Wresting order from the chaos

The rules-based global order governing our lives since 1945 has become fragile. As Kevin Rudd writes in our cover story, this order must adapt if we are to avoid anarchy. How difficult this might be is illustrated by the accompanying pieces on the spread of nuclear weapons and the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict, which have defied resolution for 70 years

The World Today Published 12 June 2015 Updated 7 December 2018 6 minute READ

If history is our guide, the construction and preservation of international order is no easy thing, while the construction and preservation of a genuinely global order is virtually without precedent. History is littered with the institutional carcasses of noble attempts to impose order upon chaos – chaos that the priests of ‘high realism’ tell us is the ‘natural’ condition of international politics. Yet the prescription of these same realists for the preservation of order has as its common theme, or variations on a theme, a classical balance of power, which itself has left us the carnage of two world wars in one century.

In these sobering years of anniversaries – 1815, the bicentenary of the Congress of Vienna; 1914, the centenary of the war to end all wars; and 1945, the 70th anniversary of the end of the world war that followed – we are haunted afresh by the ghosts of failure. The disciples of the Concert of Europe, who believe that it held the peace for a century from 1815, fail to mention the violent suppression of the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, as absolute monarchies clung desperately to power. Then there is the minor problem of the Crimean and Franco-Prussian wars, which once again pitted the great powers against each other. These are uncomfortable disruptions to the comforting, retrospective narrative of the long peace that allegedly followed the Napoleonic devastation of a continent. And that is before we add the calculated barbarism of a century of European colonialism, which subjugated much of the rest of the world with brutality on an industrial scale that continues to influence global politics to this day.

As for 1914, and the events that followed in constructing the peace in 1919, little needs to be said. We are all familiar with this unspeakable failure of the balance of power to preserve either peace or prosperity. We are equally familiar with the failure of the League of Nations, in the second of the two most over-worked university examination questions of the 20th century, the first being on the causes of the conflagration that preceded it. By the time we collapsed, exhausted, amid the ruins of 1945, we had seen in the space of thirty years the most graphic of global epitaphs written for both the Hobbesian and Kantian constructs on how to build a sustainable global peace. Both the deep cynicism of high realism and the purported nobility of liberal internationalism lay in ruins, as did much of the world itself.

Out of these dying embers was born what we now blithely describe as the post-war, rules-based international order. From the outset, it represented a cocktail of liberal aspiration and realist power, crowned by the United Nations and Bretton Woods institutions – the World Bank and the IMF – and underpinned by the reality of virtually unchallenged American military and economic might. And despite the high-wire nuclear act that we now, equally blithely, call the Cold War, and the American ‘unipolar moment’ that briefly followed it, the order, by and large, has remained fundamentally unchanged. At least until now.

It was at the dawn of this brave, new post-war age, 70 years ago – while the San Francisco Conference was still is session – that Chatham House launched its signature publication, The World Today. Just as Chatham House itself was launched a generation before, in the aftermath of Versailles. It is right, therefore, that Chatham House uses this anniversary year to reflect on the future of the current global order whose history it has faithfully chronicled from its beginning. Order – stable or unstable, just or unjust – remains the central question of international relations, and international development. It is as much a security question as it is an economic question. And it is now also an environmental question. If we ignore its centrality, fail to recognize the seeds of its disintegration, or else believe that ‘orders’ are inherently, mystically self-sustaining, then we fail to learn the core lesson of history, and abdicate our responsibility for the future.

The uncomfortable truth is that the current order has already lasted longer than most of its predecessors since the Treaty of Westphalia over 350 years ago.

We therefore need to order our thinking today by asking what has fundamentally changed in world politics since 1945. This will help us to determine what challenges the existing order’s long-standing institutional arrangements can no longer meet without reform. I argue there are three.

First, because the UN is an international society of states, decolonization over the past 70 years has seen the quadrupling in the number of its members, rendering the prospects of global consensus on anything of substance almost impossible. Second, the globalization of everything – from terrorism, finance, pollution, pandemics to unauthorized movements of people – together with the incapacity of weak global and national institutions to deal with challenges which now dramatically affect the peoples of the world and not just their governments, is now inducing a crisis of global confidence in the UN, Bretton Woods and the nation state all at the same time. Third, the emergence of China means the US is no longer the unipolar economic power. This gives rise to questions on how much longer America will continue to exercise dominant military power, as the military capabilities of others increase, new asymmetric war-fighting capacities emerge in cyberspace and actual space, and questions grow about the future of American global strategic resolve.

Of these, my focus here is the impact of the rise of China and how this could be embraced by the US, the West and the rest to help mend, rather than fracture, an already fragile order. The dream of Chinese reformers for nearly 125 years, in the face of foreign pressure, invasion by the West and Japan, has been to modernize China in order to restore national wealth and power. This too is the vision of Xi Jinping, who defines his ‘China Dream’ as a ‘Chinese restoration’ or fuxing in order to make China ‘prosperous and powerful’ or fuqiang. What is so different about today is that these deep-seated Chinese national aspirations are now being realized.

Depending on the measure, purchasing power parity or market exchange rates, China is either now, or else within a decade will be, the single largest economy in the world. Once this occurs, it will be the first time since George III that this position has been occupied by a non-English speaking, non-western, non-democratic state. This is no small matter. Where economic power goes, political power and foreign policy influence soon follow. And so the question that the rest of the world now asks is: how will China deploy this newfound influence within the current order?

There are, of course, limitations to Chinese influence. China remains domestically preoccupied with its internal political, economic and environmental challenges. China also faces a formidable quantitative and qualitative gap between its own military capabilities and those of the United States which cannot be closed until mid-century, if then. For these reasons, China has every interest in preserving the peace for the foreseeable future. To do otherwise would risk the centrality of its continued economic transformation project, which it correctly sees as central to the sustainability of China’s long-term national power.

