of international secretariats and their
effects. In general, they have uncovered that institutional actors are indeed oftentimes complex
agents (Elsig 2011). Graham (2014), for instance, shows the fragmentation of institutional
actors within the World Health Organization (WHO) bureaucracy, which helps to explain
WHO performance: the “WHO headquarters in Geneva did not control its regional or country
office hinterlands” (p. 367). Bayerlein et al. (2020) point at internal constraints as one key
explanation for the roles (“administrative styles”) that international actors play. At the same
time, organizational structures can also be designed exactly to promote responsiveness.
Schuette (2021), in this respect, details how the European Commission set up a high-level
taskforce on top of its regular Directorates-General to provide a strong response to the Brexit
challenge. Biermann and Siebenhüner (2009: 341-342) equally highlight hierarchical
flexibility and structures for institutional learning.
While leadership and structure are important conditions for institutional actors to leverage their
resources including within their own bureaucracies, what they can achieve as actors within the
IO is critical as well. The formal competences that institutional actors possess are a starting
point in this regard (e.g. Hooghe et al. 2017). This includes formal competences defined in
constitutive documents, but also rules of procedure and other documents. While various
scholars have convincingly shown that institutional actors can develop authority beyond formal
delegated competences (Barnett & Finnemore 2004; see also Hurd 1999; Liese et al. 2021),
formal competences to act within an IO are important for institutional actors when addressing
existential challenges. If institutional actors, for instance, have agenda-setting powers, they
cannot only put forward reform proposals, but are also more likely expected to spearhead
responses to challengers. Not all competences are relevant. Of interest are the opportunities
that institutional actors have in the policy-process to pursue their survival strategies; whether
they have institutional ways to help the organization adapt to new realities or resisting external
pressures on the IO.
The agenda-setting setting competences of institutional actors and their formal competences in
the decision-making process vary significantly (e.g. Tallberg 2003, 2010; Hooghe et al. 2017).
Some institutional actors and their bureaucracies are expected to initiative policies and reforms,
draft documents and participate in decision-making, including as formal chairs of the meetings
with formal agenda structuring powers. In other IOs, the policy process is entirely member
states driven, with a rotating or elected presidency (Tallberg 2010), and the role of institutional
actors concerns conference management, translation, and legal support. If institutional actors
have been formally delegated a role in policy-making, they are also more likely to be able to
pro-actively engage in pursuing survival strategies within IOs.
A final condition concerns the embeddedness of institutional actors in external networks which
affects their ability to mobilize support in the environment surrounding IOs. An established
network by international actors is thus a condition for mobilizing support when an existential
challenge hits an IO. Despite a lot of bureaucratic tricks that international actors are holding up
their sleeves within IOs, Dijkstra (2017) notes that institutional actors rarely have sufficient
authority of their own to take on major member states. This seems pertinent with the United
States and Donald Trump as adversaries. Rather, institutional actors team up with like-minded
actors, which they may orchestrate into supporting their survival strategies (Abbott et al. 2015).
There are several sets of like-minded actors on which institutional actors may rely. This
includes other member states which can be coopted into a united front, but also the strategic
use of non-governmental organizations which increasing have access to IOs (Sending &
Neumann 2006; Tallberg et al. 2013), or domestic actors within the United States itself,
including specific parts of the government, Congress, and state actors.
Institutional actors have a central position within IOs and are often the main contact point for
external actors. It is therefore not surprising that the academic literature finds many examples
how institutional actors successfully collude, orchestrate, and build coalitions (Abbott et al.
2015; Hale & Roger 2014; Hickmann & Elsässer 2020). However, not all IOs and their
institutional actors have an equal degree of permeability (Hawkins & Jacoby 2008) and
preexisting networks with external actors. There is indeed considerable variation in the
openness of IOs (Jönsson & Jonas Tallberg 2010; Tallberg et al. 2013) and it is reasonable to
assume that for IOs that are relatively open, institutional actors are in a better position to
develop external networks. It is therefore important to uncover the embeddedness and the
external networks institutional actors possess to understand their ability to mobilize support
following the challenges by Donald Trump.
In conclusion, institutional actors have potentially considerable agency when dealing with
existential challenges. They have a strong interest in survival and will fight tooth and nail to
keep their IO alive. While the durability of IOs and the key role played by international actors
is recognized, it is less clear under which conditions these institutional actors can craft
convincing survival strategies. Institutional actors need to strategically choose within the range
of available options. Based on the existing literature, this section has highlighted four key
conditions including leadership (within the institutional actors; within the IO; and outside the
IO), a non-fragmentated organizational structure (within the institutional actors themselves),
formal competences in policy-making (within the IO), and options for institutional actors to
mobilize support from like-minded actors (outside the IO). Without these key conditions in
place, the range of survival strategies and the ability of institutional actors to strategically
respond is constrained. The next section tests how these conditions affected the ability to
institutional actors to respond to the America First challenge by Donald Trump.
