Understanding the International Players with the Potential to Shape Global Fiscal Policy

Jan Wouters and Katrien Meuwissen, Global Tax Governance:  Work in Progress?, Leuven Center for Global Governance Studies, Working Paper No. 59 (Feb. 2011), available at SSRN.

The international financial crisis has captured the attention of legal scholars across many fields.  By virtue of the “international” dimension of the crisis – a function of both its scale and the interconnectedness of commercial and financial flows – specific focus has been directed to the role of international organizations, bodies, and agencies in preventing (or failing to prevent) the crisis.  But underlying this attention to international organizations remain a host of unanswered questions about the ways in which states and organizations navigate issues of power, influence, priorities, and resources.  A recent working paper by Jan Wouters and Katrien Meuwissen, Global Tax Governance: Work in Progress?, begins the process of linking financial concerns, interlocking international organizations, and related tax policy.  The paper offers a window onto the landscape of major actors exercising influence in the current global economic environment and the differing ways in which they advocate on tax policy.

The paper argues that following the 2008 financial crisis fiscal sustainability emerged as a central goal worldwide, and that in addition to domestic measures, countries pursued policies on a global, more coordinated scale.   Tax policy was considered crucial to national efforts to take control of the fiscal arena  — and coordination was  considered essential to successful tax policy.   Wouters and Meuwissen ultimately conclude that “no single international forum can be accepted as a fully effective and legitimate global tax policy-maker.”  Urging that we may be witnessing a developing global tax governance, the authors nonetheless caution that “integrat[ion] [of] standards into binding agreements is necessary to translate ‘governance’ into ‘law.’”  But how exactly does this coordination and policy development take place within and among organizations?

In an effort to illuminate this inquiry, Wouters and Meuwissen map out the major international players, their distinctive organizational structures, and their particular contributions to tax policy discussion in light of the financial crisis.  The major players are indeed the ones we’d expect to see – the G-20, the OECD, the UN, the IMF, and the WTO.   What is particularly useful is the way in which the paper targets the post-2008 period and provides a tight comparison of the kinds of action or commitment each organization was willing to make and then outlines the explicit ways in which the organizations linked their actions to the positions or work of other groups.  For example, the G-20’s very broad policy statements (including support for transparency and exchange of tax information) directly reference and buttress the work of the OECD and the Global Tax Forum.  Conversely, the authors discuss how the G-20’s powerful political profile (post-September 2008, the G-20 meeting was conducted at the level of heads of state) allowed this tax agenda to gain prominence.  Wouters and Meuwissen are particularly interested in the links among an organization’s structure (e.g., top leaders with informal structure v. experts with a delineated decision making structure), its mission (discussion forum v. policy development) and its output (general statements of support v. protocols, treaties, surveys).  Not surprisingly, the major players differ on these dimensions and hence their contributions correspondingly vary – but they remain inextricably connected.

Given my own interests in international organizations, this analysis leads to more questions that I believe will be both important and fascinating to pursue as we seek to better understand the dynamics of tax policy at an international level:  How do states use their own participation in different organizations to move a desired agenda forward?  For example, if a state is a member of the G-20 and also the OECD, how does it operate differently within each body?  Where membership-overlap exists, how does it impact the interactions between the organizations?  From an individual state’s perspective, to what degree is its participation in these organizations part of a monolithic strategy as opposed to the by-product of sub-state actors each pursuing a specific mission within the institution to which they have access?  To the extent that scholars interested in global governance generally, such as Wouters and Meuwissen, join this inquiry a rich dialogue over international tax policy can continue to flourish.