Beyond Unilateralism: Rethinking World Order
Weekly Pulse
June 5-11, 2009
As power in the international system gets more diffused with the emergence of newer, potentially positivist state and non-state actors and forces, the existing institutions of global governance have to be reformed and consolidated, newer, more representative global governance entities must be created, and traditional, Western-dominated version of multilateralism must be replaced by fairer and more pluralistic form of multilateralism—all of this to accommodate the mutually compatible or competitive aspirations and interests of all the important old and new players and forces at the international stage in political, security, economic and political domains.

Foreseeing the future or pre-planning for an expected world order or disorder is a crucial scholarly undertaking. However, in any futuristic academic exercise, great care must be taken while discussing future outcomes of the changes currently under way in the international system. The question whether the future trend in international relations will be cooperative, competitive or prone to conflict should also be seen in probable terms. For the avoidance of conflict, the sustenance of a healthy competition or a trend towards greater cooperation involves a number of ifs and buts during the ongoing transition beyond unilateralism. When scholars talk in certainties, they risk being proven wrong. Remember Paul Kennedy had predicted the fall of the United States in 1989, and instead the Soviet Union disappeared from the world within two years of the publication of his international best-seller, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers!

The same appears to be the case with another recent best-seller: Fareed Zakaria’s Post-American World, wherein the author highlights an interesting paradox in a world facing political turmoil and yet experiencing sustained economic growth, and makes an absolutist judgment, saying ‘If America's economic system is its core strength, its political system is its core weakness.’ Little did he know that, the same year, within months of the release of his book, America and the world would experience an economic crisis never seen since the Great Depression three-quarters of a century ago.

Likewise, rampant anti-Americanism across the world quite often leads non-Western scholars and or their liberal-leftist counterparts in the West to predict the decline of Western civilization, capitalist system and the American Empire. Of course, everyone is entitled to nurture such wishes, but this does not mean the global reality will also conform to such wishes.

The current economic crisis has become a reference point to articulate such wishes, even though the fact is that the crisis is global, affecting China as much as America; that the democratic West may have greater resilience to overcome it, and also the fact that it is possible to reform unregulated capitalism and its social consequences through effective governmental regulation, international cooperation and institutional reforms.

If globalization and whatever it entails is a reality and newer powers have emerged effectively on the international scene, there is no escape from not seriously considering the non-neo-realistic discourse on world politics in its moment of integration and transition.

The United States may be a dominant international player, and the European Union may be a pivotal regional bloc. But the problem is that neither of them, as respective leaders of the Western world which has dominated international scene for several centuries, has fully acknowledged the great shifts underway in global politics, and therefore, not contributed to corresponding transformation of the existing international system and reformation of its governing institutions.

The EU has been busy consolidating itself internally while enlarging in its neighborhood, and thereby failing to play a more proactive role in a global order transformation accommodative of emerging powers in institutions of global governance. The US at its moment of power has entangled itself in world affairs in a manner that has tarnished its reputation in global public opinion. Its neo-conservative policies practiced during two terms of the Bush Administration have hugely backfired, leaving no option for the Obama Administration to start reaching out to the world in ways that a fast globalizing era of greatly diffused international power requires.

What this means is that American and European or Western conduct in world affairs at a time of visible power shifts in global politics will be extremely important in determining the direction of the future world. The American propensity of getting things done globally in their own way, quite often through coercive means—or, more precisely, pursuing narrow self-interests in the cover of lofty ideals—will most probably prevent the emergence of a more cooperative global order. The European tendency of not proactively sharing the benefits of their own pluralistic governance model with the rest of the world will have a similar effect.

Emerging Scholarly Debate

Western governmental policies, especially those of the United States, may not have yet started to adapt to and be supportive of the changing power configurations of the world, but a blurring of the boundaries in Western scholarship of the left and the right, the liberal and the realist as well as that of critical perspectives on the issue is visibly noticeable in recent years. A number of leading scholars, including former top US officials, have not only acknowledged the depth and intensity of global power shifts but also come forward to articulate a critical discourse on the doctrine of international community in a future post-unilateral environment.

