Preparing for a World of Disorder

˙ Voces

Recent global developments offer substantial evidence that the so-called liberal or rule-based international order, set in place in the aftermath of World War II, is fast eroding with no replacement in sight. The important question now is how governments across the globe should be adjusting to the systemic changes taking place in world politics and the new risks they pose.  

Some two years ago, Brazil’s highly regarded Foreign Ministry succeeded in persuading senior foreign policy planning officials in the US, China, Russia and a dozen other of the world’s largest and most powerful nations to present their assessments of the current state of world affairs, and set out the agendas and priorities their countries are pursuing in international and regional forums. Given their common access to global news sources, it should not be surprising that the resulting chapter-length essays, published under the title, “The Road Ahead,” provide remarkably similar appraisals of recent worldwide economic and political trends.

Drafted by seasoned diplomats and analysts, the essays underscore the rapid and potentially transformative shifts taking place in the world order, and express concern about the growing inability of global and regional institutions to adapt. Nearly every chapter emphasizes the weakening of long-established rules and norms, and discusses the many sources of global instability. Among the most frequently cited are widespread and intensifying economic volatility, the “America First” policies of President Trump, the ambitions of an increasingly wealthy and powerful China, and the potentially dangerous competition emerging between China and the United States. Other sources of instability include the rising nationalist sentiments and political polarization in nations across the globe, expanding flows of refugees and other migrants, rapidly changing social and cultural norms almost everywhere, and the continuing terrorist threat.  

The essay authors mostly share the view that the international institutions established to resolve disputes, foster cooperation on regional and global problems, and set norms of international behavior are increasingly out of date, and less and less capable of carrying out their tasks. Strikingly, despite their sense of decline and deterioration in global affairs, the authors and the countries they represent almost all believe that there is time not only to salvage but also to re-energize the world’s multilateral organizations and make them more effective. Still, the sharp differences among nations on what needs to get done remain a huge obstacle to any progress at all.  

While there is a broadly shared view that the international system and its key institutions are badly faltering, the proposed solutions to this increasing dysfunction vary from country to country. And as might be expected. Unsurprisingly, the prescriptions they offer reflect the particular interests and ambitions of each nation. Together, the essays in “The Road Ahead” would provide an excellent starting point for an extended analysis of the current deficiencies in international arrangements, how these are defined by different global actors, and what remedies and reforms are proposed for the renewal of the complex system of global governance.

The US essay, written by a high official of the Trump administration, makes clear that, at least for some time into the future, America is intent on retaining its dominant role in international affairs. On economic and security matters, the US is unwilling yet to consider mechanisms for divvying up that role. Instead, US policy is directed to sustaining, increasing if necessary, pressure on both China and Russia to accept Washington’s concepts of global engagement and its definition of norms and objective. Yes, the US says it wants partners, but it is plain that it is intent on holding onto its leadership role.

Flush with more than a generation of unprecedented economic success and wide recognition as a global financial and military powerhouse, China presents itself as a champion of globalization and international cooperation—and as an unyielding proponent of a world system that is more sensitive to the needs of the globe’s smaller and poorer nations. The China essay makes no mention of the country’s multiple disputes with both neighbors and governments around the world. Nor does it say much about its longer-term international ambitions. The prospects of joining the US in some kind of bilateral leadership or eventually overtaking the US in global power and influence goes unmentioned as well.

The Russians want an active, extensive role in international affairs, but they understand they lack the resources and wealth to compete with the Chinese or Americans. Still, they are actively seeking to rebuild a powerful regional base with many former states of the Soviet Union, and sustain a capacity to involve themselves where they choose, which today means Syria and the Middle East more generally, and increasingly Asia.  

Other major countries with significant international standing, including the larger EU nations, Japan, and Canada, focus their global concerns on trade and other economic matters. Although attentive to a wider range of international problems, they recognize the boundaries of their power, and expressed only modest ambitions for military strength or greater global influence. Many of these countries stress their strong commitment to principles, rules, and institutions in international affairs.

Many of the larger developing or emerging nations, Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, and Indonesia, for instance, continue to see themselves excluded from international decision-making and relegated, against their will, to the status of regional powers. They see the deteriorated state of international relations as partly a reflection of the still limited role of emerging nations in crucial decision-making bodies like the UN. They are frustrated by the slow pace of change in the conduct and leadership of global organizations.

A common weakness in many of the essays is the author’s discussion of the global policies and practices of his or her own nation. The authors are not necessarily at fault. Some completed their chapters prior to major shifts in government policies. And certainly, no senior official anywhere can be expected to openly criticize his or her nation’s foreign policies or highlight its failures, mistakes, or violations of accepted norms. But close observers of international affairs will recognize omissions and misrepresentations in many of the essays.

The chapter on the United States, for instance, stresses Washington’s “commitment to its allies,” disregarding that in the past year Mexico and Canada have suffered humiliating insults from President Trump, as have the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, and other long-term partners and allies of the US. It is also left unmentioned that the US has rebuffed and antagonized many of its closest allies with its withdrawal from a host of international agreements, including pacts on climate change, Iran’s nuclear program, and the Trans-Pacific trade pact. To the chagrin of many partners, Washington has downgraded its participation in several key international agencies and is frustrating the long-standing programs of many others. While the essay asserts an enduring US  commitment to advancing democracy and human rights worldwide, the US president has sharply diminished their priority in many situations.

For their part, the Russian and Chinese authors, like those of many other nations, simply misrepresent or omit any mention of their governments’ violations of international rules and norms. They also tend to downplay the high priority they assign to their military strength. 

The chapter on Brazilian foreign policy is particularly informative and among the most carefully drafted, but it became outdated with the election of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has pledged to abandon many of Brazil’s long-established foreign policies. The new president and his foreign minister have called for a reversal of Brazil’s traditional assertion of independence in global affairs, and its efforts to build cordial relations and partnerships with countries ranging across the ideological spectrum. Instead, Brazil’s recently installed government has announced its plans for an especially close alliance with the United States, which would involve intensifying bonds with Israel, abandoning the global climate accord, dampening relations with China, now its leading economic partner, and withdrawing from several international agencies.  

Though it may not be the best place to get a full picture of the global objectives and foreign policy agendas of the individual countries it profiles, this collection of essays offers rich, insiders’ views of how the world’s leading countries perceive and interpret the rapid changes and increasing disruption now taking place in the international system. It provides valuable discussions of the interests and ambitions these countries have in the global political and economic system, and a thoughtful introduction to the specific reforms they propose to improve the performance of regional forums and global institutions. There is still some order in the world.