Institutional actors and IO responses to Donald Trump
This section highlights the variation in the ability of institutional actors in NATO, UNFCCC,
and WTO to formulate and implement responses to Donald Trump. These are three IOs with
considerable latent resources, employing each around 500 officials (scope condition). Yet after
four years of Trump, the WTO Appellate Body is no longer functioning, the United States has
quit the Paris Agreement though the Agreement has survived (and the Biden administration
could rejoin), and NATO has proved resilient. The purpose is not to causally link responses by
institutional actors with eventual outcomes for IOs, but rather highlight the ability (or the lack
thereof) of institutional actors to formulate a response in the first place. While these three task-
specific IOs vary in purpose and membership, they all faced an existential challenge by Donald
Trump, the outcomes of which were not predetermined. Trump repeatedly threatened to pull
out of them, actively questioned their rationale, and undermined their operations. By comparing
three prominent IOs, we can identify the presence and absence of the four conditions and link
them to the ability of institutional actors to respond. Against popular IR wisdom, the section
finds that NATO actors (a security organization) developed a more purposeful response than
WTO actors (an economic organization) with UNFCCC actors occupying middle ground. The
analysis is based on 68 interviews with staff from the secretariats of these organizations, key
member state officials, and experts.
NATO: Burden-sharing and Russia
Donald Trump’s contestation of NATO posed an existential challenge. He expressed hostility
toward NATO, denouncing it as obsolete, and questioned whether the US under his presidency
would uphold the collective defense guarantees. His central recurring accusation, first voiced
as early as 1987, was that allies “ripped off” the US (Trump 1987), and he demanded that they
“pay up, including for past deficiencies, or they have to get out. And if that break up NATO, it
breaks up NATO” (Trump 2016). Trump also harbored sympathies for Russia under President
Putin, thereby aggravating matters for NATO, which had recently undergone significant
reforms to implement a more robust defense and deterrence policy following the Russian
annexation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine (Tardy 2020).
In response, NATO’s institutional actors around the Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (2014-
date) devised and implemented an astute survival strategy. The NATO leadership offered overt
support for Trump’s demands for greater burden-sharing which promised to generate most
goodwill with him and were not harmful to NATO, while subtly resisting his calls for
rapprochement with Russia that risked undermining the raison d’être of the organization. This
survival strategy succeeded in eventually winning over Trump on transatlantic burden-sharing
and helped preventing Trump from diluting NATO’s defense and deterrence posture toward
Russia. Institutional actors thus exhibited a striking degree of agency in helping NATO survive
Trump’s contestation. NATO’s ability to craft and implement its survival strategy involved
leadership by the Secretary-General and his private office, a clear organizational structure,
strong agenda-setting competences, and a preexisting external network which allowed for the
mobilization of support not just from other member states but also the bipartisan US foreign
policy establishment including the State and Defense Departments and Congress.
In terms of leadership, NATO has traditionally been led by experienced diplomats or former
allied ministers. Indicative of a more pronounced standing of the office, the last Secretary-
General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen (2009-2014), however, was elected as a sitting Danish Prime
Minister and the incumbent Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is a former Norwegian Prime
Minister (Hendrickson 2014). Former heads of states tend to be well-connected and view
themselves more as equals than servants of what were previous colleagues and claim greater
authority. A Norwegian citizen, a European non-EU member, and a humble character,
Stoltenberg was widely perceived as a trusted broker without a personal agenda (Interviews
#A2, #A7, #A11, #A12, #A18). Stoltenberg’s deputy, Rose Gottemoeller (2016-2019) was a
former US Under Secretary in the State Department with extensive connections in Washington.
NATO’s leadership thus possessed the reputation and network to potentially play an important
role in crafting and implementing the Trump survival strategy.
Effective NATO leadership, however, was contingent on a particular organizational structure.
The NATO International Staff is usually treated as a weak institution (e.g. Schimmelfennig
2016). Institutional actors possess hardly any delegated authority and member states take most
decisions by consensus (Hooghe et al. 2017: 731-740; Mayer 2014). This is, however, a too
narrow reading of formal competences in the original North Atlantic Treaty. NATO institutions
have evolved over time and the International Staff is more than a toothless administrative body.
The Secretary-General possesses important agenda-setting powers as he chairs the North
Atlantic Council and organizes NATO summits (NATO 2011: 70). As the increasingly
prominent public face of the alliance, the Secretary General also tends to receive significant
media attention and can therefore shape public debates. Furthermore, NATO profits from a
sizeable secretariat, with almost 500 policy-grade officials and a dedicated Public Diplomacy
Division as well as a Policy Planning Unit in the private office, which is an internal think tank
tasked with offering strategic insights. The structure is clearly hierarchical, with the private
office as the undisputed center of power.
