How to stave off the rising tide of global disorder
Thomas Graham/ Valdaiclub
The world is approaching an historical inflection point. The system of global governance that was founded in the years after the end of the Second World War is straining under the accumulating weight of a shifting balance of power, a crisis of legitimacy, and rapid technological advance. Whether it will revitalize itself, give way to a new system more in tune with these emerging realities, or collapse into worldwide disorder is the central question of international affairs today.
The United States took the lead in establishing this system, often called the liberal world order because it is grounded in a set of norms, rules, and institutions that reflect liberal principles. Its foundations include open, market-based economies, democratic communities, collective security, and shared sovereignty. Rules are supposed to be enforced collectively, but US power has been the ultimate guarantor. To be sure, during the Cold War, this order reigned in only a small part of the globe, what the West referred to as the Free World. But with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Marxism-Leninism as a ruling ideology across the globe—even China abandoned it in practice—the United States sought to universalize this order. It worked to integrate Russia into the Euro-Atlantic Community by facilitating its transition to a free-market democracy and to persuade China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the system. Elsewhere the United States promoted democracy and free markets. The efforts with Russia and China failed; elsewhere results were mixed. Even in a part of Europe, the Balkans, the United States and its European allies could not build an enduring order or stable democratic polities. There were multiple reasons for this failure, not the least of which were developments in the United States. As it got bogged down in unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many observers came to question American power and the wisdom of its leaders. The global financial crisis of 2008/2009, which had its origins on Wall Street, raised doubts about the viability of the American brand of free-market capitalism. More recently, deep polarization and manifest political dysfunction, graphically displayed by the storming of the Capitol this past January 6, have gravely eroded the reputation of American democracy. What then was the worth of the liberal world order, and by what right did Americans claim to lead it? But it has not been only American failings that have undermined the liberal world order. Global developments have shaken the two pillars necessary for any stable international system: a shared sense of legitimacy and a stable balance of power. Absent these pillars, the institutional structure of the liberal world order—the United Nations and its affiliates, international financial institutions—cannot function effectively. China’s rise and Russia’s resurgence pose the most severe challenge, but they are not the only disruptors of the global order. For years, disarray in Europe has strained its capability to support liberal values abroad. More recently, President Trump’s disdain for America’s allies nourished yearnings for strategic autonomy among Europeans. Turmoil in the Middle East, rising populism, and the reinvigoration of nationalism have all further eroded the foundations of the US-led world order. (Read the full article please visit https://eng.globalaffairs.ru/articles/rising-tide-global-disorder/)
Nevertheless, while American allies have welcomed his election, it is far from clear that they are prepared to accept American leadership. Certainly, they are not going to fall in blindly behind American goals. If there is to be leadership, it will have to be joint. As for a summit of democracies, the United States needs to heal itself first if it is to rally other countries around a joint program of action. In short, there is no straightforward path to the revitalization of a U.S.-led liberal international order—and there might not be one at all.
That said, it is hard to discern the contours of a new global equilibrium that could emerge in coming years. We find ourselves in a state of uneven, multilayered multipolarity. The security order is increasingly less bipolar, as the proliferation of nuclear weapons, advanced conventional weapons, and cyberweapons erodes the duopoly once exercised by the United States and Russia. The economic order has become increasingly multipolar with the rapid rise of major economic powers, especially in Asia. And the political order sees an increasing number of states vying for influence, especially at the regional level, even as the power of states is challenged by the emergence of disruptive non-states actors, including international terrorist organizations.
At the same time, the leading powers have very different concepts of world order and therefore of legitimacy. In sharp contrast to the United States’ liberal, rules-based vision, Russia insists that a concert of great powers should take the lead in managing an increasingly polycentric world on the basis of joint decisions, over which each great power would have a veto. China has yet another vision, of a hierarchical system centered on China in which other states are awed by it cultural and economic prowess and in which it would take the lead in setting the rules.
Without a common sense of legitimacy or a robust balance of power, what has encouraged restraint in global affairs for the past 30 years has been the existence of nuclear weapons and the threat of annihilation they bear. But this last element of restraint is breaking down as the arms control regime built up during the past half century collapses in the face of new technologies and policy choices in Moscow and Washington that have lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. At this point, the recently extended New Start agreement remains the last pillar of the bilateral nuclear U.S.-Russian-led arms control regime, and it will expire in five years.
What then needs to be done to arrest the growing global disorder and construct a new durable order? To start, global structures in three critical areas—security, the economy, and strategic stability— need to be reformed or replaced.