Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Evolving International Order

Below are the talking points for a presentation I made at a forum sponsored by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki in March 2010:

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Let me begin by reminding you of five major international trends, most of which will be familiar to you, and then address the question of their impact on the international order.

1. In some ways, the most basic trend is globalization: the greater flows of goods, services, ideas, capital, people, viruses, and information over distance and across borders. Thomas Friedman has described globalization as a fact, not a choice, but actually it is some of both. The technologies that make the flows faster, lager, and cheaper are facts. But the decisions to deploy them, and to allow the flows to occur, represent choices. Societies that isolate themselves from those flows fall behind economically; that is a fact. But a small number of governments have still made the choice to remain isolated, despite the opportunity costs, and a much larger number try, at least at the margin, to regulate, restrict, or shape the flows.

2. The second major trend is the rapid growth of some of the large economies that have chosen globalization, especially those that were previously relatively disconnected from the global economy. I do not see this trend as the “rise of the East” or the “rise of the rest,” as Kishore Mahbubani and Fareed Zakaria have portrayed it. Rather I see it as the rise of parts of the East and some of the rest – first the Asian tigers, then the BRICs, and now the “Next-11.” This trend is, however, shifting the relative balance of power, not only with regard to traditional bilateral and multilateral state-to-state relationships, but in the institutional sphere as well. Institutions in which the rising powers are represented (like the G-20) are supplanting those in which they are not (like the G-8). Other key institutions, like the World Bank and the UN Security Council, are facing growing pressures to become more representative of the new balance.

3. Globalization is leading to the rise of new kinds of actors, as well as to a larger roster of powerful nation states. These transnational actors are qualitatively different than traditional state actors. They include multinational corporations, international NGOs, terrorist groups, criminal organizations, and virtual networks of those who share views of important issues. The emergence of these non-state actors is a challenge, not only because the rogues among them can now cause so much damage and are so difficult to regulate or suppress, but also because our international system is not yet structured to give non-state actors a voice, since the principal members of the system (and the institutions that comprise it) are states and their governments.

4. Fourth, globalization is producing new issues, most of which can be seen as the need to regulate the flows that globalization has generated: facilitating the positive and restricting the negative. The positive aspect of globalization is that the increased flows of goods, services, and people provides the contemporary world with greater access – to talent, goods and services, financial capital, natural resources, and markets – than ever before. This means more choice, more opportunity, lower cost, and greater benefits. But the negative aspect of globalization is that it gives rise to various kinds of insecurity, many of which can be seen as parts of what some Scandinavian analysts have termed “societal security.”

5. The negative aspects of globalization, in turn, are producing the fifth trend: a backlash against globalization. In some cases, this is simply a desire to restrict or regulate negative flows to reduce the perceive risks to societal security. Trade and investment protectionism is the most obvious example of this. But in other cases, the backlash reflects a deeper concern that national or local identities are under threat. This produces a more angry opposition, not only to the negative aspects of globalization, but also to the leaders and governments that have allowed globalization to occur. As opposed to the milder forms of protectionism, this angry and more fundamental opposition to globalization is less compromisable and more likely to lead to violent protest and internal conflict.

Now, what kind of international order are these five trends producing?

First, any talk of unipolarity has virtually ended. (In my judgment, there never was a unipolar world, even in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War, but there certainly was talk of it. Now, even the talk is fading away.) The United States remains the most powerful single country in the international system, but the rise of other powers, and America’s own weaknesses, mean that it cannot be dominant. Equally important, unipolarity is being replaced not by multipolarity, but by what I call “multimodality” – a system that is characterized by multiple centers in an interconnected network, where the main competition is not over the ability to compel through military force or economic sanction, but over the ability to attract through economic dynamism and cultural appeal.

Second, there is a growing demand for international cooperation to address the issues produced by globalization and economic growth. Some of that demand is being reflected in informal, ad hoc networks of collaboration, what some in the U.S. have called “coalitions of the willing.” It is also being embodied in the growth of formal international institutions, some of which have a relatively long history (the UN, the WTO, the World Bank), and others of which are new (the EU, APEC, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization). But virtually all of these institutions remain relatively weak and ineffective. Some operate on the basis of consensus – and therefore require a level of common interest and common approach that does not exist. Others embody norms that are not universally accepted. And virtually all have weak powers of enforcement, in an international system that remains largely anarchic.

Out of frustration with the shortcomings of international institutions, great powers practice what Richard Haass called “multilateralism a la carte”: they decide both whether to act multilaterally, and which organizations they will utilize when they do. This tendency toward what some call “forum shopping” simply compounds the problem of weak institutions.

In short, the trends I have identified are producing a somewhat less anarchic world, but one which is not yet well governed. At most, the international order can be described as a confederal one, in which institutions are weak, non-representative, and insufficiently legitimate. This gap between the need for effective international governance and weak international institutions constitutes lone of the major challenges in the early 21st century.

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