The International Order Is Broken And There’s No Fixing It
Robert F. Kennedy once remarked that there is an ancient Chinese curse “May he live in interesting times.” Those words would accurately reflect today even more so than when they were first uttered. A resurgent Russia flexes its muscles in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. A newly rising China engages in increasingly aggressive cyber warfare against the West while encroaching ever further into the South China Sea and the Pacific. A growing proxy war between the Sunni Gulf states and Shiite Ayatollahs of Iran that fans the flames of an already burning Middle East. Everywhere one looks it seems the international order that seemed so invincible just a few decades ago is coming apart at the seems. Francis Fukuyama’s claim that we have reached the end of history no longer even sounds like a bad joke as much as a bitter testament to our former arrogance. Liberals and progressives of all stripes have been quick to step forward with their prefered prescription to this sad state of affairs and have argued for a renewed investment in multilateral institutions. This is not especially surprising given that more talking is always the solution put forward by any good leftist in response to any international problem. Nostalgic appeals to some bygone golden age of the liberal international order are based on a rather fundamental misunderstanding of what created it and what has caused its rather rapid disintegration in recent years.
The great liberal order that so briefly dominated the globe beginning in the 1990s existed for one reason and that was the total dominance of the United States of America following the fall of the Soviet Union; only Imperial Rome could likely be argued to have held a similar degree of unrivalled influence militarily, economically, and diplomatically over the world. The new lone superpower of the world turned out to be a beneviolent one, however, and the USA stood firmly behind the new liberal international system while devoted a considerable amount of both blood and treasure to its maintenance.
Unfortunately things have changed. Due to a combination of American misadventures in the Middle East that have undercut its credibiltiy while sapping public support at home for its traditional role of gauranture of world security and the rising power of nations such as China and Russia the United States no longer holds the position of absolute unquestioned dominance it once did. What we are now entering seems to be a multipolar world, one where there is not one preminent power or even two but instead many regional ones.
A situation such as this has not existed since the end of the Second World War. Navigating this new normal will mean accepting a few new basic realities. Firstly, there is no going back to the old status quo. We now live in a much more volitile world and need to get used to it. Secondly, the West needs to realize that the days when it can simply impose its preferred outcomes on the rest of the world on the backs of American firepower and economic sanctions are over. High minded moralism will need to take a back seat to hard headed realism. The views of emergent new powers such as Russia and China and India will need to be considered and accounted for. Thirdly, many of our international institutions will need to be reconsidered. Some such as the United Nations simply need to be recognized as toothless bodies that have no relevance in a world that cannot rely on the United States to enforce their will. Others such as NATO will require serious reform to meet the new challenges of our age.
We have the great misfortune to be living in interesting times, and need to begin to recognize that they are not some abbreation or abormality but simply the new normal we inhabit. We sadly are now living in a more dangerous and unpredictable period on the world stage. Accepting this and adapting to it will be essential for Western nations going forward. We’ve been spoilt, unfortunately, by an extended holiday following the fall of the Berlin wall that has come to an end. History is back. We must adjust ourselves accordingly.