The idea behind the post-war international order established since 1945 has been to preserve peace between the major states. The UN and its Security Council set rules under which conflict is permitted or forbidden. An infrastructure of supporting institutions and accompanying rules seeks to buttress this central objective.
In the security realm, these include the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Geneva Conventions. Rules for trade and financial crisis management are embodied principally in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which seek to ensure that economic interaction does not return to the reductive competition of the interwar years.
Although international in scope, the order of the 20th century has principally been led by the West, meaning the United States and its allies. The pre-eminence of their views has been sustained by a set of formal plurilateral and bilateral alliances and intergovernmental coordinating mechanisms – including NATO, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the G7 – which have persisted into the 21st century.
This entire construct is now being called into question, principally because of the changing balance of global political and economic power since the 1990s. This has resulted in China becoming the second-most powerful state in the world and has seen the US, since the election of Donald Trump, retreat from its leadership role in the current international system and advance its national interests on a more unilateral basis.
Much of the debate about the future revolves around the question of whether the US under a different president will return to its leadership role in a ‘rules-based’ international order. However, this idea runs up against demands to modernize the current rules, which would in turn reduce US influence – for example, by changing the voting arrangements in the UN Security Council or on the executive board of the IMF.
At the same time, many states across the world are hedging against the emergence of a more self-interested US and powerful China by strengthening regional institutions such as the African Union, the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Some also put their hope in more ad hoc, voluntary arrangements to confront the global challenges of this century – through the Paris Agreement to address climate change, the Financial Action Task Force to combat money-laundering and terrorist financing, and the Proliferation Security Initiative, for example.
Other states are accepting or even embracing the return to zero-sum international relations, as evidenced by the re-emergence of authoritarian ‘strongmen’ leaders and the erosion of recent gains in democratic governance.
Each of these efforts ignores the fact that a solely state-centric international order is itself becoming an anachronism. Society’s evolution over the past 40 or so years has encompassed dramatic demographic change and ageing; huge technological progress and diffusion; deepening economic globalization and human and environmental interconnectedness; and the intensification of personal expectations and anxieties alongside the growth of a global middle class.
Together, these trends have created an inescapably interdependent world, in which states cannot by themselves manage the challenges to their future prosperity and security, even when living in peace.
The future of international order, therefore, does not lie simply in reforming today’s institutions for international cooperation, as important and necessary as this is to manage the rebalancing of economic, political and military power and the challenges of interdependence.
The world also needs a new concept of international cooperation that is better suited to the changing ways in which people’s hopes, expectations and capacities can be marshalled to deliver desired outcomes.
In the future, the capacity to resolve shared challenges will rely also on the contributions of citizens, civil society, the private sector and political actors below the level of the state. Cities, regions and local communities, multinational companies and civil society organizations will not just be ‘consumers’ or recipients of government policies, but active partners in promoting solutions. (Indeed, the late Kofi Annan had championed a similar sort of inclusive approach to complex problem-solving, for example through the UN Global Compact.)
Better informed, more politically aware and digitally connected, citizens and civil society can mobilize individually and collectively towards common policy goals, potentially playing a critical role in addressing complex issues such as climate change, resource overconsumption and rising health costs.
This more distributed approach to international relations will put a premium on building bridges between local and sectoral best practices, in addition to treaties and other agreements between states. But for society to play this role, it is all the more important that national governments deliver a high quality of governance at home, so as to empower private actors, civil society and citizens.
This demands, among other things, the expansion of effective and accountable systems of governance that will allow citizens to be agents of positive change to the best of their desire and ability, both in domestic affairs and alongside others internationally.
Unfortunately, differences in interpretation of the correct balance between the respective rights and responsibilities of citizens and civil society, on the one hand, and, on the other, of the state constitute one of the central fault lines in international affairs today.
As the Chinese system of single-party rule and Russia’s evolution into an authoritarian proto-democracy illustrate, illiberal models of political and social control are proving increasingly attractive at a time of international turmoil.
These models may serve their governments’ immediate objectives for economic development and protection of sovereignty. But the obsession with preserving domestic stability limits the ability of citizens to engage effectively with others in initiatives aimed at international cooperation.
At the same time, what the governments of these countries believe are defensive actions to sustain domestic stability are interpreted by other states as potentially offensive, contributing to a cycle of geopolitical mistrust.
Whatever the short- or even medium-term benefits, history has shown that governance systems in which citizens are kept subservient to the state risk becoming unsustainable politically over time. In contrast, systems in which governments are truly accountable to their citizens – through a separation of powers, the rule of law and a strong civil society – offer greater opportunities for domestic progress over the long term, as well as for constructive international cooperation in an interdependent world.
States will struggle in the coming years to address shared challenges in a world of weak international institutions and geopolitical competition. The goal, therefore, should be a more inclusive approach to international governance, rather than the return to a brittle international order of states.
Dr Robin Niblett CMG, Director, Chatham House.
This essay was produced for the 2019 edition of Chatham House Expert Perspectives – our annual survey of risks and opportunities in global affairs – in which our researchers identify areas where the current sets of rules, institutions and mechanisms for peaceful international cooperation are falling short, and present ideas for reform and modernization.