World order in crisis: Where will it end?

Source:Global Times Published: 2019/11/5 23:42:05


Is post-WWII global order coming to an end? Is world order retreating to the days of great power rivalries and beggar-thy-neighbor competition of pre-WWI? If not, then what else is it? These are some of the questions many people have as the world enters the third decade of the 21st century.

Such order has suffered serious problems. First, as its initiator and most influential leader, the US may have possessed too much power to conduct itself prudently. This behavior has been revealed through their decisions to go to war with Vietnam and Iraq, its withdrawal from international organizations, the launching of trade wars despite WTO rules, and reluctance to reform international institutions. 

Power corrupts. This does not only apply to domestic politics but also to international politics. Without effective checks and balances, the US has been tempted to abuse its power, while harming the world and itself, despite its professed good intentions. 

Second, today's world order is excessively West-centric. Although Western countries are more developed and advocate strong values, it doesn't entitle them to dictate the actions of other countries. 

All countries have unique circumstances, and Western governance models often do not apply. Few developing nations have made it to the level where they can be considered a developed country since WWII ended. Despite tremendous efforts from the West to promote development and good governance, what this has revealed is the world order has difficulty addressing the needs of developing nations.

Third, while the US-led system of military alliances has played a useful role in maintaining peace and stability, it is also exclusive and divisive. By default, it divides countries into allies or others. This strategy has helped ensure alienation and suspicion, complicating security cooperation between the US and its allies on the one side andnon-allied nations on the other side.  

Finally, the US-led economic order attaches too much importance to efficiency at the expense of equality. It is true the world has made great strides in liberating cross-border trade and investment, thus paving the way for a level of unprecedented prosperity in the history of human civilization. However, while open markets are efficient, they also generate greater inequality. Unfortunately, when such issues are raised, they are dismissed as communist pleas. As a result, the world has witnessed an increasing polarization both within each country and globally, resulting in domestic and international anger and anti-globalization protests. 

Despite these and other flaws, the world order is still probably the best that humankind has ever created. It champions such universally accepted values and principles like sovereignty, nonaggression, nonintervention with the internal affairs of other nations, human rights, the rule of law, free trade, and common and differentiated responsibilities. 

It has created international institutions and international laws and norms according to these values and principles. It offers valuable platforms for countries to air their frustration with world affairs and to discuss ways and means to address the pressing issues that the world faces. It has helped the world avoid another worldwide war and achieve unprecedented prosperity. Few countries reject today's world order, regardless of the grudges they may hold. 

Moreover, most countries have a stake in the existing order and are likely to stick to it. The wealthy can expect their money to be protected, and the poor can expect some assistance during desperate situations. 

Both the strong and the weak can expect international laws and norms to protect their interests. The problems most countries have with the world order are more about the injustice in the distribution of benefits rather than absolute loss. They may be unhappy with international arrangements, but they have no intention to overthrow the world order in favor of a 19th-century arrangement. 

Therefore, despite US withdrawal from some international institutions, most countries have chosen to remain, whether it is UNESCO or the Universal Postal Union, and whether it is the Iran nuclear deal or Paris Agreement. Even the rising powers, including China and India, which feel the world order has not given their voice and interests adequate attention and respect, only call for reforms rather than replacing it with a radically new order.

Although the tension between China and the US is rising, it is likely to remain limited. Both are nuclear weapon states, possess significant economic interests in their relationship, are stakeholders in the international order, regardless if they are unhappy with aspects of it. 

Under these circumstances, neither fighting a war nor decoupling their economies offers a realistic solution. The relationship will be more competitive. However, the fact they are observing the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea in the South China Sea and negotiating a trade agreement proves that they know there is not a better alternative to finding a way to coexist.  

Given the stakes the US has and the fact that as a superpower, it can only protect its interests by maintaining this world order, they may reconsider its practices as time passes. After all, the Trump administration's policy behavior has been an exception rather than a rule among the post-WWII US administrations. It appears their complaints on the world order are not centered on gains in certain international arrangements, but over whether the world order is needed. It is likely that successive US administrations will see things differently and adopt a watered-down version of the more conventional US practice. 

The world order is likely to endure for the foreseeable future, but it is also likely to change. The US will remain a leading power, but with less predominance. The world order is likely to be less West-centered. With power more diffused, the world may suffer from less efficiency in addressing global challenges but may gain from better protection of the interests of the weak through more consultation in doing so. The rising powers are likely to have more power but also assume greater responsibilities. 

Does this sound too optimistic? Maybe. However, history is, after all, a human creation. As we worry about the consequences of world order decline, we should never give up hope for its transformation for a better one. It is up to the choices and efforts of people around the world to turn hope into reality. 

The article is an abstract of a speech delivered by Jia Qingguo, director at the Institute for China-US People-to-People Exchange of Peking University, at the Beijing Forum on Sunday.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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