Relevance of international institutions is declining while global conflicts remain endemic
Three summits in quick succession the APEC meeting in Beijing, the annual East Asia Summit (EAS) in Naypyidaw and the G-20 summit in Brisbane will bring together a host of world leaders, including US President Barack Obama. Although the world is at a turning point in its history, these summits would seek to tinker at the margins, instead of boldly considering fundamental reforms to rules and institutions.
Current international crises and conflicts cry out for far-reaching changes in the global institutional structure, which has remained largely static for more than six decades. Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin was not exaggerating when he told a recent conference in Sochi that the international order is broken because its rules have broken down. The spectre of crises and conflicts multiplying looms large.
Today’s manifold global challenges and major power shifts epitomise the birth pangs of a new order. While we know the world is in transition, the contours of the new order are still not visible. If the pressing challenges are to be effectively managed, the 21st century world cannot remain saddled with 20th century rules and institutions.
In different ways, the EAS, G-20 and APEC underscore the slow retreat of the age of Atlantic dominance. With the global balance of power clearly shifting, circumstances that helped spawn the Bretton Woods system are no longer relevant today. Newly launched Brics’ New Development Bank and China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank represent the first tangible challenge to the Bretton Woods system, which has been slow to adapt to the new realities of the global economy . One reality is that wealthy economies in the West are increasingly dependent on capital inflows from the cash-laden economies of the East.
G-20, for all its shortcomings, symbolises a shift towards the new realities, even if the change is occurring too slowly from the perspective of emerging economies. Geoeconomics still does not dictate geopolitics, belying the predictions of some pundits when the Cold War ended. Yet there is no G-20-type initiative to deal with the world’s deepening political schisms.
The declining relevance of political institutions inherited from World War II is reflected in one stark fact: The 21st century has so far turned out to be no different than the 20th or 19th century , with conflict endemic and peace illusive.Dozens of armed conflicts have raged in this century .
To compound matters, geopolitical competition and rivalries between the great powers are sharpening, including over natural resources. Africa has become the theatre of a new Great Game over resources. Worse still, the power shifts and imbalance are having a profoundly destabilising effect. For example, there is no longer any common interpretation of international rules.Powerful states interpret rules to suit their own geopolitical agendas and interventionist policies.
Consider two examples since 2011 that illustrate the international law of convenience: The US-led overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi through aerial bombardment and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Putin justified the Crimea takeover in the name of “responsibility to protect“, the very moral (not legal) principle that Obama invoked to rationalise Gaddafi’s overthrow earlier.
The EAS meeting in Myanmar will not have on its agenda the most pressing concern for several Asian nations China’s unrelenting efforts to change the territorial status quo in the East and South China Seas and the Himalayas and to re-engineer the cross-border flows of international rivers that originate on the Tibetan plateau. Dispute settlement is at the heart of building harmonious interstate relations. However, China, as if to stress that might makes right, rejects the dispute settlement mechanism of even a treaty it has ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The US, for its part, is undermining the post-World War II order it helped to set up by side-lining or bypassing international institutions. Obama’s latest war in Syria is his presidency’s seventh military campaign in a Muslim nation, yet this Nobel peace prize winner made no effort to seek a mandate from the UN Security Council because he wishes to wage an open-ended war on US terms, like his earlier interventions.
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The new Cold War between the West and Russia makes it more difficult to fix a broken international system. After all, Obama has lumped Russia, Ebola and terrorism together as the leading international threats, and spearheaded western economic sanctions to squeeze Moscow. This is likely to result in an effectively paralysed UNSC and greater dissonance on regional and global issues, while making China the real geopolitical winner.
The only way to contain the new international instability is to search for solutions on the basis of dialogue, dignity and respect for international law and for each other’s interests. A world where humiliation reigns will remain torn by conflicts and crises. The upcoming summits will likely yield new promises to establish a rules-based order. But who will determine and enforce rules?
Mao Zedong famously asserted that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun“. In the 21st century , will that still be true? If great powers assert one set of rules for themselves and a different set for others, the answer will be yes.