People like what they know. However, we are at a point of time in international politics when we are moving into a world full of unknowns – a world without order.
This blog looks at the shape of the world without an order.
The end of the old
The international order we have known since the end of the Second World War has been largely an American order. The United States accepted an activist and interventionist role around the world. It built alliances and provided guarantees. It spent money. It put the lives of American forces on the line.
The role played by the United States was challenged by the Soviet Union. But that challenge collapsed, partly for internal reasons within the soviet system, and partly due to American resolve.
Post World War II international organisations had been fashioned and supported by the US. They enshrined the hope and promise of a growing international order based on internationally agreed rules rather than on contending nation states. Internationally agreed rules constrain large states. The US was prepared, within limits, to accept the constraints.
That hoped-for international order has not gelled. Cohesive action by international organizations is now much more elusive than when the US was able to call the shots.
Now the United States is stepping back from international engagement for reasons of its own. We face a world without order.
Shapes in the fog
The shape of the world we now face has three main components; the unilateralists; associations linked by geography or shared identity; and the chronically unstable.
The unilateralists can be identified as the United States, Russia, China and India. They each have a strong sense of their own identity, history and destiny. They are prepared to act to defend, or to protect, their interests without necessarily seeking an international stamp of approval (such as provided by the UN). Their policy towards the rest of the world is driven by internal calculation – that of ruling elites in China and Russia, and that influenced by electorates in the case of the United States and India. Their nuclear status offers a credible deterrent against outside intervention. Their size makes them relatively impervious to outside criticism.
There are two types of association in the world today. Those linked mainly by geography and those linked by identity. Those linked by geography comprise the ASEAN countries in South East Asia, the South American members of OAS in the western hemisphere, and the AU in Africa. As well as geographical proximity they also have elements of a common identity, for example, a shared colonial history in Africa. But the shared sense of identity is not a strong binding force when it comes to common action.
The EU is linked by geography but also by a stronger sense of shared identity than other regional associations. Integration has gone much further.
Now that the UK is departing the EU a further identity based association may also emerge. It would be built around the four members of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence sharing program other than the US. (UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada).
Each of these associations is likely to try to act cohesively in international affairs. The instability in the world around them gives them an incentive to act together. Nevertheless, their ability to do so is in doubt.
The chronically unstable
The third component consists of the chronically unstable. This is an arc in the world that stretches across North Africa, the Middle East and includes Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey. Within it are countries that have not been able to nurture and sustain secular democratic regimes, free of clerical or military interventions.
A world that has lost the order we have known does not necessarily head towards disaster. In a previous blog post I used the metaphor of ‘the driverless car’ to suggest that the show could keep on the road through interactions and cooperation between ‘sub-state’ actors such as businesses, economic and financial regulators, national courts and civil society actors. However, in order to avoid disaster, certain conditions need to be met.
The first condition is that the unilateralists have to sense where the boundaries and limits are on their own behaviour. If they push too far, by accident or by design, then one or other among the other unilateralists will react. China is pushing these limits in the South China Sea and ignoring the rulings of international arbitration.
The second condition is that spill-over effects from the group of the chronically unstable can be contained. At one time or another, the wellbeing of particular countries within this group such as Saudi Arabia, or Iran, or Egypt, or Israel, or Turkey, were seen as pivotal to the vital interests of others in the world. They are no longer. But disorder in these countries, or in the region, can still draw in the unilateralists.
The third condition is about ’client’ or vassal states. Countries in this group can be defined loosely as those with a special tie to one or other of the unilateralists, whose status, if challenged, could trigger an intervention. Taiwan is the most obvious example. Russia’s behaviour in the Ukraine is another.
There is one country that could figure in each of these scenarios. It is China. It is pushing by design. It could be caught up by the spill-over of conflict between say Pakistan and India. It could be challenged by vassal states in its western regions, or seek to challenge the clients of the United States in its region.
By contrast the US is withdrawing rather than pushing out. It no longer sees its vital interests as being at risk in the zone of instability. It is not challenged by vassal states.
Avoiding disaster is not the same as finding an equilibrium. The scenario sketched above of unilateralists preoccupied with internally driven agendas, weakly articulated associations, and a major zone of chronic instability, does not suggest there is any equilibrium to be found. Instead, we face a world of constantly shifting and probing relationships.
In these circumstances, the ability of the driverless car to keep on the road depends critically on self-restraint on the part of the unilateralists. One key underlying force that favours restraint is democracy.
Relying on democratization?
Democratization is a restraining force because when leaders of democracies go to war they have to ask how it will affect their chance of re-election and staying in power. Democracies do go to war. But they are more likely to act with caution, and the need for a justification convincing to their electorate, in order to do so.
In this context, US curtailment of its international role appears to have electoral consent. It is its engagement, particularly in countries within the zone of instability, which now has to be especially justified to the US electorate.
By contrast, because it is an authoritarian regime, there is a lack of internal electorally based restraints on the behaviour of China’s leaders. Assertion beyond its borders may also deflect domestic attention from its own internal stresses and divisions.
At the same time, democratization within the zone of chronic instability has a much more uncertain effect. On the one hand it can reduce the risks of negative spill-over effects onto democratic neighbours. On the other hand, shifts in internal power elites can draw in interventions from the unilateralists.
In the long run we also need a renewed multilateral order in order to mitigate the risk that permanent disequilibrium will lead to disaster.
A renewed multilateral order needs a focus and agenda that is different from that established at the end of World War II. There is no shortage of capital in today’s world. Tariff barriers are not the main instrument of trade protectionism. Income inequalities in the world stem increasingly from power inequalities within countries.
The new agenda is not about the movement of goods but about cyber security and the terms and conditions of knowledge transfer. It is not about resource limitations but about the protection of species, habitat and heritage. It is not about capital movements but about the movement of people. It is not about food shortages but about genetic engineering, health and aging. It is not about promoting a single vision of a uniform global rule of law, but about establishing the ground rules that allow for value pluralism and comity between different legal regimes.
Possibly a new agenda will help provide an avenue away from the paralysis and institutional redundancies that now stultify today’s international architecture. However it will still need institutional support in order to get off the ground.