The final condition for NATO actors to play an agential role concerns the existing external
networks. While NATO is not known for its openness to non-state actors, it is the central
organization for the collective defense of most allies. As a result, NATO institutional actors
are very well-connected. The preference constellation among non-White House actors in the
US and other allies toward NATO was also favorable. Powerful member states such as
Germany or the United Kingdom viewed Trump’s attacks on NATO in dismay and supported
Stoltenberg’s survival strategy, even when he publicly criticized some European allies for
underspending on defense (Interviews #A5, #A15). Furthermore, NATO could rely on strong
support from within the US foreign policy establishment in Congress, State Department,
Congress, National Security Council as well as non-governmental actors such as influential
think tanks (Interviews #A3, #A7, #A17, #A20). The US public also remained largely in favor
of continued US membership of the alliance (Pew 2020).
Secretary General is a
former prime minister
Executive Secretary is
a career diplomat
a career diplomat
(resigned in 2020)
under the full authority
of the Secretary-
General with different
Treaty secretariat with
an original focus on
management, but now
also program divisions
for the Councils.
integrated in main
Conferences of the
Parties and act as a hub
for information and
Strong network to key
personalities from both
US political parties in
State and Defense
Departments and US
Strong network with
sub- and non-state
actors in the United
States developed after
failed Kyoto protocol
Limited support in
Pro-active response by
discursive) on burden-
sharing and resistance
(behavioral) on Russia
Indirect response by
relying on pre-existing
external network with
focus on resistance
Table 1: Variation in leadership, organizational structure, competences, and external
networks (conditions), and survival strategies (outcome) across the cases.
Considering the four conditions, NATO institutional actors were thus in a strong position to
formulate survival strategies and they had many options available. In fact, they strategically
chose different response options on the different sorts of challenges that Donald Trump posed.
On the specific challenge of burden-sharing NATO institutional actors had to walk the fine line
of simultaneously pushing allies to invest more while selling even moderate increases in
defense budgets as success back to Trump. The Secretary-General adopted, in this respect, a
strategy that pushed for behavioral adaptation by the other allies while using a simultaneous
strategy of discursive adaptation to placate Trump. Drawing on his prominent public position,
Stoltenberg set out to shape the public agenda surrounding burden-sharing. The Secretary-
General consciously tailored his simplistic and servile communication style to flatter the
egocentric Trump. As early as the day prior to Trump’s inauguration on 20 January 2017,
Stoltenberg lauded Trump for his “strong message” on defense spending, pledging to “work
with President Trump on how to adapt NATO” (Stoltenberg 2017a). Appeasing Trump and
playing to his ego seemed the purpose of Stoltenberg’s visit to the White House in May 2018,
when he thanked the US President for his “leadership […] on the issue of defence spending
[which] has really helped to make a difference” (Stoltenberg 2018a). In 2019, the Secretary-
General repeatedly referred to what emerged as NATO’s new mantra on burden-sharing:
“Before they were cutting billions. Now they are adding billions. By the end of next year, that
figure will rise to one hundred billion” (Stoltenberg 2019a). In January, he appeared on
Trump’s favorite US news channel, Fox, crediting Trump for an “extra $100 billion” allies will
have added to their defense spending by the end of 2020 (Fox 2019).
In addition to this public placating of Trump, the Secretary-General used agenda-setting tactics
by using his powers as summit chair to, for instance, turn a working meeting on Ukraine and
Georgia during the 2018 summit into an impromptu crisis meeting on burden-sharing to
appease Trump. The NATO leadership also used backroom diplomacy and their good
connections to Germany to agree on a new funding formula for NATO’s budget that saw
Germany match the US contributions. While this was largely symbolic, it subsequently allowed
Stoltenberg to publicly tout another victory for Trump’s burden-sharing agenda. In sum,
Stoltenberg’s astute leadership aided by important procedural powers and support from other
allies proved critical in placating Trump (Interviews #A5, #A6, #A13), who eventually
reversed his position on burden-sharing and expressed satisfaction with the way NATO had
responded his demands (Trump 2019). There were limits to behavioral adaptation by the other
allies, but Stoltenberg worked tireless to facilitate the cooperation between Trump and the allies
and used strong discursive strategies.
Unlike on burden-sharing, NATO institutional actors could not support Trump’s demands for
rapprochement with Russia, which would have subverted the very purpose the alliance. To
elude frustrating Trump, the NATO leadership set out to subtly resist his demands by means
of shielding Russia policy from him and building coalitions with supportive third parties. This
strategy of behavioral resistance was not matched with discursive resistance. Indeed, the
Secretary-General avoided talking about Russia in Trump’s presence. In the press conferences
or remarks following their six bilateral meetings between April 2017 and December 2019,
Stoltenberg always emphasized the need for greater defense spending, but he did not mention
Russia policy in three of the press conferences, while in the others he only addressed Russia
cursorily (see White House 2019; Stoltenberg 2017b, 2018b, 2018c, 2019b, 2019c). Drawing
on the power as summit organizers, NATO actors together with US diplomats also pressured
allies to agree on the 2018 summit declaration, which featured several initiatives on Russia,
prior to the actual summit to prevent Trump from derailing the agreement (Interviews #A3,
#A9, #A10, #A17, #A19).
