The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s accompanied by the dynamic engagement of China in international trade and supply chains ushered in a period of optimism about the global order. It has only recently begun to dissipate. Now, shifts in great power relationships are once again generating conflict. At the same time, there is also a growing awareness that there remains a fundamental difference in the values involved in the domestic organisation of power in democracies compared with autocracies which then spills over into differences about the values that apply in the global space. Optimism may have gone, but there is considerable confusion about how to react to the new setting.
Pretend it doesn’t exist
The first option is to do nothing differently and simply respond to events as they occur. Russia is being punished internationally for its resort to force against neighbouring Ukraine and this may encourage moderation among rising powers such as China and deter them from the use of force in the pursuit of their foreign policy goals. Partly because of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, the risks involved in global trade links, supply chains and financial connections are being reassessed but, so far, there has been no reversion to the kind of mutually destructive trade policies that built tensions in the 1930s. Energy and other commodity markets are under enormous strain, but countries appear to be adhering to their long-term climate goals and decarbonisation efforts. Under this scenario, the world muddles along.
The weakness in this scenario is that ‘muddling along’ contains its own risks. Boundaries become blurred between what behaviour is acceptable and what is not. Russia felt it could get away with invading its neighbour. It has been an ‘old’ Cold War organisation (NATO) that has had to be resuscitated. There is also a danger of weak responses to pressing global problems. In the COVID pandemic each country largely went its own way, China suppressed information and WHO lost credibility. Trade relationships remain fragile, and little was achieved at the WTO ministerial meeting in June 2022. The outcome of COP 26 in Nov. 2021 was also disappointing. (see post of 2/1/22) and expectations are low for this month's COP 27.
Under this scenario, the two largest economies in the world and the two powers where rivalry is becoming intense, China and the US, get together to jointly manage the global economy and international security risks. They have the most to lose from any breakdown in the global economic order and the most to lose in any reversion to force to achieve foreign policy objectives. ‘Getting together’ does not entail any formal understandings or special machinery for cooperation but simply an acceptance that their futures are interlocked and best supported by managing international strains and tensions, wherever they might occur, through cooperation. In the 2008 international financial crisis both countries were able to agree on what needed to be done and this example possibly provides hope for the future.
The weakness in this scenario is that it assumes that their perception of common interests will override the difference in fundamental values. This scenario also appears to underestimate the extent to which Chinese party leadership may wish to mobilise Chinese nationalism for both domestic and foreign policy reasons.
Assert global values
Both the ‘muddling along’ scenario and the ‘duumvirate’ appear to leave far too much to chance, mischance and the uncertain terrain of US/ China relationships. Under a third scenario the world will turn to reassert shared global values to place evolving relationships within minimum agreed standards of behaviour.
Key normative standards in this scenario are those identified in UN discussions as having ‘Peremptory’ value. This means that they lay claim to be relevant in their scope everywhere, to be universally applicable to all people and stand above other international norms. No derogation is allowable, and members of the UN are committed to cooperate to end any serious breach. A Task Force of the UN’s International Law Commission has identified seven such standards. They include, for example, prohibitions on the use of torture and against slavery. As well as offering a barebones framework for standards of behaviour in international relationships, they have the advantage of setting implied internal standards for the domestic policies of states.
The weak point in this scenario is illustrated by the latest report (Aug. 2022) of the Task Force pointing to questions around the sources, status and application of such norms. There are also questions around content. The prohibition against aggression and the right to self-determination, included in the list, are far from universally accepted. Peremptory values contend with a different vision for the international order based on recognising pluralism in the sources and justification of norms, their interpretation and scope of application.
Find common global interests
A variation of a more global approach is to lean not so much on assertions of shared values as on an appeal to shared global interests. This means emphasising the need to deliver those global public goods that require global cooperation for their delivery. The most compelling of these is the need to cooperate on measures against global warming and against the degradation of the environment. Recent agreement at the WTO ministerial meeting in June 2022 on measures to eliminate subsidies for fishing to reduce overfishing in international waters provides an example relevant to trade and the environment.
The weakness in this approach is that it assumes that functional objectives will override other differences. It also assumes that the long-term public benefits of adapting to climate change and providing for other global public goods will not be overcome by the pursuit of short-term national interest. As with all public goods, there will be a temptation for some countries to ‘free ride’ on the back of others. An important test is looming in relation to the debt rescheduling now required for many emerging market economies. So far, China has stood aloof from established mechanisms such as the Paris Club that addresses, in conjunction with the IMF, the rescheduling of what are known as ‘Other Official Flows’ (non-concessionary government backed loans). China also appears to be pursuing its own path in relation to the recovery of bank loans. A 'Common Framework' to bring together creditors was agreed by the G20 in Nov. 2021 but it has not yet delivered.
Make new alliances
The likelihood that all the countries in the world will be able to agree on and comply with rules of behaviour based on shared values or shared perceptions of common interests seems to be yet another example of wishful thinking in the face of fundamental differences in the approach to power. A different scenario involves the formation of smaller clubs of countries to tackle areas of concern and high priority to them. In today’s world the assertion of autonomy and the flexibility to pick and choose different allies for different purposes seems attractive to many countries. The old Cold War attraction of ‘non-alignment’ between contending worldviews appears no longer relevant. The European colonial legacy is now receding, and the Soviet empire has dissolved. China is now the world’s main colonial power. The Quad bringing together the US, India, Japan and Australia seems to point the way forward. The so-called ‘Anglosphere’ may develop. (see post of 9/1/22).
The freeing up of thinking about alliances and the formation of new alliances is likely to be with us for some considerable period. It can be helpful, but the wider potential remains to be seen.
Refresh old alliances
A related approach is for existing clubs of like-minded countries to reassert their role. Organisations such as OECD and G7 bring together countries with shared values as well as shared interests. They can take the lead in positioning their set of values relative to those espoused by autocracies. Their agreements can be spread to the wider world outside the club. A recent initiative is the G7 agreement in June 2022 on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure (PGII) to use official funding from the G7 to leverage private financing for infrastructure, energy and health security and digital connectivity in fragile emerging markets.
At the end of the Second World War there was hope that a fully international framework could be established under the UN and its specialised agencies that would enable countries to settle their differences amicably, to agree on universally applicable norms of behaviour, to tackle common problems jointly and to fund those public goods beyond the capacity of any one country to provide. After the collapse of communism, a new belief in this vision seemed justified. We are being disillusioned. The use of force has not been put aside, basic values contend, the willingness to tackle common problems jointly is honoured rhetorically but not in practice. We can react in the variety of ways outlined in this post. So far, wishful thinking that the world can muddle along seems to prevail, coupled with wishful thinking about the course China intends to pursue in the world. In the 1930s the world averted its gaze from Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia and paid a terrible price. In today’s world where information is much more readily available there is little excuse for not facing up to the differences between democracies and autocracies. Muddling along is not sufficient. Based on shared values, new alliances need to be formed and old ones reinvigorated.