Who’s undermining the global order?
There is no neat answer. Both the US and China are embracing parts of it, and undermining parts
In 2018, in a speech at the Raisina Dialogue, the conference held by the ministry of external affairs and the Observer Research Foundation, the late foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, declared that the world was in transition— there was now a “departure from longstanding practices,” “a shift away from multilateralism and alliances,” and a retreat from globalisation. While Swaraj was circumspect, many others have since been more candid. A few days ago, for example, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd argued that the global order was being reshaped by China. These statements articulate the prevalent anxiety behind a question that many have been grappling with — is the current international order in decline? In particular, is the United States (US)-led order under threat of revisionism by China and other actors? The answer to this question often relates to where one stands on the political spectrum, and consequently tends to fall into black-and-white categories of either singular affirmation or denial. In reality, however, the answer is complex because international order is complex. Disagreements between China and the US are not the same as disagreements between China and international order. To understand this, it is important to understand what international order is and what it implies.
Princeton professor G John Ikenberry has called international order “the organising rules and institutions of world politics…through which [countries] do business”. His work and that of many others imply four facts about the international order. First, order is not a passive outcome but an active creation by powerful countries. Second, it rests on shared ideas. Third, these ideas are shared across not one but many issues. Finally, participating countries need to be willing to buy into order. So if we argue that a country is revisionist of the international order, what we mean is that it is deliberately trying to reorganise these rules and institutions, trying to change the shared ideas that underpin order, that it is doing so across issues, and that it has the help of countries willing to buy into its proposed changes.
Which brings us to the current international order and how these implications play out. The international order today was created and led by the US and its allies after World War II, and its byword was multilateralism. The principles of the 1941 Atlantic Charter in which Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill declared a shared commitment to free trade and collective security were more formally enshrined during the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944 — a new economic and security order with international institutions for multilateral cooperation emerged and thrived. But today, who is revising and who is accommodating these institutions that are the bedrock of the post-World War II international order does not play out along neat lines.
For example, Donald Trump’s assertion of America First has led to a decline in long-standing collective security arrangements — last month, he withdrew 9,500 US troops from German soil undermining the US-German solidarity that was the foundation of the trans-Atlantic security cooperation and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). Trump has also criticised multilateral agreements such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that could restrain China — for example, by setting or preserving information and communication technology (ICT) standards that would impede China trying to set Chinese technology as the standard for the hard infrastructure of Internet connectivity.
China too has rejected or violated the shared ideas of some of the international institutions it has joined — it has not, for example, ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (although neither has the US) and argues that it is compliant with international human rights norms. But as Columbia University professor, Andrew Nathan, points out, it has also partially or wholly complied with many other shared ideas, particularly because in many cases it has served its interests to do so. Its embrace of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), for example, has been highly selective and biased towards its own interests — in accordance with the norms of UNCLOS, it expects to dispatch spy ships into other countries’ exclusive economic zones to monitor both their economic (which is legal) and military activities (subject to interpretation) without incident but objects to and occasionally harasses other countries for allegedly violating its own space in the South China Sea.
Its embrace of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has been more wholehearted and straightforward where it has worked to make domestic changes in order to bring China into compliance with the WTO’s accession agreement, leading one study to conclude that Beijing operates within the WTO system. And as its share of global investment has increased, many experts have found that Beijing has become a defender of the interests of capital, borrowing its norms directly from the West.
What we find from these examples is that countries that we expect to buy into the current order may revise aspects of it while countries we expect not to buy into the order may accommodate important parts of it, especially when it speaks to their interests. Nor can we assume that the builder of international order, in this case the US, will also be the upholder of it in every issue area. Finally, it’s worth remembering that since creating and sharing the norms of the international order rests on a concert of countries, this leaves room for multiple influential actors and not simply the most powerful ones.
Manjari Chatterjee Miller is associate professor of international relations, Frederick S Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University, and a research associate at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford
The views expressed are personal