NATO actors also cultivated relations with like-minded actors to generate domestic pressure
on Trump and circumvent his direct involvement on Russia policy. One interviewee confirms
that there were consistent backchannels between Stoltenberg’s office and supportive US
officials in the Pentagon and National Security Council coordinate policy and shield NATO
(Russia policy) from Trump as much as possible (Interview #A17). Defense Secretary Mattis
was a particularly strong supporter of NATO’s Russia policy and became the institutional
actor’s main point of contact (Interviews #A3, #A7, #A20). Throughout Trump’s term in office,
the Secretary General also cultivated relations with US parliamentarians, regularly hosting
them in Brussels, and speaking in front of both Houses of Congress. In January 2019, Congress
went as far as to pass the NATO Support Act, prohibiting Trump to use federal funds to
withdraw the US from NATO, and also steadily increased the US budgetary allocation for the
US defense posture in Europe (the European Deterrence Initiative).
NATO institutional actors benefited from strong leadership, a clear organizational structure,
agenda-setting competences, and networks with external actors. This provided them the ability
to craft and implement a successful survival strategy tailored to the specific challenges on
Trump of specific issues. By the end of his tenure, Trump had embraced NATO as serving a
“great purpose” (White House 2019) and not followed up on most of his threats to sanction the
alliance. Stoltenberg’s astute leadership was critical for converting Trump on burden-sharing.
Even though defense spending increased less than Trump demanded and was likely motivated
by other reasons, Stoltenberg’s adroit diplomacy and flattery convinced Trump that he had
successfully imposed his will onto NATO. Like-minded actors in the US were critical in
protecting NATO’s Russia policy from Trump, which was reinforced by NATO’s strategic
shielding tactics both in public communications and at the 2018 summit. While Congress
would have likely prevented Trump withdrawing the US from NATO, without the NATO
actors’ survival strategy it is likely that Trump’s opposition had not waned and that he would
have been much more subversive from within.
UNFCCC: The Paris Agreement
When Donald Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in June 2017,
which would take effect in November 2020, supporters of climate change action expected
severe consequences of further member withdrawal. Without the United States, “the Paris deal
was dead” (Bomberg 2017: 961) and the UNFCCC considered severely weakened. Contrary to
NATO, where officials played a direct role in responding to Trump, UNFCCC institutional
actors were more circumspect and considered withdrawal as inevitable, as had been previously
the case with the non-ratification of the Kyoto protocol (Kemp, 2017). Rather than pleading
with Trump directly, they focused instead on preventing further withdrawals and strengthening
coalitions with non-state actors, thereby employing a strategy of behavioral and discursive
resistance. For an institutional actor with more limited competences and leadership capacity
this was not just the best option; UNFCCC staff could build on strategies they had developed
since the US non-ratification of the Kyoto protocol and the Copenhagen summit of 2009. The
UNFCCC had worked toward widening its own mandate and establishing the allegedly
political ‘soft’ issue of climate change action as norm through building up external networks
and non-state actor orchestration (Hale & Roger 2014; Hickmann & Elsässer 2020).
Before analyzing the specific survival strategies of the UNFCCC in the case of the Paris
Agreement, it is important to pay attention to the previous experiences of the UNFCCC with
the United States. In 2001 the Bush administration receded from the Kyoto protocol, which
still needed to be ratified by the US Senate (Pickering et al. 2018: 820). Although anticipated,
it caused “real worry about what could happen to the treaty regime that was being put in place
to deal with climate change” (Interview #B1). The Kyoto protocol did enter into force in 2005,
but US non-participation was found to have ultimately weakened the protocol’s effectiveness
and legitimacy (Pickering et al. 2018). This experience with Kyoto, which clearly is not present
in the NATO case, not just provided the UNFCCC a lesson on how to deal with Trump, but
indeed affected the entire set up of global climate change governance after Kyoto. The Paris
Agreement was, for instance, not conceived as a treaty to avoid the need for ratification (Kemp
2017: 87; Pickering et al. 2018; Interview #B4). This simultaneously also meant that
withdrawal and important re-joining, the latter taking thirty days after notification, would be
easier (Jotzo et al. 2018: 813; Pickering et al. 2018: 822).
Furthermore, the UNFCCC increasingly developed an external network by engaging with non-
state actors (e.g. Saerbeck et al. 2020). This experience informed and initiated a re-thinking on
ideas and survival strategies (Hickmann et al. 2021; Hickmann & Elsässer 2020), leaving the
UNFCCC somewhat better prepared for Trump (Interview #B2). The catalyzing experience
was the breakdown of the COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. It not only led to the end of the
negotiations but furthermore to the public accusation of ‘failure’ and the questioning of the
UNFCCC’s ability to handle the multilateral processes (Interviewee #B1). It also resulted in
the resignation of the Executive Secretary at the time and plunged the UNFCCC into a
legitimacy crisis (Hickmann et al. 2021). The revision of internal processes but also
strengthening the external engagement with of non-state actors followed, to improve and to
become open “for new ideas to bolster the existing global response to climate change”
(Hickmann et al. 2021: 12). The Paris Agreement provides a degree of autonomy from member
states as it incorporates non-state actors informally via the possibility to join the UNFCCC’s
“Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action” (NAZCA) (Pickering et al. 2018). This trajectory
of the agreement provided “contingency plan in case the Paris agreement would fail” (Interview
With this background in mind, the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement took no one by
surprise. Interviewees uniformly agreed that it was the natural consequence of the election
(Interviews #B1, #B5, #B8, #B11, B#15-24). After all, Trump had hardly hidden his populist
and anti-climate change tendencies during the election campaign (Betsill 2017; Bomberg 2017)
calling global warming a “hoax” and announcing that he would “cancel” the Paris Agreement.
