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Why the US Pulling Out of the UPU is a Big Deal

Yesterday, the US initiated the process for pulling out of the Universal Postal Union (UPU). This 144 year old institution is responsible for multilateral negotiation which sets rates at which packages approximately 5 pounds or less can be shipped. In age where government postal services competes in the market with companies like FedEx and Amazon, it seems absolutely absurd that a UN specialised agency is responsible for shipment rate setting in the 21st century.

While this might seem like a very boring and mundane situation, it is in fact a big deal. This has nothing to do with Trump and how the US is dealing with foreign affairs. This has to do with the US signalling that it is finished with institutions, which have been captured by certain countries with special interests, which use international organisations to legitimise their national agendas. In a statement, the US Chamber of Commerce said that the system is “exploited by a handful of countries.” Unfortunately, this trend occurs widely across the UN system and multilateral organisations. Take a look at the WTO and the UN Human Rights Council, for example.

Another case in point is the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Like the UPU, the ITU was founded over 150 years ago in order for international negotiations of telegraph exchanges to take place. Currently it is responsible for global spectrum harmonisation, satellite orbital assignment and telephone numbering. However, in the 1980s a majority of member states agreed to use the ITU to set call termination rates between international calls. The US opted out of this process because telecommunications was liberalising and competition among telecoms companies as well as governments allowed for lower termination rates and a market based system. Arguably, this allowed for the dial up days of the Internet to emerge and develop rapidly.

I can raise many issues with multilateral institutions in the 21st century. Most of these institutions have a number of national members of the dictatorship persuasion that wish to control new and emerging technologies primarily developed and run by the private sector. I have written about this here, for example. However, the point that I wish to make here is that old institutions that are no longer fit for purpose need to die so that new institutions and organisational arrangements can emerge, as Douglas North noted. Within the UN, nothing ever dies.

12 comments to Why the US Pulling Out of the UPU is a Big Deal

  • Mr Ecks

    The UN’s Global Migrants crap is the one we need to be damn sure we are out of.

  • Jacob

    Why does the US need a government run USPS (Postal service), which lost 2.7 b$ in 2017 and 5.6b in 2016 ??
    Cut losses. Privatize it. Get out of the business of delivering mail. There are more than enough mail delivery services, privately owned and run. One less trouble and expense for Government.

    There are 194 members in the UPU, all of them government run postal services. Why governments need to run mail delivery services is beyond my comprehension. Almost all the mail is commercial mail. Let commercial companies take care of their mail sending needs, no need for government action and public money waste.

    Seems the UK privatized the Royal Mail service. Good.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Welcome to Samizdata!

    I must admit that my first reaction on reading this was to shed a little tear for nostalgia’s sake. The reason the name of the UPU is familiar to me is that as a teenager in the 1970s I sometimes used to include UPU-sponsored International Reply Coupons with my Amnesty International letters. This was in the days when that organisation was much more focused on the objective of helping prisoners of conscience than it is now. Like the Universal Postal Union, Amnesty seems to have been taken in a new and worse direction by some of its more vociferous members. The image of the UPU in my mind had scarcely been updated in recent decades. I did not even know until I looked on Wikipeda just now that the UK stopped selling International Reply Coupons in 2011 due to lack of demand. Even in my youth my image of the UPU had the pleasantly sepia tint of nineteenth century internationalism. I liked that its official language was French.

    At this point Dominique might reasonably be thinking that my descent into postal nostalgia is a feeble response to a Samizdata post that very usefully points out one of those apparently small institutional changes – the coming departure of the US from the UPU – that might well have remarkably big effects in the future. But I think my reaction reinforces her point. Sometimes nostalgia for the past keeps individuals and organisations in relationships that are doing them no good. Some older supporters of remaining in the European Union are motivated by idealism of this type.

    So, good for the US. Of course when it leaves the Universal Postal Union all postal contact between the United States and the rest of the world will cease. Letters will pile up in such vast heaps on the Canadian border that they start to take on a life of their own like in Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal and Donald Trump will personally torch tearstained letters sent by Mexican children to their daddies in America.

  • Of course when it leaves the Universal Postal Union all postal contact between the United States and the rest of the world will cease. Letters will pile up in such vast heaps on the Canadian border that they start to take on a life of their own like in Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal and Donald Trump will personally torch tearstained letters sent by Mexican children to their daddies in America.