That the demand of reshaping the world order and reforming international institutions accordingly is predominantly emanating coming from Western scholarship, and not merely from traditional non-Western critics of Western policies or their liberal-leftist compatriots in the West, constitutes the most critical scholarly discourse, a development which deserves our serious attention.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, for instance, argues: “It is time to face the fact that the G-8 summit of ‘world leaders’ has become an anachronism. Contrary to claims, its membership represents neither the most advanced economies nor genuine democracies…A more representative body—even if still informal and outside the UN system—could address, in a way more in keeping with the spirit of the times, such basic issues as equity in nuclear proliferation, the proper division of burdens in alleviating global poverty, or the common need of rich and poor countries to face the implications of global warming. G-8 discussions of these issues today are conducted within historically anachronistic confines.”

Haass sums up his recent article in Foreign Affairs by suggesting that “multilateralism will be essential in dealing with a non-polar world. To succeed, though, it must be recast to include actors other than the great powers [which he identifies as representatives of UN agencies, NGOs, businesses, and other social sectors]. The UN Security Council and the G-8…need to be reconstituted to reflect the world of today and not the post-World War II era.

” Kishore Mahbubani concludes his recent work by arguing: “Ironically the best principles to apply in creating a new world order—or, in fact, restoring the old one—are the principles that America applies in creating its domestic order. First is the principle of equality: there should be one set of laws for all nations…Second is the principle of inequality: no international order can survive if special weight is not given to the interests and perspectives of the major powers…of the day, not the major powers of 1945…Third is the principle of equity: no social order or international order can survive if the needs and interests of the very poor are neglected…Fourth is the principle of even-handedness: both sides in any intractable dispute should feel that the international order treats them fairly…Fifth is the principle of free market economics,” for which, he argues, “there is no North-South or East-West divide.”

Jim Garrison urges the United States to act according to the requirements of an integrated world, and be the final empire or see its role as a transitional empire. “American leadership at this time in history is crucial,” he argues, “provided that America combines its light with its power in such a way that the integrating institutions and mechanisms needed for the effective management of the global system are infused with the same kind of radical democracy with which America itself was founded. A global system of governance, based on inclusive democratic principles, would make impossible the emergence of any other nation-state with imperial ambitions, for the planet will have united as a single matrix of collaborative, self-regulating connections.”

Some European scholars have started to build a case for the EU acting as a catalyst for the evolution of new multilateral international governance, security and economic order, modeled on its own internationally-acknowledged achievements in all of these spheres. Dirk Messner argues that if “Europe managed to be effective in this demanding sphere the EU could assume a key role in the transition from the uni- to the multi-polar power constellation, and contribute to limiting conflict and ensuring stability in the international system.”

It is, thus, absolutely clear from above discussion that while the actual process of transforming the international system may not have begun yet, creative new ideas are certainly being expressed increasingly to lay down the conceptual basis for such transformation in order to accommodate the interests and aspirations of new state actors and non-state social and business forces. Such a transformed international order should surely be grounded in much fairer form of multilateralism, not the Western version of multilateralism that has remained in vogue since the Second World War.

We already have a network of international institutions, some of which like International Criminal Court (ICC) created recently. The problem is that they don’t perform their functions properly. The expectation from the ICC that it will build upon the impressive performance of successive International War Crimes Tribunals at The Hague has been marred by its cumbersome decision making process, which may be an outcome of the fact that the very power that sponsored its creation in the 90s—namely, the United States under Clinton Administration—refused to join it under the Bush Administration.

The latter’s neo-conservative outlook also hugely damaged the international nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime, as the United States signed a controversial nuclear deal with India. On the other hand, the performance of the International Atomic Energy Agency remained satisfactory, as it continued to pursue a relatively independent posture on the Iranian nuclear issue despite tremendous US pressure. Likewise, UN peacekeeping operations in several regional conflict zones, especially of the fourth-generation sort undertaken in East Timor and Kosovo have been quite successful.

Therefore, not all is bad in terms of the functional output of existing international bodies tasked with managing or resolving conflicts, providing security to the world, helping to alleviate poverty and developing the under-developed world. There are many areas in which their performance is less than satisfactory, which obviously requires reformation matching the requirements of a globalizing era.

