Functionalism and Global Cooperation
Photo Credit: World Development Foundation
By Tai Wei Lim

Functionalism and Global Cooperation

Apr. 13, 2017  |     |  0 comments


The international world order is keen to avoid the repeat of another bipolar Cold War scenario. Militarily, during the Cold War, the bipolar world saw the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) square off with the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. The Warsaw Pact was formed on May 14, 1955 to counter NATO which had been formed six years earlier in 1949. The Soviets were anxious about the possibility of a rearmed Germany and decided to buffer against that possibility. Military balancing between two blocs of armed forces is mainly based on the idea of realism — that international affairs is a zero-sum game that results in absolute winners and losers. Realism is also centered around the element of power — that states with greater military and economic power have the greatest influence over the international system.


The end of the Cold War presented another scenario — that military power is not sustainable indefinitely. The economic and financial burdens of maintaining a large military posture can be seen in how the Warsaw Pact had maintained large detachments and divisions of tanks, far outnumbering NATO forces and, at one point of time, possessed twice as many tanks as NATO forces. The failing economies of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union nearer the end of the Cold War eventually proved the Warsaw Pact expenses to be unsustainable, and it eventually disbanded in 1991. Moreover, the fall of the Berlin Wall caught everyone by surprise, including Western European leaders. Many had not expected and were indeed unprepared for the reunification of Germany.


The world need not engage in bipolar confrontation between superpowers or major powers again. Although there were no direct conflicts between the two superpowers, the process of confrontation and proxy wars during the Cold War drained both superpowers (Vietnam in the case of the US and Afghanistan in the case of the Soviet Union). Instead of pouring resources into military deterrence, wars and military weapons in accordance with the realist view of the world based on power accumulation and zero-sum games, the world might perhaps do better with non-realist visions of world and global affairs anchored in functionalist visions.


Functionalism in international relations presents another aspect of relationships between peoples, societies, and groups or organizations. It is based on the idea of cooperation between different groups of people based on enhancing their mutual interests, detecting common needs, and sharing public goods. Such cooperation need not necessarily be predicated upon state structures. This is a liberal worldview and, in its modern roots, was influenced by the Wilsonian vision that sees the global community as a platform for reducing tensions, preventing conflicts, and promoting dialogue between groups of people. This vision was continued by former US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who similarly conceptualized the world as a community of nations able to discuss world affairs through a common platform. It took both visions to eventually culminate in the idea of instituting the United Nations — a community of states where all countries are treated equally with equal rotational rights to the United Nations Security Council underpinned by the Permanent Five (P-5) members.


Functionalism is also compatible with the ideas of globalization, transnationality, and cosmopolitanism. Cooperation would not be possible if members of a functionalist community did not come together through consensus. Acceptance of a global platform of communications also fosters globalization, made possible today through the technologies of air travel, digital technologies for conveying packets of information throughout the world, and acceptance of multiculturalism and respect for diversity and differences between different groups of people leading to a cosmopolitan worldview.



Volunteers or service learning teams building infrastructure for the local community while experiencing and learning about local cultures can motivate the economic development of that area and/or improve the basic rights of that community.


Unlike realism, functionalism is not built on concepts of power, zero-sum games and military contestation. Instead, it is built on consensus, a desire for greater understanding, expertise by specialists shared with others in the interest of the public good, and the idea of collective governance or mutual self-help and brotherhood for all. Consequently, there is an accent on capacity-building and learning from one another through state and non-state approaches and institutions. Volunteerism and service learning are one aspect of such capacity-building exchanges. The difference between the two is that service learning is a two-way process in that those in service learn and benefit from the community as much as the community teaches and learns from the volunteers. Both capacity-building and learning from one another are characteristics found in service learning practiced by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and educational institutions.


Cooperation between such groups can be classified as a form of Track II diplomacy, with people-to-people exchanges fostering understanding between youth and even cultivating young leaders in the next generation who will develop their own networks of friendship and stronger understanding of their youth counterparts in other countries. These end results are collateral spillovers from service learning expedition teams sent to work on projects in other countries. When youth groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), non-profit organizations (NPOs), civil society groups, local communities, volunteer organizations, and service learning groups meet and build up networks with one another, they become enmeshed in a matrix of cooperation.


Consequently, this contributes to regional integration. The more a region is integrated and enmeshed within a network of capacity-building, service learning, and volunteerism, the greater the incentives for cooperation between peoples rather than conflict and disagreement. When institutions and networks are set up for volunteerism and service learning, they lead to greater entrenchment of exchange platforms and the expansion of channels for exchange and mutual learning. These are no-detriment items that can only lead to positive outcomes.


In some cases, service learning expeditions and volunteerism can resolve a local community’s problems much earlier, more efficiently, and/or at lower cost compared to intervention from the political authorities. There are also spillover benefits, for example volunteers or service learning teams building infrastructure for the local community while experiencing and learning about local cultures can motivate the economic development of that area and/or improve the basic rights of that community. Expertise is shared, local cultures are learnt about, and knowledge is exchanged. The exchange of expertise and knowledge lies at the heart of neo-liberal thinking that spawned the concept of functionalism.

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