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HTLS 2022: Building an international order to govern a transforming world

Updated on Nov 07, 2022 12:24 PM IST

From the ashes of the 30 Years’ War (1618-48) in Europe was born the Peace of Westphalia, inaugurating the modern nation-State system

UNSC has to be stripped of its veto, and a new principle for decision-making needs to be explored. (Reuters)
ByManish Tewari

From the ashes of the 30 Years’ War (1618-48) in Europe was born the Peace of Westphalia, inaugurating the modern nation-State system. It also laid the conceptual foundation of raison d’ etat -- States need to do what is necessary to protect and promote their national interest -- propounded by a French statesperson, Cardinal Richelieu. It became the genesis of the European political order. For, if every State did what it thought was in its national interest, then these seemingly contradictory impulses would create a convoluted interplay of interests whose equilibrium would ensure peace.

In the 18th century, King William III and Prime Minister William Pitt of Great Britain refined raison d’ etat into a formal balance of power doctrine that held the field in Europe for the next 200 years. It became the anchor that allowed Prince Klemens von Metternich of Austria to construct the Concert of Europe in Vienna (1814-1815) before Napoleon III of France and Otto Von Bismarck of Prussia dismantled it, and recast the European political order into a cold-blooded game of realpolitik.

On the high tables of Versailles at the end of the First World War, United States (US) President Woodrow Wilson tried to reshape the global order by injecting a moral imperative by pursuing enlightened exceptionalism. He tried to replace the cynical pursuit of misplaced national interest with the concept of collective security.

On January 8, 1918, addressing a joint session of the US Congress, he articulated the building blocks of this new political order: Open diplomacy, freedom of seas, general disarmament, removal of trade barriers, impartial settlement of colonial claims, and the crown jewel of all – the establishment of a League of Nations as the ultimate arbiter of competing national interests.

Unfortunately, the League of Nations collapsed within two decades of its inception. Its last act of impotence was to expel the Soviet Union after it invaded Finland in 1939. As the Second World War raged from 1939 to 1945, the Allied leadership, at apex-level conferences in Casablanca, Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam, deliberated the contours of a post-Second World War order.

Between the Yalta Conference in February 1945 and the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, delegates from 50 nations and nationalities congregated at the United Nations (UN) Conference on International Organization in San Francisco from April 25 to June 26, 1945. Four months later, on October 24, the UN commenced functioning. It epitomised the post-Second World War world order.

Notwithstanding the impulses that drove the creation of UN, at its heart still lay the antiquated system of balance of power represented by the veto system in its principal organ, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This veto still lies in the hands of the five victors of the Second World War --- the US, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China. Until 1972, the Chinese seat was held by Taiwan. Seventy-seven years later, UNSC does not represent the global political equipoise or even the economic balance of power.

Throughout its existence, UN has proven ineffectual in every case involving great power aggression. It has singularly failed to uphold its founding principle i.e., the premise of collective security through the prevention of war and collective resistance to aggression.

The latest manifestation of this failure is the inability of UNSC to intervene in a substantive manner to stop the Russian aggression of Ukraine. Earlier, UNSC and the World Health Organization failed to fashion a global response to Covid-19. During the crucial month of March 2020, as the pandemic devoured humanity, UNSC did not discuss Covid-19 as China held its rotating presidency.

This needs to change as sweeping transformations, powered by the third and fourth Industrial Revolutions, have not only changed the way humankind lives and works but, more importantly, distributed power among nations and people. Social media, with all its negative attributes, has been the greatest leveler in democratising the global discourse and snatching the bully pulpit away from large media conglomerates and demagogues.

The question, therefore, is what should the new global political order look like? It certainly can’t continue as a purely Westphalian construct of nation-States. The third and fourth Industrial Revolutions have diffused power. Today, Big Tech has more transnational heft than most mid-sized nation-States. Big transnational conglomerates have larger balance sheets than many countries. A new design that co-opts these important global stakeholders into the international system has to be conceptualised.

UNSC has to be stripped of its veto, and a new principle for decision-making needs to be explored. Should it have a robust Right to Protect mandate, and for that, should it be equipped with a standing defence force recruited globally, expeditionary and answerable only to UNSC? This needs to be debated.

Income inequity, the climate crisis, human redundancy due to automation, and virtual sovereignty will be the major challenges going forward. Do we need a world government? Therefore, should the UN General Assembly and its executive be directly elected by all, based upon territorial constituencies, leveraging technology to negate the disproportionate importance accorded to nation-States in the global governance paradigm?

Should the entire UN system be subordinate to this elected assembly and executive and accountable to it? These are ideas whose time has come if we have to contemporise the fossilised 17th-century construct of Westphalianism that still lords over the global governance system today.

Manish Tewari is lawyer, MP, former Union information and broadcasting minister. The views expressed are personal

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