Yet it is clear from the public statements of President Xi Jinping that China no longer intends to remain silent on the future of the global and regional order, which it argues it had no role in creating. For decades under Deng Xiaoping, China’s foreign policy orthodoxy was ‘hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead’. As of November 2013, this was replaced by a commitment to a more activist foreign policy. Xi now speaks of the ‘a new type of great power relations’, ‘a new type of international system’, ‘a new type of great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics’, and a ‘struggle for the future international order’.

Beyond these generalities, what can be usefully said about China’s aspirations for the future of the global order? I argue there are ten important trends to note:

  1. China recognizes that it has benefited from the current order so far, particularly in facilitating the export-based growth that has underpinned its economic rise;
  2. Beijing at the same time resents and rejects the US notion of China becoming ‘a responsible global stakeholder’, which it sees as condescending in its assumption that it is not one at present;
  3. China, nonetheless, has no interest in any fundamental repudiation of the existing order, not least because it is highly wary of its own over-reach, and does not at this stage see itself as an ‘indispensable’ global power in the unique provision of global public goods;
  4. Chinese think-tanks are hard at work on China’s future role in the order. However, it would be wrong to conclude that China at this stage has an agreed internal blueprint for any alternative order;
  5. China, nonetheless, is now likely to become an increasingly active voice in the normal review processes of the international system, in pursuit of its general organizing principle of advocating greater ‘multipolarity’ in international institutions, which is none-too-subtle code language for less American power;
  6. China’s position in this is strengthened by the growing international support it is securing in the Group of 77 developing nations, reinforced by China’s expanding economic assistance programme and growing foreign direct investment;
  7. China has long seen the UN, particularly the Security Council, as an asset to its own international influence, as well as a useful vehicle for developing an increasingly ‘multipolar order’, and, therefore, has little interest in the UN becoming less relevant;
  8. For similar reasons, China has welcomed its role in the G20, and is likely to seek to expand its global influence over time, including under its 2016 presidency;
  9. As for the Bretton Woods institutions, China is smarting after the refusal of the US Senate to increase its IMF quota, despite this having the support of both the G20 and the IMF member states;
  10. In part for these reasons, China has decided to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank outside the Bretton Woods framework, and it is possible that China will further innovate in the international financial domain where its global strength is greatest.

Chinese and US interests, however, find themselves in much sharper potential conflict in Asia. This is where their interests most directly rub up against one another – whether on questions of competing territorial claims in the East and South China Seas between China and US allies, Taiwan or the Korean Peninsula. On questions of order, as Robert Kaplan recently reminded us in The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, geography still matters. And it is here in Asia that we see the clearest, early manifestation of the gradual bifurcation of the region: an economic Asia increasingly centered on China, and a security Asia still predominantly centered on the US.

On security, the US has concluded that China is seeking to weaken and destroy its regional military alliances, to eventually push the US out of the region and, in time, replace it with a Chinese sphere of influence. Meanwhile, China has concluded that the US is seeking to weaken, undermine and ultimately sabotage China from within, and contain China’s diplomatic freedom of manoeuvre from without. China’s fundamental conviction is that the US will never willingly surrender its long-held position of regional and global pre-eminence to China.

Meanwhile, on the regional economic order, China’s dominance over the US in every single bilateral trading relationship in Asia, its deployment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the Silk Road Investment Fund, together with the normal operation of its sovereign wealth funds across the region, are creating a new economic reality in the region of which most in the Washington political elite remain blissfully unaware. The economic reality in Asia is changing under America’s feet. At the same time, the region risks becoming further divided economically with sharpening battle lines between Washington’s Trans-Pacific Partnership excluding China on the one hand, and Beijing’s advocacy for a Free Trade Area for Asia and the Pacific on the other. Trade has traditionally brought Asia closer together. For the first time in decades, it now has the prospect of further dividing the region.

So what then is to be done if a functioning global and regional order is to be preserved for the future? This question can only ultimately be resolved between Washington and Beijing. The divisions between them are clear. And while these are less pronounced globally than they are regionally, the trend is clear.

Nonetheless, I argue there is still at present sufficient commonality of interest between the two in the preservation of ‘order’ per se for a common project of institutional reform to still be possible for both orders, global and regional. Fundamentally, these two countries have deeply conservative national security cultures mixed with an increasingly complex array of international interests that they cannot protect unilaterally, however much they would like to. Both cultures have a deep bias for international order over chaos, given the vast array of global challenges they now see confronting the very concept of order itself. China in particular has a national anathema for anything resembling chaos.

For these reasons the time has come for these two powers to embrace a common strategic framework of what I have called ‘constructive realism – common purpose’. This framework recognizes and manages those fundamental strategic disagreements that cannot be resolved between the two under present circumstances, or for the foreseeable future. It advocates a vigorous programme of constructive cooperation bilaterally, regionally and globally, including reform of the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions, and the evolution of common regional architecture in Asia to manage tensions down, rather than to stand idly by while regional tensions escalate.

It also argues that the diplomatic ballast and political capital derived from the implementation of such a constructive agenda over time be further deployed to reform and strengthen the current order, rather than allowing it, through a process of strategic drift, to die the death of a thousand cuts.

As with 1919 and 1945, however, the fate of the international order will ultimately be determined by political leaderships capable of grasping the future and acting accordingly. Or not. The alternative is to conclude that somehow we are the hapless victims of the forces of historical determinism, and that the current order is in a state of inevitable decline. Perhaps we should all be reminded afresh what the absence of order actually looks like. The uncomfortable truth is that one form of international anarchy or another has been the predominant global condition since the rise of the modern state. Our common resolve should be never to return to such a condition again.