In the last two decades, civil society groups and representatives of business enterprises have seen an ever-greater participation in institutions of global governance and development, even though an all-inclusive participation may still be lacking in this respect.

The World Bank and the IMF are relics of the Bretten Woods system, which, as argued by several scholars in their recent works, has become irrelevant due to the emergence of new, powerful actors at the international stage.

One option having an important symbolic value could be to change the nomenclature of these organizations, terming them as International Reconstruction Fund (IRF) and Emergency Relief Fund (ERF), and expanding and diversifying their membership and democratizing their decision-making by including representatives of the new regional powers, private businesses, civil society organizations, regional blocs and developing countries.

The G-20 can be further expanded so that the world at large can sit together and manage global crises such as the current economic crunch collectively—creating a new structure of international monetary, trade and commerce rules and procedures so that the world should never experience the sort of “market fundamentalism,’ to use George Soros’s words, it did in recent decades and the path of capitalist growth is corrected for greater societal health and fairer global economic order.

The UN system as a whole and its core body, the Security Council, also needs to be reformed and democratized in accordance with the new global realities, a constant theme in the largely Western scholarly perspectives cited above. However, accomplishing this gigantic but absolutely necessary task will be easier said than done, if all the bids for the purpose made under former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan are kept in view.

China would love to have greater share in global decision-making, but it might continue to oppose Japan’s permanent membership of the Security Council, which should have been given to Japan decades ago when it emerged as an economic power to reckon with. One option is to let regional blocs, instead of great powers, have veto power status in the Security Council. The problem is that most of the regional blocs, including the OIC and SAARC, have not matured enough to represent their respective regions. The EU, ASEAN and NAFTA may qualify for such status. But can we imagine the US accepting such a proposal in the case of NAFTA? Or, would France or Britain be prepared to surrender their right to veto for the sake of EU’s permanent membership of the Security Council? Or, would China and Russia be ready to exchange their privileged global status with SCO? Let’s consider the case of India. With right comes responsibility. India’s rising economic power may qualify it for a permanent seat at the Security Council, but can be legally or morally justified in the presence of Kashmir conflict?

Given that, it is easy to talk about democratizing the UN system, but the issue gets quite difficult when we start talking about actually doing it. Similar dilemmas emanate from threat terrorism or counter-terrorism poses to state sovereignty and international law. Enhanced international cooperation to combat terrorism may erode the necessity of pre-emption, but then what to do when pairs of potentially hostile states such as India and Pakistan facing a security dilemma are unable to cooperate in collectively managing a common terrorist threat? In this respect, India attempted to mimic American preemption in Iraq at least in theory as recent as in the aftermath of November 2008 Mumbai attacks. President Barack Obama may have disbanded Guantanamo Bay, but the dilemma that terrorists, as neither soldiers nor criminals, pose to international law still continues. One option suggested by Mary Robinson is to treat them as international war criminals and try them in the ICC is, however, worth-considering.

In retrospect, the fact that international order needs to be reshaped, international institutions need to be reformed and multilateralism needs to be re-invented in response to all the global shifts identified before, the real question is how. And this is the question that needs to be addressed now rather than later.

Concluding Remarks

The international community is pluralistic in every respect, politically, economically, socially, cultural and religiously. It is but natural, therefore, that institutions of global governance would have to reflect this pluralism. Democracy, free market economy and human rights are universal ideals, and the entire world must march to realize them. However, what we need to acknowledge is that the pace towards realizing such ideals can be different from nation to nation and culture to culture. And we have to simultaneously recognize that only by adhering to another universal principle of peaceful co-existence, one of the founding norms of the UN Charter, that nations of the world, however big or small they may be, can eventually get to this noble end together.

No one civilization or power can self-assume the role of an international messiah, as American neo-conservatives did recently, to impose their version of international order on the rest of the world, thereby creating further disorder globally. The crises at hand, from terrorism to global warming, are truly transnational in character, so is the human quest for peace, freedom and prosperity. Addressing such crises and realizing such quest requires a pluralistic global governance model and fairer form of multilateralism, amid all the recent shifts in global politics.

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