In a World of Order? Or is it Disorder?

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Central Bank Governors and Finance Ministers of G20 countries pose for a family picture near the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge

My good colleague, Stewart Patrick at the Council of Foreign Relations, left us a “must-watch list” of global summits for 2015 before he disappeared for Christmas and the New Year.  Prepared for the slightly pretentious Council of Councils, Stewart nevertheless left us a sensible “go-to”  list.  This list for 2015 is valuable if only to suggest the range of global governance meetings in what most commentators have described as a growing sense of disorder in contemporary global order.

Let’s look first then at the list and examine the current context of international relations.  First to the list.  Well each of the meetings is interesting:

        • Summit of Americas
        • Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference (RevCon)
        • Group of Seven (G7) Summit
        • Opening of UN General Assembly (UNGA)
        • Group of Twenty (G20) leaders’ summit
        • Asia-Pacific Cooperation (APEC) summit
        • COP-21 Paris the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC)

Now it does seem passingly strange that if Stewart identified the G7, he rather conveniently ignored the BRICS leaders summit meeting in Ufa Russia. Odd. Furthermore, while I hate to be ‘nit-picky’ – but once an international relations type, always an international relations type.  Such a perspective immediately raises definition questions. I can hear Stewart groaning already.  But there we are.  So what is “Global Summitry.” This is the definition I  adhere to – since I made it up: 

Global summitry is concerned with the architecture, the institutions, and most critically the political and policy behavior of the actors engaged in producing the outcomes in global summitry.  Global summitry includes all actors – international organizations, transgovernmental networks, states and their leaders and select non-state entities – all influencing the organization and execution of global politics and policy.

Now with this definition and with some extension – an explanation of what “global” means – I suspect many of these are not really global summits.  While the Summit of the Americas does bring leaders together this is at best a hemispheric gathering.  As Stewart points out, this gathering, the first since 2012, is valuable as it may allow for leaders from the United States and Cuba to engage each other in a summit setting since the announcement to normalize US-Cuban relations.  This gathering, if it includes Cuba, is likely to be a big deal for Hemispheric relations.  But it is still not a global summit.

The NPT is also a vital gathering but it does not include leaders.  So no global summit.

The annual opening of the UNGA is always worth watching.  And many leaders do attend.  But except for very specialized issues – climate, nuclear materials –  leaders trundle up to the famous podium, give their remarks, hold bilateral meetings but they don’t gather together.

Now the remainder of the list does include global summits.  All permit global leaders to, as Stewart describes:

Even when overly choreographed and scripted, these events give presidents and prime ministers a rare opportunity to establish a personal rapport, speak candidly on tough items, and break logjams to international cooperation.

Now a eye on these global summits in the current context of global order is important. Last year was a rather turbulent year for international relations. Stewart and many others sought to capture the growing turbulence in the global order.  Most targeted Russia.  Here again is Stewart from an earlier Internationalist:

Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, however disingenuously denied and creatively concealed constitutes a frontal assault on the liberal international order that the United States and its Western allies have done so much to promote and build.  It represents – along with Chinese assertiveness in East Asia – the resurgence of a more primitive form of power politics.  The Wilsonian dream of a gradually but inexorably expanding liberal world order based on the international rule of law – a hope shared alike by George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, each in their own way – will need to wait.

Now Stewart principally focuses on the return of geopolitics, at least in this post.  More generally commentators describe these behaviors more in terms of the tensions between ‘order and disorder’.   For instance, there is Stewart’s boss, Richard Haass.  Now Haass throws his conceptualization back to one of the ‘Greats’ of international relations, Hedley Bull.  As Haass suggests:

In his classic The Anarchical Society, the scholar Hedley Bull argued that there was a perennial tension in the world between the forces of order and forces of disorder, with the details of the balance between them defining each era’s particular character.  … These days, the balance between order and disorder is shifting toward the latter.  Some of the reasons are structural, but some are the result of bad choices made by important players – and at least some of those can and should be corrected.

And in fact the framing of global order around this tension between ‘order and disorder’ was begun by Tom Friedman, the columnist for the NYT as far back as 2006. Now Friedman began his examination with a focus on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis .  But as they say “events have conspired…” and his examination has broadened out to identify regions beyond – greater areas of the Middle East and even beyond that.  What Friedman suggested in Part 3 in August of last year was:

The biggest challenge for the world of order today is collaborating to contain these vacuums and fill them with order. … 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.

Jeepers.  Almost gives one the ‘willies’. So it is likely that we will spend a fair bit of time in the next while looking at ‘Order and Disorder’ as we seek to understand the global order today.  Is it really as bad as some of the experts see.




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