Too many nations and peoples with too many grievances. A wealth divide that grows deeper. A new (new) world order is needed, with the U.S. and China firmly in charge.
PARIS — Armed tension is once again rising on Europe's eastern front. But has it ever really been absent? To the south, ISIS is growing and expanding its territory. The latest G7 summit in Bavaria raised more questions than it answered, but it could hardly have been otherwise. Its origins and composition were always intended to solve geo-economic rather than geopolitical issues.
Our current world order lacks any kind of real order, one that's either legitimate or clearly imposes itself on nations and institutions. The ideal of "peace through international law" is as elusive as it's ever been, and "peace through empire" no longer exists because there is no emperor.
If we are to try and repair fractures, our first imperative is to understand the world's complexity. The starting point is to explain the collapse, rebirth and weakening of four empires.
To the south and east of its borders, Europe finds itself facing the far-reaching and direct consequences of the collapse of both the Ottoman empire and the Soviet Union. The entire Asian continent is destabilized by the rebirth of a Chinese empire that intends to translate its economic success into geopolitical influence, or instead compensate for its growth slowdown by ramping up nationalism. But the dominating factor, and one that unites all the others, comes from the weakening of a fourth empire, if the U.S. can indeed by called an "Imperial Republic," as French philosopher and historian Raymond Aron once characterized it.
Beyond this global Game of Scales, the weakening of the U.S. paradoxically has been accompanied by a questioning of the multilateralism Washington had gradually come to support, albeit reluctantly. Of course, the inability to change the UN Security Council's composition contributed to the system's paralysis, or at least to its legitimacy being questioned, but it's far from being its sole cause.
In the aftermath of the independence wave that followed a de-colonizing Africa, some commentators lamented that there were "too many states," and all too often states that were entirely artificial. We could argue that the world has become like Africa. We've become the victims of a process tying identity and national sovereignty too closely together, resulting in too many countries originating from fallen empires and, among them, too many failing or dysfunctional ones, from Somalia to Macedonia.
The world's have-nots
Global instability has also been exacerbated by the explosion of inequality around the world. Wealth gaps continue to grow, both between countries and inside countries, creating a world that's both more fragile and less legitimate. How can we claim to be working for the greater good when so few have so much, when a growing number of people have so little, and when this acute reality is there for the whole world to see?
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Defending the G20 in London in 2009. Photo: Charlotte Gilhooly
The question is how can we re-create a world order in which there is a new balance between legitimacy and power. It seems to me that there are three possibilities, and they complement one another more than it might seem.
First, perhaps we should move away from any world order at all. Since the end of World War II, the global system has been bipolar (U.S.-USSR), unipolar (U.S.) and, in the last decade, nonpolar. Wouldn't it make sense first to establish a new form of bipolarity between the only two countries that possess both the means and the ambition to play such a role — that is, the U.S. and China?
Europe isn't ready (yet?) to contribute to the operation of a multipolar world. Russia is disordered and doesn't have the goods to back up its ambitions. India, Japan and Brazil, meanwhile, are great powers, but only regionally.
True, a bipolar order around the U.S. and China wouldn't be a panacea. The U.S. possesses a resilience and a set of structural advantages in terms of values and creativity that China lacks. This alliance, at best, would be an asymmetrical bipolarity with the advantage of forcing Washington and Beijing to admit that they're not alone anymore and that power and responsibility go hand in hand.
But there is also the issue of values. In late 18th-century Europe, Kant and Rousseau believed that lack of democracy was the main cause of war. But today, wouldn't it be more appropriate to suggest that too little rule of law is ultimately the main source of world disorder, if not chaos?
The rise of inequality and corruption push too many countries down the path of nationalism in its most revengeful form, as a shield against dissent. "Your living conditions are always worse, but be proud that your country's recovered its greatness," they seem to say. "And if you're poor, it's not your fault. It's the fault of them, and their sanctions!"
We could also circumvent the UN's paralysis by granting the G20, an institution that's far from being perfect but is at least more representative of the world's reality, enough power to give it institutional legitimacy. These are, of course, mere ideas and possibilities, but they deserve a good hard look.