If we seek with trepidation to avoid the pitfalls of history, the key questions we must ask are: how do global governance frameworks that were shaped in the context of a very different world adapt to today’s changes? Technological and demographic shifts, rising powers, new geographic theatres, and balance of power politics are all moving with a velocity previously unknown to the world.
Can new countries assume leadership, and will this create a more representative international system? To be fair, attempting to evaluate the future of world order is an elusive endeavour. For one thing, it is necessary to ask: who does a world order serve? The post-world war order served the Atlantic powers, first to stave off the threat from the Soviet Union, and then to expand their normative vision for democracy and free trade. However, this order failed to accommodate the voices and concerns of countries which found their independence after shedding the yoke of colonialism.
Looking further back in history, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 helped end the Napoleonic wars and brought peace to Europe in terms of political stability and economic growth. Yet, that same period was marked by the colonisation of Asia and a burgeoning African slave trade. At the same time, ever since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, world order was primarily understood in terms of interactions between states; and the ideation of a “world order” itself was an Anglo-American conception.
Today, not only do we have multiple state and civilisational contenders for leadership in the international system, but such an international order must also accommodate or address international and regional institutions, multinational corporations and nongovernmental organisations, civil society movements, powerful city states and so on.
Today’s problem is that the structural preconditions that allow major powers to enforce their normative visions no longer exist. Control over technology, finance, and trade allowed Europe to spread its “civilising mission” and colonise the world. A booming post-war economy and new political ideals allowed America to dominate the second half of the twentieth century.
These factors of comprehensive national power no longer reside in one geography – instead they are dispersed between states and within them; and all this takes place in a global economy that does not respect borders. No two powers can agree on a common set of rules.
At the same time, transnational corporations and powerful city states are increasingly functioning in parallel to national government policies and international regulations. American cities, for example, have been the frontrunners against climate change despite President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Moscow and Beijing – most widely considered to be at the forefront of subverting the international order – are challenging the rules and norms that do not support their world view.
Even the Transatlantic alliance is under pressure – over terms of trade, rules for the digital economy, political values, and security concerns. Other regional powers, such as Japan or Australia, do not have the normative vision, economic resources, military might or political will to determine the outcome of events in global politics.
Clearly, not everyone has benefited the same way from the post- war order; and it is for this reason that they do not seek to defend it. This is not to say, however, that this order did not benefit anyone at all. If anything, today’s rising international power – China – was the primary beneficiary of the international liberal order.
No other country has gained from integrating with the global economy in the manner that Beijing has. From a GDP of $92 billion in 1970 to $13.6 trillion in 2018, China has steadily enmeshed itself in global value chains and is creatively moving up the industrial production ladder. Already, it is the second largest economy in nominal terms, and the largest in PPP terms. So why is it that it is China that is at the forefront of subverting this order?
This question begets another question: what purpose does a world order serve? Collective peace, hegemony, or mutually beneficial multilateralism, or something else?
As we have shown, Beijing believes, whether or not it will say so in so many words, that a twenty-first-century revival of the East Asian tributary system in which China’s economic, political, and cultural superiority is recognised might bring harmony; and it is willing to enforce this world view through force and coercion if need be. America, often contradictorily characterised as a “liberal leviathan”, sees value in a “rules-based order” – albeit rules that are infused with American norms and power structures. At the same time, it seeks to bring the American way of life to every part of the world through global communications and trade and finance networks.
Everyone agrees, in principle at least, that great power wars are undesirable. But today’s world requires managing complex challenges that go well beyond stability or hegemony, and just like the global economy, these challenges do not respect sovereign boundaries. Climate change, internet governance, artificial intelligence, space missions, human trafficking, tax evasion, international terrorism, the proliferation of drug trafficking, health pandemics, and many more such challenges are all issues that require international cooperation.
No twentieth- century framework, or any other historical point of reference, gives an adequate idea of how to responsibly manage these tensions in a world that is more interconnected and interdependent than ever, but suffers from a leadership deficit.
