Scholars on any side of the political spectrum seem to believe that great transformations are taking place in international politics and economy. These transformations are contributing in reshaping the socio-economic and political relations at national and international levels. The question, however, among opinion leaders and scholars is whether these transformations are within the existing framework of the world order or if there is some structural change. In other words, a paradigm shift is taking place.
A fundamental structural change in the world order means that the norms and values under which institutions and regimes work are redefined. While it can be stated that there are some serious jolts and shake-ups, the post-World War II framework of global governance still exists and continues to work. However, there are realignments and re-adjustments by both big powers and regional powers though they all appear to be working within the framework.
Then why is it so important to talk about the change in the global order? One reason perhaps is the methodology. The way global governance was conducted post-WW II, the idea was to implement liberalization, a bit of idealism under the banner of the UN and strengthening of international law. Later, the Cold War and post-Cold War dynamics did play their role. The post-9/11 world willingly sacrificed many values and norms under the pretext of state security.
The current discourse on global order based on international rules raises questions about whether there is a need to change, and if at all they should be changed, who would do it and what would be the mechanism to avoid chaos. The post-WW II world transited into bipolar world order, followed by the unipolar American one in post-Cold War era to an increasingly multi-polar, culturally diversified world order.
An interesting aspect of current international politics is China's global rise and Russia's renewed assertiveness which are seen as threatening to the existing liberal world order. The current debates on various global forums present three competing versions of the emerging global order. One, the U.S. calling for a retreat from the current order with disregard to any institutional and legal norms; second is from China for a new economic order based on Beijing's definition; and third, EU and Canada's support to strengthen the existing liberal order.
Unfortunately, the way populism is rising in different parts of the world, global liberal order seems to be fast disappearing. Claim to global leadership is not restricted to only one power, though with its military might, size of economy and hegemony in politics, the U.S. is still considered as the most powerful country. But emerging powerful economies are challenging that claim, hence posing a threat to stability. It is to be seen whether the world leaders would come up with an agreed upon mechanism to bring stability in the global system or it would be a confrontation of ideas, approaches and egos.
The rising confrontation in today's world seems to have many facets: the Middle East is still suffering from serious vulnerabilities; Russia with its own paradigm of strategic and security order; the U.S. and China trade war which is not coming to any mutual solution; the refugee crisis and response in Europe; the immigration flow from Latin America to the U.S.; China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the challenges to U.S. superiority; and finally, the search for an alternative to financial order different from the already established Western financial system. All these issues are contributing in creating anxiety in the post-WW II political and economic international system.
The fault lines in political and economic order makes the world prone to major crisis of fundamental change. Europe that has been the bastion of cooperation and connectivity is facing serious threat from ultra right-wing conservatism thus leading to change in the EU model of collaboration and connectivity with UK's stand on Brexit. The rising economic power of China is redefining the fundamental restructuring of the global alliances. Closer to home, in South Asia, Indo-Israel cooperation is not restricted to the areas of defense and trade but is also affecting the internal security as well as changing the approach of the Indian government under Modi's regime towards India's troubled areas, particularly the aggressive posturing in Indian-occupied Kashmir. The closeness between India and Israel in defense has disturbed the strategic balance in the region. Pakistan's strategic proximity to China with an active role in BRI through CPEC has made the Trump administration uneasy. At the same time, U.S. is in a haste for withdrawal from Afghanistan hence rendering Pakistan an important actor in the whole scenario.
The existing international order is being contested in many ways, some are already in practice despite questions about their legitimacy, others are still potential measures that some countries would like to take in the name of sovereignty. For instance, some states have clearly pronounced increased use of aggressive policies that threatens neighbours, such as India's new posturing in the name of security.
Russia is flexing its muscles by pursuing an active policy in the Middle East. Standing by the Syrian regime illustrates its desire to expand its influence. The U.S.' policies, not just under the Trump regime but even before the mismanagement by Barack Obama's administration, created a vacuum that enabled Russia to build new alliances. These realignments and new policy posturing led to creating a new world order or at least some cracks in the existing system.
