Struggling to Understand ‘Order’ in the International System

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As Stewart Patrick reflected today at the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) on President Obama’s forthcoming remarks to the UN General Assembly, the President will be called upon to: “… convince both foreign and domestic audiences that the world is not spinning out of control and that the United States is determined to keep it that way. At home and abroad, pessimism about the state of the world runs high.”  And then Patrick confirmed the bleak view that has come to dominate the analysis of global affairs:

Syria is collapsing, Iraq is fragmenting, and Libya is disintegrating. Authoritarian leaders are tightening their grips from Cairo to Moscow, while Palestinians and Israelis murder each other. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is running rampant over the debris.

Now Patrick is not with these remarks, by any sense out of the main stream, in his downbeat description of the course of global politics.

Gideon Rachman of the FT has focused on what he sees as nationalism’s resurgence:

Finally, and perhaps most dangerously, the sense that the global order is newly unstable may be stoking nationalist sentiment, as countries or separatist movements see an opportunity to push their previously dormant agendas.

Mr Putin had made regretful noises about the collapse of the Soviet Union many times in the past. Now he feels strong enough to do something about it.

Unfortunately, since nationalist movements define themselves against foreigners, they often provoke rival nationalist movements next door. You could see this even in Britain, where the rise of Scottish nationalism created some hostility to the Scots among the English . The same dynamic is in play, in a much more dangerous form, in Asia. In China, a recent poll suggested that more than 50 per cent of the population expects war with Japan. Another opinion survey suggested that more than 90 per cent of Japanese had a negative view of China.

With yet another view, Thomas Friedman of the NYT has penned a series of articles over close to the last decade describing the source, and course of international disorder in the global system.  A wee bit of searching took me back to an op-ed he wrote in 2006 that he titled “Order vs. Disorder“.  There he declared that national sovereignty was dying as he examined Hezbollah in Lebanon and its war against Israel:

So this is not just another Arab-Israeli war. It is about some of the most basic foundations of the international order — borders and sovereignty — and the erosion of those foundations would spell disaster for the quality of life all across the globe. … The only way this war is going to come to some stable conclusion any time soon is if The World of Order — and I don’t just mean “the West,’’ but countries like Russia, China, India, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia too — puts together an international force that can escort the Lebanese Army to the Israeli border and remain on hand to protect it against Hezbollah.

More recently returning to the same theme of ‘Order and Disorder’ he suggests in an article from August 23rd called “Order and Disorder, Part 3:

But containing and shrinking the world of disorder is a huge task, precisely because it involves so much nation-building — beyond the capacity of any one country. Which leads to the second disturbing trend today: how weak or disjointed the whole world of order is. The European Union is mired in an economic/unemployment slump. China behaves like it’s on another planet, content to be a free-rider on the international system. And Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is playing out some paranoid czarist fantasy in Ukraine, while the jihadist world of disorder encroaches from the south.

It would seem that the genie has escaped – disorder, or the rise of the sense that global order is now unstable – leading all recognize an increasing world of disorder. But then what is the antidote.

In fact Patrick, it seems to me, touched on the problem and solution – if only in a negative sense – the demand for multilateralism in the global order today.  As he argued:

Meanwhile the return of geopolitics mocks Obama’s hope for multilateralism. Relations with Russia have indeed been “reset”—back to the Cold War, apparently. The United States keeps trying to “pivot” to Asia to deter Chinese imperialistic ambitions, but the Middle East briar patch and Moscow’s revanchism keep pulling it back. As if these headaches were not enough, the world looks to Washington for leadership in confronting the most horrific outbreak of Ebola in history, with 1.4 million lives on the line. And beyond these headlines lurks the greatest existential threat to humanity: the planetary disaster of global warming, which continues unabated.

The global order/disorder dilemma is in part a product of the failure to understand the ways in which multilateralism needs to work in today’s global governance.  To the extent we get beyond US hegemony, and most commentators don’t, there is little to offer other than the maintenance of US primacy. Now that is not all US doing – we can see in the Ebola epidemic and crisis where in fact the major powers appear largely content to let the US take the lead – certainly no other country seems to be stepping up.

And all, or nearly all powers seem to be content, or to demand, that the US construct the appropriate coalition – take the ISIS/ISIL crisis. This let the US lead must I will say strikes me as a convenient positioning by many to be able to declare the coalition created as evidently inadequate when the course of the conflict goes off target.

Today’s efforts at great power ordering is the heart of disorder and it strikes me as inadequate to just lay the rise in disorder at the US doorstep.  That being said analysts and officials need to describe, and then seek to implement, real multilateralism, which is not just built on US primacy – unless you accept a G-zero world.  And I certainly do not.

Image Credit:Creative Commons:  Blog do Planalto

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