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Jolting Towards A New International Order

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Credit: Elcano Royal InstituteBy Robin Niblett*
IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

LONDON (IDN) - The growing economic interdependence of the established and the emerging powers will likely be the defining feature of the new international order. Given the West's residual strength and the continued vulnerabilities of the emerging powers, a zero-sum rebalancing of power in favour of the East and a consequent fundamental shift in international order is unlikely. However, a new international order rooted in deepening levels of international interdependence is not an inevitable scenario.

A principal source of potential conflict between states in the coming years will be the competition for natural resources that accompanies rapid global economic growth and improving levels of personal disposable income. Until technological innovation radically improves levels of energy production and efficiency, helps increase food production and water consumption in a sustainable manner and reduces human dependence on specific minerals that are unevenly distributed across the world, then there is a risk that ensuring access to these commodities might drive states into conflict with one another, whatever their levels of overall economic interdependence and the risks that would accompany such an outcome.

However, it is also possible that the main risks to international order during the coming decades will emanate not from the rash actions of states, but from outside the state system altogether. First, economic interdependence brings with it its own set of vulnerabilities for societies. Natural disasters now have ripple effects that extend from one side of the world to the other, whether this be the effect of the Japanese tsunami on just-in-time supply chains in the US or the ash cloud from the Icelandic volcanoes which crippled air travel over much of northern Europe and whose effects then threatened to spread across the region’s economies. And significant changes in the earth’s climate, which have led to the fall of empires when these have occurred during the past three millennia, now run the risk of having cascade effects across state borders in terms of migrant flows, disease transmission or food supply disruptions.

Interdependence also heightens the vulnerability of societies the world over to the disruptive actions of extremist, anarchist or criminal groups and individuals. Critical national infrastructure can be disrupted by cyber hackers. Terrorist attacks, or the fear of them, can bring national and international transport networks to a near standstill. And a well-executed biological attack by an individual could spread internationally and force governments to institute border controls that would stop national and international trade in its tracks.

The main challenge to international order, therefore, is that governments, businesses and societies in East and West, South and North fail to comprehend their levels of interdependence and do not deepen or build, therefore, the common norms, rules and institutions to raise their levels of resilience and ability to manage the impacts of such developments. Adapting existing international institutions to manage these risks will take a long time, given the sovereignty-based approach to establishing new multilateral agreements of both the existing and the emerging powers. And, while new international institutions, such as the G20, may offer a more legitimate forum for international policy cooperation than the old, such as the UN, they are likely to be hamstrung by the same instinct for sovereign governance among the majority of its members.

Two priorities stand out in this context. First, all states need to professionalise and improve their delivery of key services that promote security and enable sustainable growth and prosperity. For countries in the West, this will involve major reforms to welfare systems that remain industrial in their scale and approach and have not yet adapted to the West’s changed demographic profile and reduced future rates of economic growth. It will also mean finding more affordable ways of maintaining their internal and external security, both in terms of lessening the appeal and impact of extremist or criminal attacks on their societies, and in terms of contributing to enhanced levels of security beyond their borders. In this regard, military deterrence will be as important as incentives to reduce the disparities in wealth and human security between them and their poorer neighbours.

For the emerging powers themselves and for most countries in the developing world, the priority will be to build the political institutions and processes, including functioning judicial systems and vibrant civil societies that will embed a culture of greater transparency and accountability. Otherwise, rising levels of economic growth could lead to social upheaval or to unsustainable economic bubbles, either of which could bring to a jarring halt the process of global economic and political rebalancing that is currently under way.

Finally, deeper forms of regional integration may serve as a useful bridge to a future in which the term ‘global governance’ starts to have a real meaning. Although few groups of states are likely to emulate the EU in terms of building supranational institutions and methods of political governance, the deepening of consultation and cooperation of groupings in Asia (such as ASEAN and ASEAN plus 3), in Latin America (UNASUL) and sub-Saharan Africa (the African Union and ECOWAS) is serving two useful purposes.

First, it is bringing pressure to bear on the emerging powers themselves to adhere to norms and processes that they do not control. And secondly, it is enabling the development of best practices in economic cooperation, market opening and political consultation at a regional level which could gradually be elevated to an international or global level, as and when a consensus begins to emerge on the validity of those best practices across regions.

Hedley Bull, the renowned British international-relations theorist, wrote that international order would at best resemble the notion of an ‘international society’, where states chose to adhere to certain rules and norms as a way of avoiding falling into anarchy and war. The rebalancing of economic and political power from the West and North to the East and South, and the deepening interdependence that is accompanying this process, now offers an opportunity for the world to test out Hedley Bull’s vision. The birth of an international society is by no means foreordained, but governments, companies, civil society and individual citizens now have the opportunity to see if they can put his theory of international order into practice.

*Dr Robin Niblett is Director of Chatham House in London. This Viewpoint is extracted from a chapter from the book 'Globalización, crisis económica, potencias emergentes...Diez años decisivos para la transformación del mundo' devoted to the 10th Anniversary of Spain's Elcano Royal Institute. The Chapter was titled 'The Economic Crisis and the Emerging Powers: Towards a New International Order?' [IDN-InDepthNews – March 15, 2012]

2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Photo: Dr Robin Niblett | Credit: Elcano Royal Institute

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