The UNFCCC thus had some time to reflect on the appropriate response and provided a
diplomatic statement emphasizing the rules of the process of exiting the Paris Agreement, and
communicating that the US will remain in the negotiations until the final withdrawal in 2020
and part of the UNFCCC (Interviews #B5, #B6). This was a rather factual discursive approach.
Public opposition to US withdrawal was taken instead by several other member states, US local
governments, and non-state actors, all of which launched various initiatives facilitated by the
UNFCCC. This is a case of the orchestration of behavioral and discursive resistance through
the mobilization of like-minded actors.
When assessing the ability of the UNFCCC officials to respond to the Donald Trump, it is
indeed clear that the strength lies with their external networks and the legitimacy of the ‘climate
action norm’ rather than with the UNFCCC Secretariat in Bonn, Germany. The Executive
Secretary, Patricia Espinosa (2016-date), a career diplomat with six years of experience as
Mexico’s foreign minister, has been a skilled operator who does engage in external
communication but lacks, in terms of leadership, the political weight of NATO’s Stoltenberg
and is also less outspoken than her predecessor Christiana Figueres (2010-2016) (King 2016).
Indeed, there is a considerable contrast with Figueres, who made it to the list of 100 most
influential people according to Time Magazine calling her a “force for nature” (Redford 2016),
continues to mingle with world leaders, collects accolades, and writes op-eds for Nature
(Figueres 2020). Espinosa, on the other hand, was refused a meeting with Secretary of State
Tillerson during the first months of the Trump administration (Milman 2017). Nevertheless, as
a long-standing multilateralist and chair of the 16th Conference of the Parties in Cancun in
2010, she had helped revitalize the climate change agenda one year after the failed Copenhagen
summit of 2009, important experience in the run up to Trump.
The UNFCCC secretariat consists of about 450 staff members. It also has a substantial core
budget compared to other environmental secretariats (EUR 68.7 million in 2020-2021). Its
formal competences have, however, traditionally been limited with its main tasks to organize
the Conferences of the Parties and other meetings, and to act as an information hub for the
climate change regime (Article 9 of the Convention; see also Busch 2009; Depledge 2007).
Officials also tried to remain impartial, avoided initiative and agenda-setting, and steered away
from proactive leadership to avoid stepping on the toes of the parties. The UNFCCC, however,
has considerably developed since the Copenhagen summit and has adopted a much stronger
entrepreneurial style prioritizing communication, networking, and positioning itself as a central
informational actor (Saerbeck et al. 2020; Well et al. 2020). When it comes to actual climate
negotiations, however, it remains a cautious actor assisting the member states (Well et al.
2020). It therefore does not have the ability, on its own, to pursue survival strategies within the
The UNFCCC secretariat has thus tried to overcome its ‘straitjacket’ (Hickmann et al. 2021)
by focusing on a role in the broader climate change regime, supporting more inclusive
cooperation, replacing the legally binding Kyoto protocol with a “decentralized climate policy
architecture”, and including more non-state actors (Bäckstrand et al. 2017: 563). The UNFCCC
has continuously enforced deeper engagement with non-state and sub-national actors by
launching initiatives adopting various roles, such as ‘the Momentum for Change Initiative’, the
Lima–Paris Action Agenda (LPAA), and NAZCA (Hickmann et al. 2021; Schroerder & Lovell
2012; Widerberg 2017; Aykut et al. 2020). The UNFCCC initiates, moderates, and negotiates
this engagement and maintains it outside of the Conferences of the Parties by administering
side-events by all kinds of actors (Hickmann & Elsässer 2020). The UNFCCC thus had a
considerable ‘support system’ in place by the time that Donald Trump got elected. This network
has been activated, and has largely activated itself, to oppose Trump’s contestation and to re-
legitimate the Paris Agreement. Support in favor of the Paris Agreement has come from various
UNFCCC member states, but also US local governments, and many non-state actors.
For example, the other UNFCCC member states appeared as a cohesive front and spoke up for
the Paris Agreement. Germany, Italy, and France, for instance, gave out a joint statement,
saying “the momentum generated in Paris in December 2015 [is] irreversible and we firmly
believe that the Paris Agreement cannot be renegotiated, since it is a vital instrument for our
planet” (as cited in Walsh 2017). Likewise, the European Union Commissioner stated that the
EU was “ready to lead the fight” (as cited in Bomberg 2017: 962). Also, China and its President
Xi Jinping claimed to “take a leadership role”, which was significant given that China had
become the biggest emitter of CO2 emissions. And shortly after the announcement of the US
withdrawal, the Chinese president even, for the first time in Chinese history, committed to a
bilateral agreement with a subnational actor with the Californian Governor Brown declaring to
“boost cooperation on green technology” (Hermwille 2018: 458).
