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When Good Organizations Go Bad: The Case of the Inter-Parliamentary Union

You’ve probably never heard of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it’s a bad organization.  But it didn’t start off that way.  Its career sums up the fate of liberal internationalism, and the organizations that now-faded ideology created.

My recently-published paper from the Heritage Foundation on the IPU lacked the space to set the full historical stage.  The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) was founded in 1888 by Frédéric Passy of France and William Randal Cremer of Great Britain, both of whom later received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.  Passy and Cremer were liberals and members of their respective parliaments.  They were part of the much broader array of peace activists and supporters of international arbitration that flourished before World War I, and whose achievements included the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907, which began to codify the modern laws of war.  Inspired by the rise of liberalism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they in turn encouraged later leaders such as President Woodrow Wilson to propose institutions such as the League of Nations, which eventually provided the impetus for the creation of the United Nations.

This pre-1914 liberalism was not free from illusions.  But there was much to admire in it.  Passy, for example, wanted to promote international peace by advancing the cause of free trade, which like most liberals of his day, he believed was essential to reducing the power of autocratic and war-prone states.  He also supported the international arbitration of disputes, but he did so in the belief that the states involved would be responsible for requesting arbitration, and would remain subject to the sovereign wills of their people.  Passy sought a world in which inter-state relations would look like they do today between Britain and the U.S., a world in which war would be unthinkable and disagreements would be settled peaceably.  Fittingly, the IPU started off as a gathering place for a small group of democracies.

How times change!  The U.S. got itself kicked out of the IPU in 2003, for persistent non-payment of dues (the IPU’s dues structure is the same as the UN’s).  The only pity is that it didn’t leave on principle.  That’s because the IPU now has no principles.  It has no standards at all for membership: North Korea, Zimbabwe, Libya, and Iran, to name only a few, are members.  It’s relentlessly biased against Israel, it betrays the beliefs of its founders by agitating against free trade, it supports a relentlessly socialist, intrusive, globalist, and illiberal economic agenda, and it’s a regular sounding board for calls to restrict free speech on the grounds that it offends Muslims.  The IPU let the bad guys in, and gave them all votes: now, just like in the UN, they run the joint.

Why does this matter to the U.S.?  Simple.  The rumor going around Capitol Hill is that the U.S. is on the verge of rejoining — or re-activating its entirely dormant membership by mailing in a check for the back dues.  There are all sorts of things that could be said about this, and I say most of them in my paper.  But I left one thing unsaid: the idea that any representative of the U.S. would sit down and discuss the definition of democracy with Zimbabwe, or women’s rights with Saudi Arabia, isn’t just a bad one.  It’s a disgusting one.


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