By Wiryono Sastrohandoyo.
The liberal international order was established soon after World War II under the leadership of the United States, with most of the so-called free world within its fold. The idea was not popular in the US in the beginning but when it was argued that it was the only way to stop the communist menace (read the Soviet Union and China) in its tracks, it finally gained wide acceptance.
The idea of such an order revolved on the usefulness of capitalism, free trade, US military dominance in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and in the work of such organizations as the United Nations and its agencies and the Bretton Woods institutions. For about seven decades this liberal international order was largely successful, especially with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, and China’s successful embrace of state capitalism.
The world, however, has radically changed since 1945. The US remains the mightiest military power and the largest economy, but its military strength and its economic resilience have been grossly debased—particularly during the past three-and-a-half years. And during that period the US has largely absented itself from the leadership role that it was expected to play as the chief promoter of world security and global economic stability. This was the result of its aversion to the arrangements and institutions that form the mainstays of the international order, including the United Nations, the NATO, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the JCPOA between Iran and the P5+1, and the Paris Accord on Climate Change Mitigation, to name a few.
On the other hand, China’s growth in military strength over the years has been nothing short of phenomenal. That is not to say, however, that it is now in a position to win a shooting war against the United States—and in any case, a war carried out by each against the other would prove to be unacceptably exorbitant for both.
Joined at the Hips
The same is true in the economic sphere: neither can afford a trade war against the other—notwithstanding the fact that China’s economy grew exponentially over the decades while US growth was modest in comparison. The two economies are joined at the hips not only in terms of trade but also in terms of investment and people-to-people interaction: you cannot decouple them without crippling both.
But there is a kind of war between the two superpowers that can be won by one and lost by the other: this is the war for the hearts and minds of nations in the global community—and it appears that at the moment the US is determined to lose this war by default. This is a crucial contest because whoever wins it may get into a position to write the new international rules. If China wins it could create a new international order that will be a new hegemony with Chinese characteristics.
The existing international order has been in decline for many years. An array of factors brought about that decline, some of which are: the failure of the UN to reform itself; the relegation of the disarmament movement into suspended animation; the Asian Crisis of 1998 and the Wall Street meltdown a decade later; the failure of the developed nations to meet their commitments to the Monterey Consensus; the havoc wreaked by Al Qaeda on 9-11 followed by the spectacular rise of international terrorism, which at one time was dominated by an organization, ISIS, that claimed to be and acted like a state, and its evolution into the deadly global network that it is today.
But an even more deadly enemy is confronting the world today. The Coronavirus-19 pandemic that is now ravaging whole populations in many parts of the world has already infected 4.7 million and killed more than 313,000, and threatens, if left unchecked, to kill hundreds of thousands more, if not millions. Nations are fighting a war against this scourge but it is a sporadic and patchy war, uncoordinated and largely without a leader. At this writing, the Coronavirus is winning the war, simply because the international order that should be its nemesis is already disrupted and is incapable of dealing with this invisible enemy.
Pandemics to Come
Gruesome as it is, the Coronavirus may just be the precursor of more terrible pandemics to come. In her 1994 book, “The Coming Plague,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurie Garrett predicted this pandemic and others that would follow. “As the Homo sapiens population swells, surging past the six billion mark at the millennium, the opportunities for pathogenic microbes multiply,” she wrote. And they would multiply in waves, she in effect warned, if humankind remained politically, socially and scientifically complacent in the face of this threat.
Still, microbial and viral calamities are not the worst. Ultimately there is no greater threat to the security of humankind than as the Armageddon effect of climate change. This threat is not unfamiliar: it has been debated upon at the global level since the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, but until today, in spite of the Kyoto Protocol, there is really no unified, coordinated and effective global effort to avert or mitigate the cataclysm that climate change is expected to inflict on this planet.
The US, never an outstanding advocate of climate stability in spite of the heroics of former Vice President Al Gore, just disqualified itself from any leadership role in this fight by pulling out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change Mitigation. No doubt China will attempt to take over the leadership role that the US has abandoned. China has yet to earn the trust of a large part of the international community—not only because of the profligacy of its carbon emissions, and its own tardiness in responding to the spread of the Corona virus, but more because of its record of severity in dealing with its debtors and weaker rivals—as in the South China Sea.
Indeed, China—largely because of its internal problems, its history of grievances against the West, its shaky relationship with weaker countries and its ideology—cannot and should not be allowed to assume that role. Neither can the US re-assume it any time soon. We have today an international order that is disrupted, and without a leader. That may not entirely be a bad thing.
Although the nation-state has not yet gone the way of the dinosaurs, the world of today, as noted earlier, is vastly different from the world that it was when the international order was established in the wake of the Second World War. At that time, the greatest threats that they had to face were external in nature: and these were usually hostile military forces of other nation-states or groups of nation-states. Today the principal, existential threats to the security of nation states are not directed at them as nations: they are directed at them as populations, as integral parts of humankind. That is the nature of the threat of Coronavirus-19, and all the global plagues that are yet to come. That is the nature of the threat of Climate Change and the irregular weather patterns, and the massive relocation of biological species all over the world.
A New International Order?
No individual nation or group of nations can overcome these threats by itself, nor can the existing international order, disrupted and leaderless as it is. Theoretically it is not impossible to establish an entirely new international order to address these threats, but in practical terms it may be too late in the day for the international community to attempt to reinvent the wheel.
But an international order that is rules-based rather than led by hegemons, can evolve out of the existing one, an international order that can address these threats in a united, coordinated and effective manner. Many of the institutions that it requires already exist. There is even no need of promoting the idea that a new international order is being created. It needs only to be understood that this is a process of urgent reform so that international affairs are more effectively rules-based and international institutions and organizations, including regional organizations, are liberated from the manipulations by the Great Powers.
It will take a great deal of uncommon wisdom and courage on the part of the current leaders of nations to work together and start and sustain that kind of reform process. But the alternative is to learn to live with an international order that is incapable of protecting humankind from the global threats of viral plagues and the deadly vagaries of Climate Change. We can only hope that the comity of nations will make the right choice.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pinter Politik.