In the United States itself, several initiatives were launched in response to the announcement
of US withdrawal, which are evidence of behavioral and discursive resistance by the network
of like-minded actors that the UNFCCC had previously developed (Aykut et al. 2020). As a
reaction to the Trump election, several US corporations, including for example Apple, Google,
Unilever, and others issued full-page ads in The New York Times, The New York Post, and
The Wall Street Journal in May 2007 (Bestill 2017: 190). In June 2017, mayors from the so-
called “Mayors National Climate Action Agenda” signed an open letter to the president-elect
stating that his “denial of global warming is getting a cold reception from America’s cities”
and promised to “intensify efforts to meet each of our cities’ current climate goals” (US
Mayors, 2017). The “Global Climate Action Summit” was initiated by the Californian governor
Jerry Brown in September 2018. The summit gathered local, sub-state actors, and several non-
state actors, including big US corporations, to address climate change and the continued
support for the Paris agreement and engaging in climate action (Interview #B11).
To prevent the UNFCCC from long-term financial issues, the coalition of America’s pledge
offered not only to pay some of the contributions of the US budget (Interview #B1). This
coalition also kept meeting the targets of the climate change agenda within the Paris Agreement
(Hermwille 2018: 458). At the COP23 in November 2017 in Bonn, 1200 governors, mayors,
business leaders, investors, and college and university presidents created the movement “We’re
still in” (Bestill 2017: 190; Interviews #B1, #B4, #B6). This movement collectively took
opposition to the US governments decision, calling the US withdrawal “out of step with what
is happening in the United States” and declaring that they “will continue to support climate
action to meet the Paris Agreement” (Bestill 2017: 190). In other words, the US announcement
to withdraw from the Paris Agreement caused considerable domestic contestation, which was
a direct result of the UNFCCC developing external networks.
Compared to NATO institutional actors, UNFCCC officials could not rely on agenda-setting
competences in the policy process or benefit from a publicly strong leadership. Based on the
previous experiences, however, the UNFCCC had become a more purposeful actor with an
organizational structure that did not just facilitate conference management, but also strongly
engaged in external networking. This conditioned the range of options that the UNFCCC had
available. The analysis of the UNFCCC survival strategies indeed shows that the secretariat
opted to remain resilient against US contestation, but that it only had a limited ability to directly
respond to Donald Trump. Rather it focused on the orchestration of behavioral and discursive
resistance. By putting a strong emphasis on networking and orchestration of both state and non-
state actors as well as promoting climate change action as norm the UNFCCC was able to
withstand further consequences and rise above despite Trump’s contestation.
WTO: Appellate Body
The WTO has been in crisis at least since the failed Doha Development Round of the mid-
2000s and also its Appellate Body, a key feature of the Dispute Settlement Understanding
(DSU), has long been subject to critiques of judicial overreach. Under the Trump
administration such allegations came to the fore more forcefully and, since 2017, the United
States has refused to approve members of the WTO’s Appellate Body. This has resulted in an
Appellate Body that lacks the required number of arbiters for it to function, therefore
effectively rendering the ‘crown jewel’ of the WTO inoperable (Bown & Keynes, 2020;
Hopewell 2020). Despite the increasing pressures by the US throughout the years, and in
particular the threats made by the Trump administration, the WTO institutional actors did not
respond and no meaningful reforms were made (USTR, 2020). Essentially there was no
survival strategy to deal with the existential challenge. This final case study shows a lack of
leadership in the WTO secretariat, a decentralized organizational structure, no formal
competences, and no external network to tap into.
The WTO has had strong leadership in the past. Renato Ruggiero (1995-1999), who was the
second Director-General with a background in the Italian public service, and Pascal Lamy
(2005-2013), who previously had been European Commissioner for trade, are generally
acknowledged to have played a key role in world trade. At the time of the Trump contestation,
the Director-General was Roberto Azevêdo (2013-2020), a career diplomat with long-standing
experience in trade negotiations. While his background was thus not unsimilar to Espinosa at
the UNFCCC, Azevêdo did little to address the assault on the Appellate Body and suddenly
resigned in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis. His leadership style has been described as hands-
off, following the line of the organization’s membership, and refraining from political activism
(Interviews #C6, #C13, #C14, #C16). Unhelpful was also that the Director-General holds
limited powers within the WTO, with its influence being mainly perceptible during trade
negotiation rounds (Elsig 2011; Interviews #C1, #C11, #C16). The institutional rules and
norms of the organizations effectively constrain the Director-General, and the office is
expected to refrain from any form of political activism (Bohne 2010; Buterbaugh & Fulton
2007; Interviews #C16, #C17).