Moreover, if today’s international system is best characterised as an extension of the Atlantic system, where will new orders be constructed? Geography is central to building international systems. The Middle Kingdom’s tributary system flourished in East Asia, the Westphalian system thrived in Europe, and the post-world war order simply added America plus Japan, Australia, and South Korea to “globalise” what was already a somewhat coherent European order.
Today, it is clear that the twenty-first century will be defined by the collision of three geographies: the Eurasian landmass, the Indo–Pacific maritime system, and the Arctic Ocean.
The interaction of global economic and migratory flows, the adoption and diffusion of new technologies, and geopolitical imperatives are eroding the artificial geographical boundaries between Europe and Asia and turning these regions into one fluid and dynamic unit. The Indo-Pacific was catalysed by China’s rise and expanding maritime influence but was given shape and definition by other powers in the region – namely the US, India, Japan, and Australia (who collectively make up the Quadrilateral Initiative).
Simultaneously, communities and markets from Asia and Europe are virtually driving the once separate continents together to create on contiguous supercontinent: Eurasia. The Arctic, meanwhile, is being reborn as an unintended consequence of climate change. And as it continues to melt, it will merge the politics of the Atlantic and the Pacific, as actors in these once dispersed geographies find their interests overlapping.
None of these regions should be thought of as separate units – instead, there is a matrix of interdependent drivers that are merging the political, economic, and security relationships in these regions. There is, accordingly, an immense amount of friction and contest between a plethora of powers to define and then manage these geographies.
And yet, these parts of the world are nothing like what Europe and America – or the Anglo-Saxon community – were in the twentieth century. The political and cultural diversity from Japan to Nigeria, and China to Greece, are enormous. The geographical boundaries that the Europeans arbitrarily drew during colonial times have allowed ethnic and religious differences to escalate.
Booming populations are young in these parts of the world, but states simply do not have the capacity to address their aspirations.This very diversity will require a different framework altogether, one in which countries will have to work together despite differences in their governance frameworks and capacity, and despite absolutely no agreement on civilisational norms.
At the same time, one has to acknowledge the diminishing appetite for world order approaches in a number of states.
As one commentator put it: “The United States has made it clear it continues to oppose the creation of a treaty to govern cyberspace. China has reportedly been reneging on its legally binding commitment to ban ozone-depleting substances, diminishing the Montreal Protocol’s claim as the ‘most effective treaty in the world’. It appears highly unlikely that the United States, Russia and China will come together to craft a regime for the governance of the Arctic, interested as each is in the economic possibilities that will open up after its ice melts. The WTO has struggled in recent months to incubate negotiations on global e-commerce rules, and localised rules for national and regional digital economies look set to become the norm.”
The international system, which created a vast network of laws, treaties, and institutions that underpin the world we take for granted today, finds itself stagnating and rudderless, without patron or protector. It seems to be heading towards “each nation for itself”.
This may even be the right place to start considering the possibility of the absence of any world order at all, or what Bremmer calls a “G-Zero” world. In this much at least history is certain: when international politics become zero sum and transactional, putting the absolute interests of one state above another, war ensues. The absence of any rules, institutions, principles, and leadership inevitably creates a trust vacuum and military might dictates every relationship.
While an international order might create a stable balance of power, combining legitimacy and enforcement capacity, by no means does it guarantee peace and development. The absence of any order whatsoever almost guarantees tragic outcomes. The first half of the twentieth century, when a fledgling international order existed and collapsed, is testament to this inevitability: great power conflict unleashed unspeakable violence and chaos – and the world must be all the more wary today because of the presence of nuclear weapons, deadly tech-enabled tools of mayhem, and the proliferation of state and non-state actors committed to upending stability and order.
Excerpted with permission from The New World Disorder And The Indian Imperative, Shashi Tharoor and Samir Saran, Aleph Book Company.