Reforming the International Order

The start of the twenties has not been kind to humankind. First, the pandemic arrived, perhaps only to assert that nature will strike back if humans continue to degrade and exploit it.

The outbreak of COVID-19 and its rapid spread throughout the world showed us how vulnerable we were everywhere. It exposed the level of ignorance and unpreparedness even amongst the richest countries in Europe and America. The pandemic, however, underscored our common humanity and proved that we still had empathy and feeling for others.

But this feel-good factor did not last long. In February, Russia invaded Ukraine on the pretext of countering NATO’s increasing influence on its doorstep.  It reminds us of how fragile, interconnected and interdependent our world is.

Intensifying great-power confrontations and deglobalization are jeopardizing world peace and security. New crises seem to be lurking around every corner, but appropriate solutions are nowhere to be seen — not in the Far East, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, or Latin America. The popular mood has darkened, reinvigorating populism, nationalism, and other obsolete or fossilized trends that threaten the progressive achievements humanity has made since World War II.

The Ukraine crisis itself is a symptom of deeper structural problems in the international order. That order, led by the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), has failed to live up to the principles of good governance enshrined in the U.N. Charter.

New global orders tend to emerge from major wars. In the case of WWII, the victors created structures designed to preserve international peace and security. But while our increasingly integrated world has changed dramatically since the U.N.’s founding, our organizing principles still reflect the mentality of the post-war and Cold War era. Within the current framework, a failure to respond to global challenges is a failure of the entire international community.

Every system carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. This has been true since time immemorial. The situation that arose after WWII, was not so different from the situation after WWI. The end of the First War gave an opportunity to the victors to create new structures that would prevent the recurrence of wars, and create a new world order based on humanity, justice, and equality. Instead, the victors sat down at Versailles to divide the spoils of war and impose reparations on Germany. The Treaty of Versailles was signed by the Allied Nations and Germany on June 28, 1919, formally ending World War One. The terms of the treaty required that Germany pay financial reparations, disarm, lose territory, and give up all of its overseas colonies. The economic provisions of the peace treaty slowed the country’s economic recovery, and in 1923, Germany defaulted on its reparation payments. The humiliation imposed on Germany was principally responsible for the rise of Hitler and his Nazi Party which again took the world through another deadly misadventure in 1939, within two decades of the ending of the First War. So, the seeds of destruction and the outbreak of WWII were already sown by the Allied Powers in the peace settlement after the First War.

While the First War was still going on, the Allied Powers were talking about the need to establish The League of Nations, a supra-national entity, to maintain peace at the end of the First War. It was established in 1920 in Geneva and lasted until 1946 when it was replaced by the United Nations. The United States did not join and went back to don its isolationist streak until it was forced out of its slumber by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Can the system be reformed? Calls since the early 1990s to restructure the U.N. system — the avatar for the broader international order — have consistently fallen on deaf ears. Worse, Russia and China are now using their seats at the helm of the international order to maintain the status quo which prevents a dilution of their power and prestige. In the world of Realpolitik, expansion of the Security Council based on democratic principles and the new world realities can only be at the cost of their own power. Staying within the current framework is more advantageous for China and Russia.

Humanity’s collective achievements over the past seven decades are a testament to why we must work together to make the U.N. system more fair, inclusive, and attentive to people’s needs and aspirations. Actually, that was the mission of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change in 2003.

It is generally agreed that all of the U.N.’s principal organs need reform, including the Security Council, which the panel argued should be expanded. Unfortunately, none of the Security Council’s veto-wielding permanent members accepted the panel’s recommendations, setting the stage for today’s paralysis and dysfunction.

No region has suffered more from the unfair bipolar and unipolar dynamics of the past than the Middle East. It has been the altar on which the principles of the international order have been, and still are, routinely sacrificed. The same principles that led to the creation of the State of Israel also led to the Palestinians being deprived of their homeland and denied their basic rights to self-determination and statehood.

The five permanent powers of the Security Council need to come to their senses. Reforming the existing order requires new thinking by all U.N. member states.  The international order can preserve peace and security only to the extent that it is equitable and capable of meeting the challenges that humanity faces. Short of that, geopolitical upheavals will continue to threaten world peace and security.

Another important reason for a lack of progress on almost any front is the absence of common sense and progressive ideas among most present-day politicians. Mediocrity rules the roost. A major characteristic of ‘mediocrity’ is that it has a tendency to linger on until infinity, or until disaster strikes. We can easily see this in many countries where political elites who have earned the right to be in a museum continue to hold power, or influence power. Such politicians and political aspirants, mostly belonging to political families whose history began two or three generations ago, are usually out of tune with their constituents who are younger, enlightened, well-informed, and want accountability. It does not fit.

As evidence of this, I like to point out the examples of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. All these countries suffer from authoritarianism, lack of accountability, inequality, and high level of unemployment, and all these countries are blessed with multiple political dynasties that are continuously playing the game of ‘musical chairs.’ Our tendency to deify and hero-worship politicians almost guarantees longevity to the long-entrenched dynastic families that act as a brake to progress and economic development. But they are no heroes. Most such politicians remain in politics for their own self-interest, enjoying palatial bungalows, unlimited influence and power, and opportunities to make billions of dollars. The case of Sri Lanka is only one example of this “Steal and Sleaze Industry”.

The pandemic will not last forever. In the same way, just as we have been able to make progress in the fight against this disease, we can also win against conditions that may be partially of our own making. We need to beware of demagogues and politicians whom we ourselves elect to exploit and loot us. It is worth noting here that while the Sri Lankan youth were trying to throw out their president for economic crimes and massive corruption, the Philippine voters were bringing back by popular vote the son of Ferdinand Marcos, thirty-six years after his family was sent packing by “People Power”. Can’t we be more objective while making our choice? Bongbong Marcos may not be as corrupt as his father, but he is not born in royalty. At the same time, Duterte’s daughter was also elected as Vice-president. That is two royal families created with one election. Very impressive!