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The Rule-based international order is ending. What will replace it?

The much-vaunted liberal international order – recently re-branded as the rules-based international order or RBIO – is disintegrating before our very eyes.

The much-vaunted liberal international order – recently re-branded as the rules-based international order or RBIO – is disintegrating before our very eyes. The rules, norms and institutions first tentatively assembled into a coherent system of global governance in the immediate post-World War II era but only becoming fully globalized in the aftermath of the Cold War no longer have the regulative or structuring effects they once had.

The United Nations Security Council is paralyzed; the norm prohibiting wars of aggression has been shattered; the institutions governing the global economy are faltering under the weight of repeated financial crises; and even stable regional organizations like NATO and the European Union are experiencing unprecedented centrifugal forces that are threatening to tear them apart.

Indeed, one might even say, as did the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci in the similarly auspicious interwar period, “the old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born.” And we might even be tempted to conclude, as did Gramsci, that this is necessarily a terrifying time — as he put it, a “time of monsters.”

But while this time of monsters may be frightening, it shouldn’t be at all surprising. The RBIO, like all international orders, is simply moving through its natural life cycle. Born as a truly global system in the aftermath of the Cold War, what was then an unambiguously liberal international order flourished during the ensuing unipolar moment. With no viable competitors, the liberal norms and ideals of the Cold War victors suffused and animated the institutions of global governance as never before, giving them a coherence and vitality that they had lacked during the era of Soviet-American rivalry. 

It reached full maturity in the era of hyperglobalization, when liberal norms and ideals related to free markets, democracy and human rights were both embedded in, and promoted by, international organizations and non-governmental organizations alike.

The now-rebranded RBIO then entered its senescence in the early 2010s. The rise of China, the relative decline in U.S. power, the COVID-19 pandemic, repeated financial crises, the accelerating trend toward decoupling and deglobalization — all have acted like corrosive acids, hollowing out institutions of global governance that were erected or renovated in the heyday of globalizing liberalism.

And now, the RBIO is in its death throes. To be sure, there are those who cling to the idea that the old order can still be salvaged. But they are largely whistling past the graveyard.

The economic and geopolitical base upon which the institutional superstructure of liberal global governance was built has simply evanesced. The old order is beyond salvation, even if the new is still struggling to be born. This is indeed a time of monsters.

But assuming that we survive this monstrous time, what will this new world now struggling to be born look like?

It is too early to tell with precision, of course. The new geopolitical and economic fundamentals have yet to fully materialize and, if we put any stock at all in the scribblings of that great political sage Niccolo Machiavelli, whatever order is finally born will be shaped as much by fortuna as by the free will of policymakers; as much by luck as by leadership. But if we keep our eye on the fundamentals, the broad contours of the successor international order can be at least dimly perceived.

To begin with, the new institutional order will not simply reflect U.S. values and interests. The liberal cum rules-based international order, of course, did reflect those values and interests. It was built and then renovated by the United States in two periods of American preponderance — the first following World War II and the second following the Cold War. In both cases, this preponderance of power resulted in the economic, political and even cultural vision of the United States being imprinted on the global order. In both its original and renovated forms, the liberal international order was in large part a reflection of American liberalism.

The new order, reflecting a more multipolar and multicivilizational distribution of power, will not be built by Washington for Washington; it will not simply be a reflection of American values and interests. Rather, whatever new order emerges in the coming years will reflect some combination or synthesis of the national visions of the various “great powers” that will demand a say in what the new rules, norms and institutions of global governance will look like. It will reflect, in other words, the values and interests of countries such as China and India and perhaps even Russia as much as those of the United States.

Second, the new institutional order will be more minimalist than its predecessor. Because it will be less the product of a single vision and more the lowest common denominator of several competing visions, the new configuration of rules, norms and institutions will not impose detailed prescriptive rules like the old order did.

But neither will it be little more than an arena for unregulated great power competition all the time. Rather, whatever new international legal and institutional regime crystalizes will likely involve a constellation of modest and narrowly focused mechanisms for managing great power cooperation and conflict. The old post-Napoleonic “concert of Europe” is the most likely historical analogue.   

And finally, the post-liberal international order will likely still involve some widely recognized taboos. The use of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, for example, is likely to remain anathema, even if the prohibition against their use is occasionally violated. An open question, though, is whether the prohibition against wars of aggression – codified in the UN Charter and at the heart of the liberal order – will survive. In this connection, much will depend on the outcome of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The backlash against Moscow’s war of aggression may well result in the taboo being strengthened. It is just as likely, though, that it will shatter the norm once and for all. Only time will tell.

There is a nightmare scenario, of course. It is easy to imagine a future international order characterized by unregulated great-power competition and conflict, hermetically sealed regional economic blocs, a digital realm divided along geopolitical lines, the growing weaponization of economic relations for geopolitical ends, and a general inability to address common problems through cooperative mechanisms.

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But it is also possible to envision a different future, one in which world leaders come together and negotiate a set of norms, rules and institutions that both reflects the underlying dynamics of power in the international system and promotes a non-trivial degree of peace and prosperity within that system.

If the Irish poet Oscar Wilde was right, and the basis of optimism really is sheer terror, then in this time of terrifying monsters we truly do have ample grounds to be optimistic. All things considered, though, I’m afraid guarded pessimism is all I can muster.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @aalatham.


Source: The HILL

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