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Renovating the World Order

WARSAW – Russia-instigated violence has returned to Ukraine. The Islamic State continues its bloodstained territorial conquests. As violent conflicts and crises intensify worldwide, from Africa to Asia, it is becoming abundantly clear that there is no longer a guarantor of order – not international law or even a global hegemon – that countries (and would-be state-builders) view as legitimate and credible.

To develop a strategy for restoring order requires an understanding of the complex drivers of today’s fissures. And the best place to start is with the fate of four major empires.

That story begins in 1923 with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which, at its peak in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, controlled much of southeastern Europe, western Asia, and North Africa. Nearly seven decades later came the dissolution of the Soviet Union, followed by the renaissance of a Chinese empire that aims to translate its economic success into geopolitical influence.

Finally, and most important, there is the declining influence of the United States – what Raymond Aron called “the Imperial Republic.” After all, it is the US that organized and supported the post-1945 multilateral institutions – the United Nations Security Council, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, among others – to sustain global stability. The failure of that system to adapt to changing geopolitical and economic realities has raised serious questions about its legitimacy.

With the world now divided less into “empires,” the number of actors (including many dysfunctional ones) on the world stage has multiplied – a trend propelled by the notion that identity and national sovereignty are inextricably linked. In the aftermath of the decolonization of Africa, the proliferation of states – including those that some considered “artificial” – was widely criticized for fueling tensions and instability on an already-fragile continent. A similar phenomenon may now be occurring on a global scale.

Still another factor contributing to the rise of disorder is the explosion of inequality. With globalization, the divide between the richest and the poorest – both within and among countries – has grown larger, diminishing the sense of unity of purpose that is so important to a legitimate international system. How can one speak of the “common good,” when so few have so much, and so many have so little?

Against this background, it will undoubtedly be extremely difficult to create an international order that strikes the needed balance between legitimacy and power. To meet this challenge, three potential approaches stand out.

The first approach entails redefining the international order so that it better reflects geopolitical realities. After World War II, a bipolar world order, dominated by the US and the Soviet Union, emerged. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the world became unipolar, with the US as the sole superpower. But, in the last decade, as the US has retreated from its global leadership position, no other country has stepped in to fill the void, leaving the system vulnerable to instability.

Clearly, another power must help the US to support global stability and promote multilateral cooperation. The European Union, mired in crisis, is not prepared to fill this role. Russia not only lacks the means to assume such a position; it has also proven itself to be a primary generator of disorder. And emerging countries like Brazil and India, as well as developed countries like Japan, are great regional powers, but have yet to develop a global mindset.

In fact, the only country with the means and ambition to serve alongside the US as a world leader is China (an obvious conclusion, perhaps). Together, these countries can reinvigorate the international system so that it is better able to stem the tide of chaos and violence.

Of course, the creation of such a bipolar world order would not be a panacea. Despite its relative decline, the US still possesses important structural advantages over China relating to innovation and values, not to mention vastly greater energy resources. As a result, the new order would be lopsided. Still, the recognition of China as a true global power would force the US to come to terms with its declining hegemony and compel China’s leaders to recognize their international responsibilities.

The second approach to revitalizing the international system is to reinforce the values that underpin it. At the end of the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was convinced that the absence of democracy in Europe constituted one of the main causes of war. Today, it seems that what is missing is the rule of law.

The dynamic is simple. As ordinary citizens have watched the wealthy get wealthier – often aided, directly or indirectly, by corrupt governments – they have become increasingly frustrated. In order to quell popular unrest, many governments have turned to nationalism, often in its most revanchist form, blaming some external enemy – say, the Western countries that imposed sanctions on Russia – for their citizens’ struggles. An international system that enforced the rule of law effectively would go a long way toward mitigating such conflict-generating behaviors.

The third approach is to reevaluate the functioning of multilateral institutions. Specifically, the best way to transcend the paralysis of the UN Security Council is to shift some important decisions to a more informal institution like the G-20, whose composition, while far from ideal, is more representative of today’s geopolitical dynamics.

These three approaches are not the only options that global leaders have for reforming the international system. But the one approach that they must not choose is to do nothing – unless they are willing to countenance further erosion of the global order and, with it, a continued descent into chaos and violence.

Dominique Moisi, a professor at L'Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), is Senior Adviser at the French Institute for International Affairs (IFRI) and a visiting professor at King’s College London.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.

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