I read with interest the latest views of Board members on how to improve global governance.
While I broadly share the sentiments expressed I fear they fail to take into account the enduring reality of the nation state, rivalries between these entities for various reasons, and last but not least the vanity of politicians, often supported by manipulative media empires in hock to a business culture based on greed.
The articles also rather ignore the problems of establishing a new world order when the two major powers, the United States and China, have intensified their rivalry and have very different views of how the world should be organised. What the US and China do have in common, along with Russia, India, Brazil, Turkey, Iran, etc. is that we are living in a world of great power rivalries. They do not try to hide this. Indeed the power factor is spelled out clearly in their respective national security strategies.
A note on the US is required as it is by far the most important actor in global politics. Despite their diplomatic achievements in establishing a new international order post 1945, successive US administrations failed to provide the necessary leadership apart from during the Cold War.
It is worth recalling US failure in the inter-wars years too, despite Wilson’s efforts to establish the League of Nations. At the height of its power in the 1990s and early 2000s the US showed no interest in new bodies such as the ICC. I remember well the bad blood as the US pressed the central and eastern European countries wanting to join the EU and NATO not to sign up to the ICC. I also recall Condaleeza Rice at her first meeting with EU ambassadors informing them that climate change ‘was not a priority’ and US funding of the UN would depend on ‘family values’ being accepted.
The US view on international order was best summed up by GW Bush assembling ‘a posse’ to go after Osama bin Laden.
Despite the good intentions of Obama, it was an uphill struggle on Iran and Paris; and he could not secure a majority for TPP. With Trump in the White House the rhetoric and actions against allies and partners was worse than anyone could have predicted. He was the first US president to describe the EU as ‘a foe’ and slap tariffs on its industries, as he did with Japan and others. His views on the UN, NATO, TPP, Paris, Iran, etc. need no elaboration.
In addition a large number of US politicians and officials now view China much as they viewed the Soviet Union – a mortal enemy. Given the extreme polarisation in America, even if Biden were to win in November, he could not return the US to its positions in the Obama era. In short, there is little or no chance of the most powerful nation in the world accepting any international restraints in the foreseeable future.
China, the second largest economic power, pays lip service to international institutions but seeks to influence them (WHO) and if blocked establishes its own bodies such as the AIIB or BRI. When court rulings go against it, as in the South China Sea, it simply ignores them. Russia follows a similar line with the Eurasia Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
Inge Kaul laments the irrelevance of the G20 (she could have added the G7) and concludes that ‘during these difficult times an important opportunity was missed.’ But given the leadership of most of the self-appointed nations in the G20 why is she surprised? Neither forum, of course is a decision-making body.
Klaus Bosselmann contemplates ‘a new global institution’ mentioned by Carl Bildt. It is always interesting to observe how many new ideas emerge from former prime ministers and presidents! But what would this new institution do that existing ones cannot do? The first question is why the existing institutions do not function properly and the answer is simple. Apart from the EU, all international bodies operate on the basis of consensus. Everyone, from the US to Uruguay has a veto.
One reason for the success of the EU is that many decisions are taken by qualified majority. But as Covid-19 showed, despite over 50 years of working together, the instinctive first reaction of all member states was national rather than European. The EU has now pulled back from the abyss and has put forward an impressive rescue package. The heated debate over Eurobonds, however, is a reflection of very different approaches to national economic policy.
Ken Graham argues that the 2020s is likely to be a seminal moment of systemic change to international institutions but fails to provide convincing evidence to support this assertion. He suggests a new grouping involving the IPU (to provide democratic legitimacy?) and the UN system. This begs the questions: how many parliaments genuinely reflect the views of their citizens? And how far does the UN system extend?
For the reasons I have argued above, namely the absence of political will in the major states, this is unlikely to make it to the runway let alone take off and fly.
So what can we do?
- First, it is important to keep making the argument for greater regional and global cooperation. One should not forget the regional dimension as this is becoming more and more important in terms of trade.
- Second, the liberal democracies must work closer together to defend and reform existing international bodies. There are, for example some legitimate criticisms about the WHO. An ad hoc group of such like-minded countries, including the EU, New Zealand, Canada, Japan and Singapore, has already agreed to work around the US veto and establish a provisional dispute settlement mechanism under the WTO.
- Third, there is a need to work more closely with the US congress, individual states and civil society in America. A long-term, consistent lobbying effort with key actors in the US system is required if we are ever to secure a fundamental change in the American approach to global issues and multilateral institutions.
An incremental process comprising an increased educational effort and building coalitions of like-minded countries may not sound ambitious but it reflects the reality of the world just now.
The impact of the current pandemic will be far-reaching but more in societal norms such as life-work balance, teleworking and digital technology. It will have limited impact on international institutions because, regrettably, the political will to reform is absent.
Dr Fraser Cameron, a former UK and EU diplomat, is Director of the EU-Asia Centre (Brussels) and a member of the Centre’s International Advisory Panel.