Global Governance under Pressure
The old order may soon transform into an unsettling situation with rapidly changing economic and political scenarios that are putting pressure on the international system. The global governance based on international institutions that favours the U.S. as the preeminent global power is facing challenges from other rising powers with their own world view. Though still enjoying the status of the most powerful country of the world, U.S. is now faced with the challenge from other countries with large populations and strong economies. The transformation is rapidly taking place with the role of MNCs, civil society groups and other groups that are able to mobilize the resources and communities for common interest on a global scale. They are shaping the responses to current issues like climate change, education, health, human rights and sustainable development.
This leads to a complex web of stakeholders for global governance. The post-WW II institutions find it difficult to cope with the new dimensions of today's world. Many strong emerging economies are following their own set of values to pursue their goals with complete disregard to the old system.
New Rules and New Framework
The existing international order is being contested in many ways, some are already in practice despite questions about their legitimacy, others are still potential measures that some countries would like to take in the name of sovereignty. For instance, some states have clearly pronounced increased use of aggressive policies that threatens neighbours, such as India's new posturing in the name of security. Others are using proxies, covert operations, economic coercion, cyber warfare, and media manipulation to justify their security. The UN seems helpless against the actions which dilute universal human rights standards; again India's Kashmir policy is a case in point. There is new likeness to absolute power with total disregard to democratic framework leading to the rise of authoritarianism and ultra-right wing populism.
International legal framework that was in place to maintain peace and minimize brutality, though ineffective in most cases, is being challenged openly. A new assertiveness is being displayed by some states not to obey the framework to which they are signatories. The refusal to abide by rules consistent with international law and norms such as Russia's coercive and aggressive actions in Ukraine, U.S.' anti-immigrants policy of creating a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, North Korea's missile and nuclear programs, Saudi Arabia's disregard for civilian population in Yemen – particularly the impact on children – and India's open challenge to universal human rights weaken global security.
The consensus on a new set of rules for cooperation in outer space and power of the internet remains a complex issue because of differences in political systems, interests and values.
With this new approach, it would be very difficult to come to a collective approach to respond to major global crises in the future. An inward-looking and contested world would be less prepared to deal with the problems and challenges. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the world order moved from bipolar to unipolar contrary to the hopes for multilaterism. Even this unipolarity is further reduced to localized world view of each state. This would lead to erosion of international system. States will be pressed towards more protectionism that would impede flow of trade and investment, dampen economic growth and lead to obstacles in prosperity that the free market economic system promises.
Finally, as Joseph Nye notes that the post-war "Liberal World Order" was generally defined as pro-democracy and openness, it has largely been motivated by self-interest and has never been unitary and all-encompassing. It was global in its effects but narrower in its constitution, designed to advance the interests of the Western powers, especially the U.S. Thus it has grown into a new set of regional orders as a result of economic globalizations and information technology. The new dynamics are challenging that post-war U.S.-led global order.
This U.S.-led global order based on Cold War prism is now defunct. It was designed to counter an enemy believed to be challenging the liberal order through an ideologically based system of communism. The policy of "containment" continued even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, only the enemy to be contained was changed. Post-Cold War security paradigm was largely based on containing extremism with focus on a particular religion, i.e., Islam. This continuation of containment led to a complex set of problems creating anxiety and insecurity in the Muslim world. George Kennan, American diplomat and the architect of containment, warned that America's post-Cold War foreign policy would run astray if it aimed to chart "a highly unsettled and unstable world" by contriving a successor to its "fixation on the Soviet Union (now Russia)." Unless, today's world powers change their lens and redefine their policies with farsightedness, the world will continue to navigate through uncertain waters.
The writer is Associate Professor and Head of Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at National Defence University (NDU), Islamabad. E-mail: [email protected]
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