Particularly important for the WTO is its decentralized structure in which the Appellate Body
and its own secretariat are quite insulated from the rest of the WTO secretariat, which serves
the political organs, such as General Council (Pauwelyn & Pelc 2019). It is, of course, natural
for international courts to have autonomy from the political principals over which they need to
adjudicate, and this is no different for the WTO Appellate Body (Abbott et al., 2015; Elsig
2011; Interviews #C5, #C6, #C8). The General Council has the authority to influence and
control the Appellate Body’s internal operations (Interviews #C9, #C11), yet its consensus rule
makes it difficult to achieve institutional reforms to the Appellate Body (Interviews #C4, #C5).
The relative insulation of the Appellate Body with its own secretariat made it also difficult for
the Director-General and the rest of the WTO secretariat to shield the Appellate Body, let alone
put pressure on the Appellate Body to behaviorally adapt.
The WTO secretariat has weak competences and the main source of influence comes from the
expertise and experience of staff regarding international trade law and negotiations (Interviews
#C1, #C11, #C16, #C17). The secretariat’s staff are often described as operating “behind the
scenes as active facilitators” during negotiations (Bohne 2010; Buterbaugh & Fulton 2007; Yi‐
Chong & Weller 2008: 43; Interview #C17). This gives the secretariat staff a great deal of
influence within negotiation rounds (Interview #C11). However, their role in the other
operational domains of the organization remains rather limited (Interview #C16). The limited
formal competences of the WTO secretariat and its Director-General were made evident during
the Appellate Body crisis. As the US contestation of the Appellate Body began to manifest
itself, it became clear that the WTO leadership could not play any role in producing a cohesive
and effective response strategy. Throughout the Appellate Body crisis, the WTO leadership
stayed on the sidelines, consistently keeping a conciliatory stance in public, and refraining from
engaging directly with the relevant institutional actors (Interviews #C7, C#14). In an effort to
provide an image of organizational unity, and in conscious avoidance of adopting an activist
role, the WTO Secretariat and Director-General did not make references in their public
statements to the Appellate Body Secretariat or the issue of over-judicialization of the
organization (Interview #C16).
This is not to say that the office of the Director-General does not hold informal influence within
the WTO and the WTO Secretariat. The Directors-General have tools at their disposal, such as
meetings with a restricted group of membership’s representations in Geneva, and direct lines
of communication with officials in member-state capitals (Interview #C14). The Director-
General’s personality and leadership style however play a big a role in how much influence
they are willing to exert (Interviews #C14, #C17). Some Directors-General in the past have
shown the influence their office can exert, having held a more assertive role during negotiations
and even recently during the Appellate Body crisis. Especially during negotiation rounds,
Pascal Lamy and Renato Ruggiero are described has having been more proactive. They are
said to have been willing to pick up the phone and call presidents and prime ministers
(Interview #C18). As noted by some interviewees, during the reappointment phase of Pascal
Lamy for his second term, the US voiced its concerns regarding the fact that he often preferred
to speak with member-state ministers in capitals as opposed to their representatives in Geneva,
and his overall proactive approach within the organization (Interviews #C12, #C18).
Before the Appellate Body crisis began to surface, and early on when the US raised concerns
regarding alleged judicial overreach and the violation of procedural rules by the Appellate
Body and its secretariat, Pascal Lamy attempted to directly play a role in the secretariat’s
organization by reshuffling staff and imposing restrictions on the number of assistants working
at the Body (Interview #C12). This strategic move was intended to decrease the allocation of
resources to pressure the Body to consider the concerns raised regarding the drafting process
of case reports (Interview #C12). Lamy soon after left the organization, and his successor,
Azevedo, adopted a neutral stance toward both the Appellate Body staff and the membership,
never having attempted at putting pressure on the Appellate Body judges or the Body’s
secretariat staff (Interviews #C12, #C17, #C18). This was evidenced in 2018, as under pressure
by the Trump administration to fire the director of the Appellate Body secretariat, Director-
General Azevedo instead decided to remain neutral and did not get involved, despite the
Appellate Body crisis looming (Interviews #C9, #C12). This, according to some, represented
a failure of leadership caused by the institutional limitations imposed on the office of the
Director-General and the WTO Secretariat (Interviews #C12, #C13).
The neutral stance of the Director-General came despite the fact that many staff within the
WTO and across various divisions (including the Appellate Body) have similar concerns
regarding the Appellate Body and its Secretariat (Interviews #C1, #C9, #C16). As one
interviewee noted, the only thing the WTO Secretariat “can do is recommend, take minutes,
and publish reports…they cannot give direction to, or in any way influence, the internal
workings of the division [Appellate Body]” (Interview #C7). The limited formal competences
of the WTO Secretariat meant that the organization’s leadership was not only incapable of
playing a significant role within the organization, but also outside the institution (Interview
#C16). The Director-General, in its role as the public image of the organization, does not have
the authority to engage with other actors, and is constrained in its ability at influencing
domestic actors within the membership.
