It’s been three months since Europe became the epicentre of the global Covid-19 pandemic, and six months since it was first discovered in China in December 2019. Yet, in that short period the virus has both revealed and inflamed the deep structural issues that exist throughout the globe — both in the domestic and international spheres.
More importantly, the virus has accelerated a tumultuous shift in the international system — one that has been anticipated by those who have followed international politics for some time. This shift refers to the changing role of the US in international affairs. Since the end of the Cold War the US has been able to claim global hegemony — being the cornerstone of the liberal world order that governs the interstate system. Its unipolar moment has spanned three decades, but with a rising China abroad, and instability at home, that moment may be coming to a rather abrupt end.
Like the shift in global governance that occurred with the end of the Cold War and the globalisation of the formerly western liberal order, this current shift provides an important opening for global governance and inter-state relations. A better and more secure system of global governance can and must be realised. But what is wrong with the current system, what would this new system look like, and why must things change?
The illiberal world order
The issues surrounding our liberal order is that both its structure and the practices of its participating states are illiberal. It’s an order of fundamental contradictions that have led it to be battered and bruised. All three pillars of the international system — common security, economic interdependence and human rights — have consciously been undermined since its inception.
Common security means adhering to the rules-based system made up of international law, international institutions such as the UN, and respecting the basic notion of sovereignty. Yet a US-led coalition invaded Iraq in 2003 without approval from the UN security council, undermining the UN as an institution, and reinforcing the power political chess game that the rules-based system sought to end. Economic interdependence refers to the intertwining of national economies in the inter-state system; making war costly and allowing states to develop side by side. But not only has the Trump presidency severely undermined the principle; Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory reveals that the structuring of economic interdependence is highly exploitative — benefiting core Western states at the expense of non-Western peripheral states. Human rights were supposedly universalised through the UN declaration in 1948 and propped up through the Rome statute that created the International Criminal Court — a framework to prosecute human rights abusers internationally. But human rights can’t be upheld when states are willing to overlook human rights abuses by countries that are key pillars of national foreign policy and economic security. For instance, Egypt and the Gulf states for the US war on Terror, or China for global economic prosperity.
If the order was a three-legged stool, nobody in their right mind would sit on it. But that doesn’t mean the stool has design flaws per se — although it should be tweaked. Rather, its legs are twisted and mangled after years of improper use. With the coming end of US unipolarity and a rising China that has not yet attained the status of global hegemony, a short window of opportunity has opened, providing states a chance to remould a better and more sustainable order for global governance. This requires three main changes, two of which relate to the structure of global governance and the other relating to Western foreign policy practice.
Remoulding a broken order
The first change is to de-Westernise the order. Since its inception in 1945, its key institutions — the UN, IMF, and World Bank — have been dominated by Western countries. Three out of five permanent seats on the UN security council are held by Western countries, and the West has dominated its economic institutions — traditionally holding a greater voting share than non-Western countries. This has ensured the continued existence of a global structure of core, semi-periphery and periphery states that stems from European colonialism.
However, this de-Westernisation should be done in conjunction with a second change: democratising global governance. The biggest part of this is ridding the UN security council of its permanent membership, which allows for the continuation of great power competition at the expense of the rules-based order and human rights. Moreover, democratisation would permit the de-Westernisation of key institutions and would bring an end to the structural imbalances of the current order.
By allowing non-Western countries a greater stake in global governance, there is an incentive for them to uphold these governing structures, as they’d reap the benefits of the order as much as Western countries do. Providing them the opportunity to set out reciprocally fruitful political and economic relationships creates equality among nations and instils a culture of international cooperation — which has been undermined by national chauvinism, particularly from the West but also Russia and China. In the same way that the immediate post-war order of 1945 paved the way for decolonisation efforts, so too can the democratisation of global governance pave the way for an end to power politics, international rivalries, and embed human rights in a truly universal sense.
But both the de-Westernisation and democratisation of global governance must be pursued in conjunction with efforts by Western powers to properly adhere to the principles they themselves institutionalised. This entails an adherence to international law, the primacy of UN resolutions, and ensuring the ICC is able to prosecute individuals that have committed crimes against humanity. Likewise, treating countries as equal partners rather than inferior subordinates would build trust in this new initiative — fostering new international norms that are more likely to be adhered to by countries that are co-opted.
Of course, proponents of Western power and the current order will question the ability to enforce these new norms if de-Westernisation takes place, but that would misunderstand the point of democratising global governance. Using the words of John Ikenberry, a ‘large and thin’ order means more stakeholders and a greater incentive to see that order function properly. Thus, if one state undermines the order, the collective will reinforce it. Norm breaking increases insecurity for all, and stakeholders have an incentive to uphold it, not overthrow it. The reason the current order is being challenged by global coalitions like the BRICS bloc is because the stakeholders of the current order are Western states. Co-opting non-Western countries alleviates this strain and embeds these international norms.
Transcendence or collapse
The opening that has resulted from Covid-19 necessitates a remoulding of the current order because there is a historical cycle of hegemonic rivalry that leads to wars and human rights abuses. The end of the Cold War should’ve ended that cycle, and Francis Fukuyama’s claim of ‘The end of history’ — the victory for liberal democracy — should’ve materialised. Alas it did not, because the US and its Western allies thought spreading the old order through coercive means would result in the globalisation of liberal democratic governance. Reinforcing a fundamentally contradictory and illiberal world order was always going to have push back, and it was stupid to think otherwise. Moreover, we are on the cusp of another great power transition that could lead to another bloody hegemonic confrontation; resulting in a new order under Beijing that would further harm human rights and reinforce illiberal governance.
To survive, the liberal world order must transcend its illiberal contradictions, which are inherently linked to its Western builders. Democratising and de-Westernising global governance does this best. If action is not taken immediately, we will see a new hegemony rise that’ll define the rules of the interstate system and we will again lose another great opening.
Featured image: Trump addressing the UN general assembly, 25 September 2018. From the White House via Flickr