    Yes, you guys need a Project Fear. Someone should write to Senators Feinstein or Warren explaining how this is just the issue to win back any doubtful independents, and pointing out that here in the UK we have some people (politically sympathetic to them) who are very experienced in describing the disasters that will befall whoever dares leave an international union, in language that leaves nothing to the imagination, and with an imagination that owes nothing to credibility. (I think some of them moonlight as special effects consultants for Hollywood disaster movies.)

    Some older supporters of remaining in the European Union are motivated by idealism of this type

    which is proof you can offer the Senators of how effective this approach could be for them. Such older people (I’ve met some) are old enough to recall life in the UK before we joined the EU, yet have no difficulty believing – or at least preaching – how instantly impossible life will become the moment we leave.

  • JohnK


    Like you, I have a certain nostalgia for things like IRCs, postal orders, international driving licences and Nansen passports.

    In part this might be because they are paper documents, with no digital nonsense, but also because they symbolise international co-operation of a good sort, which actually helps people to get along. Let’s say the opposite of the EU.

    The fact that Charles Ponzi used IRCs as the basis of his “scheme” just adds a historical frisson to the deal for me.

  • pete

    Niall, you don’t have to be that old to remember life before the EU. It was only founded on 1st November 1993 and so is still not yet 25 years old.

    From the jingoistic flag waving enthusiasm of its keenest supporters I get the impression that they don’t regard it as an ephemeral international political agreement but something that is here for a long time, perhaps as long as 1,000 years.

  • pete (October 19, 2018 at 1:21 pm), you are technically correct but I was treating the UK’s mid-70s entry into the EEC as my startpoint – and suspect the older people I was talking of would do likewise. The names change – EEC to EC to EU – and the thing also changes, for the even worse.

    I certainly regard the 41 years and 18 days that elapsed between the 1975 referendum on the subject and the 2016 referendum on the subject as indicating the time that must elapse before considering whether any third referendum on that subject need be held. 🙂

    I am in hopes that, just as the previous thousand-year experiment you were hinting of did not last that long, so the EU will answer the above question by failing to survive the intra-referendum timespan.

  • Mr Ed

    Someone should write to Senators Feinstein or Warren

    Why would anyone write a letter to Senator Warren? AIUI, she uses a quicker method for communicating long distance, smoke signals.

  • Julie near Chicago


  • Paul Marks

    These organisations are extra layers of government – and are therefore bad. “Libertarian left” types who support them because they fight “nationalism” and mean “international cooperation” are idiots.

    And of course these organisations come under the control of collectivists – that is exactly what one would expect. The European Union is the same.

  • Rykehaven

    Jacob: “Why does the US need a government run USPS (Postal service)

    For the same reason it needs a government-run, parallel communication network, from SIPRNET to dedicated satellite constellations. Documents and hard copies from absentee ballot votes to registration papers are still necessary than digitized “documents” – not “speedy” but “reliable and verifiable” just as a digital picture of an ancient greek artifact is worthless compared to the physical, actual artifact itself. Not everything can be “privatized”, and the United States considers the postal service well within the sphere of public governance. And it is. You need your own communication network outside the bounds of “private interests” which rise and fall like so many businesses (and are capable of falling into the wrong hands;

    Buying Fedex is a lot easier than buying the US government when you come right down to it.

    The Founders understood this literally, as demonstrated in the Founding Documents.

    The Constitution upon its drafting and ratification states unequivocally that Congress was empowered thus:

    Article 1, Section 8, Clause 7.

    “To establish Post Offices and post Roads”

    Jacob: “which lost 2.7 b$ in 2017 and 5.6b in 2016 ??”

    Bureaucratic inertia combined with multilateral corruption

    Right now, you can ship a package from Shanghai to Los Angeles for $1.69. But the same package shipped from Los Angles to Anaheim (right next to the frickin metro) costs $8.50.

    I shouldn’t need to tell you how crazy that kind of pricing system is and how it favors foreign countries, against the US especially where “imports/exports” comes into play.

    Yeah, this was a great deal for China and others in 1914 and beyond. For the US, it was the price of communication in an age before the US created the first internet backbones and laid submarine fiber optic cables throughout the Pacific.

    It makes absolutely no sense now for the US taxpayer to be subsidizing Chinese mail/exports on this part of the US logistical system – and I get giddy watching how much fun Trump’s team is having leveraging the other parts of the US system against the Chinese (and others), while imagining how far he can go if these vassal states are really unaware of their own dependency and vulnerability.

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