The WTO Secretariat also did not have a developed external network, particularly not within
the United States. Throughout the Appellate Body crisis, the Trump administration enjoyed
support from the US public with regard to world trade (Kim 2020). Furthermore, trade officials
in the United States, both during the Trump administration and the preceding administration,
have increasingly held negative views regarding the WTO (Interview #C1), which is essentially
the opposite of the case of NATO or the more positive norm of climate action. More recently
there has also been bipartisan alignment in the US Congress regarding the WTO, reflected by
the fact that, as of May 2020, both the House of Representatives and the Senate had resolutions
and proposals introduced at their sessions proposing the US withdrawal from the WTO (Levy
2020). The overall support for the Trump administration’s policies against the WTO reflects
the failure of the organization’s leadership to foster and mobilize support from relevant actors
within the United States.
The WTO ranks low on the four conditions mentioned above. Despite some initial engagement
by Lamy, the leadership of Azevêdo was absent during the crisis of the Appellate Body. The
organizational structure of the WTO Secretariat is fragmentated, which inhibited a strategic
response. Apart from a role in trade negotiations, the formal competences are weak and the
WTO Secretariat did not have an external network, particularly not in the United States. In the
case of the Appellate Body, the range of available options was not just limited, the WTO
secretariat did not seem to have the ability to formulate a survival strategy. Contrary to NATO
and the UNFCCC, we did not find evidence of purposeful institutional actors trying to
strategically deal with Trump, either through adaptation or resistance, behavioral or discursive.
Rather they tried to ignore the challenge, perhaps hoping for better days.
Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ approach has put many IOs on the defensive. While there is
an increasingly strong academic literature detailing such populist assaults, little remains known
about whether IOs can cope with and counter these existential challenges. This is surprising as
we know that international institutions tend to be ‘sticky’ and that particularly the institutional
actors in IOs have ways of affecting the course of their organizations. Using case studies of
NATO, the UNFCCC’s Paris Agreement, and the WTO’s Appellate Body, this article has
shown that institutional actors varied in their ability to formulate and implement appropriate
survival strategies. All three institutional actors are serious bureaucracies, but latent resources
are a necessary but not sufficient condition. Rather, this article has highlight variation in the
leadership, organizational structure, competences, and external networks as important
conditions affecting the ability of actors to respond.
NATO officials publicly leveraged the Trump challenge to increase burden-sharing among
allies while quietly undermining Trump’s position on Russia. Officials from the UNFCCC
considered US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement as inevitable and focused on indirectly
preventing further withdrawals and strengthening coalitions with non-state actors. WTO
officials lacked the leadership and organizational structure to formulate a strategic response to
Trump and did little to save the Appellate Body from becoming defunct. Such variation is
responses cannot be simply explained the difference in policy area or the specific approach that
Donald Trump took toward these institutions. Rather the cases highlight variation in the ability
of IO actors to formulate survival strategies from the available range of alternatives. NATO
scored strong on leadership, structure, competences, and external networks. This allowed for a
tailored response. UNFCCC staff relied on their support network that they had developed
previously, as their options to directly engage Donald Trump were limited. WTO actors where
very constrained and failed to develop a strategy.
The comparative approach also highlights that the significance of the four conditions varied
somewhat across the IOs. The cases of NATO and the WTO highlight the presence and the
absence of leadership. Furthermore, the fragmented organizational structure inhibited the
WTO, whereas formal competences play a role for NATO. Previously established external
networks were centrally important for the UNFCCC. At the same time, all four conditions were
present in the case of NATO and absent in the WTO, whereas only partially present in the
UNFCCC which affected the menu of response options. In this respect, the four conditions are
also mutually reinforcing. The NATO Secretary-General was not just a former prime minister
but also formally chairs the Council meetings, which put him two steps ahead of his
counterparts in the UNFCCC and WTO. It is furthermore interesting that much of the action to
counter such existential challenges took place outside the boundaries of the IOs themselves.
This was at least as much about bilateral meetings in the Oval Office, a speech in US Congress,
an appearance on Fox News, and the involvement of US sub-state and non-governmental
actors, as it was about closed-door negotiations between diplomats in IO committees.
The purpose of this article has not been to causally link responses by institutional actors with
eventual outcomes for IOs. The ability of institutional actors to push back is one factor, and
not the only one. The point of the article, however, has been to highlight variation in the
responses and strategies pursued to cope with and counter existential challenges. It is important
to consider, in this respect, the constraints and opportunities that institutional actors face. With
Donald Trump out of office, and President Joe Biden quickly repairing some of the damage
done to international institutions, it is furthermore tempting to raise again the flag of the liberal
international order. Even though the future of the WTO remains uncertain, the UNFCCC has
been able to save the Paris Agreement, and NATO has come out relatively unshattered. At the
same time, with an increasingly dense global governance landscape and power transitions still
underway, it remains likely that some of the larger IOs will face further contestations and
existential challenges. We need, in this respect, also further research on the mechanisms that
help IOs craft appropriate responses.
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