The inauguration of President Trump, the separation of the UK from the European Union, the rise of the populist right across the US and Europe, and the political clampdown in Turkey imposed by President Erdogan, are among countless signs that the postwar liberal order, established after 1945, has begun to collapse. The UN and EU were created to contain the outward aggression and inward brutality of states and to establish an overarching framework of international and regional law that made individual states subject, in principle, to the standards and requirements of human rights, responsible sovereignty and non-intervention. For nearly 70 years, these institutions helped engender an open and relatively stable world order that allowed the world economy to flourish, lifting many countries out of poverty, changing the balance of world economic power and establishing a much more plural and multipolar global system.
Yet, it also unleashed an untrammelled globalization, new patterns of winners and losers, and new global challenges that in the case of climate change pose existential threats. How did this happen? What are the underlying trends? And where does this leave us today? This essay reflects on these big questions. It begins by examining the legacy of 9/11, which punctured the US’s sense of invulnerability, and unleashed ill-thought-out violence across many parts of the world. 9/11 led to several failed wars, enflaming an already disorganized Middle East and North Africa, and intensified huge global problems such as the spread of terrorism and forced migration. The essay then moves to consider globalization and its impact on governance at many levels before it traces out the political pathways ahead.
9/11 and its aftermath
9/11 was both a crime against the United States and a crime against humanity. Terrorism fuses the roles of judge, jury and executioner in the merciless pursuit of self-proclaimed causes. Faced with 9/11, the US and its allies could have come together to defend what was under outrageous attack: citizens from across the world, democracy, justice, and the rule of law. But they did not. The war in Iraq in particular undermined international law, weakened international institutions, and, along with the wars in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, eroded stability and peace throughout the Middle East and elsewhere.
The post 9/11 wars were led by people that had no understanding of the countries they were fighting in, no grasp of the culture or language, no sense of the politics and the peoples, no account of local interests and divisions, and no plan for once the fighting had stopped. These wars were led by men who, at best, were gripped by the belief they had the ability to reshape and control other countries in their own image. In going to war in Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda, in Iraq against Saddam Hussein, in Libya against Colonel Gaddafi, and in Syria against Bashar al-Assad, the US and its allies entered protracted conflicts, different as these have been, which disorganised states, created vacuums, and opened up the space for armed groups and fanatical extremists to thrive among the chaos. Despite each war failing, one after another, the US and its allies appear to have learnt few lessons, and entered each war as if nothing had been grasped about previous conflicts.
Of course, there was a great deal to deplore about the autocratic regimes in these countries and the systematic abuse of human rights that was all too typical in each one of them. This is well known and amply documented. But outrage against these regimes is not enough to create informed judgements about how to change such states and societies. The transformation of countries is a very complex and difficult process. War is a blunt and weak instrument to change regimes – and it rarely works.The exceptional conditions shaping the Second World War and after, which allowed the allies to occupy Germany and Japan and begin a process of reform: these conditions enabled the long-term reconstruction of these states and their democratic transformation. In contemporary circumstances, where democratic societies are hesitant to commit troops and are highly sensitive to the loss of national lives, on the one hand, and where globalization links people across the world, highlighting the costs and sacrifices involved in engagements of all kinds, on the other, these conditions are simply absent.
The creation of democratic states is, moreover, a long and arduous historical process, fraught with risk and uncertainty. The history of the West alone highlights the difficulties of nation-building, and of cultural change. Democracy took over three hundred years to reach its modern form in Europe, and even then it was nearly derailed by the rise of fascism, Nazism and Stalinism in the mid-twentieth century. The shift in people’s identities from subjects to citizens, with equal rights and obligations in a political community, and where victory or defeat at the polls are prospects that have to be accepted, rests on intricate cultural processes. Separating individual identity as a member of a group, tribe, ethnic unit, or religious order from the culture and demands of citizenship involves an arduous and historically difficult set of transformations. The values and requirements of citizenship in a democracy come to trump those of other forms of social and cultural identification, such that being a member of a tribe or ethnic group is secondary to the rule of law and constitutional demands. These delicate processes of change cannot be short-circuited if democratic public life is to develop and prosper. And, yet, this is exactly what the post-9/11 wars sought to do, and failed to do. The most elementary understanding of democratic history would have warned Western political leaders and foreign policy makers against taking such a stance.
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Minimum wisdom has shaped the post-9/11 era with all the consequences we live with today. Broken states across the Middle East, mass migration from and through warzones, the constant threat of terrorism, the rise of xenophobia and nationalism, and the mounting socio-economic challenges facing Western states constitute the current period. All this should not come as a surprise. These difficult and challenging problems were the inevitable result of misconceived wars, and they plot the complex ramifications that have followed. One of the latter has been damage to the idea of democracy. How could democracy be a universal political ideal if it was used as one of the principle justifications of the disastrous post 9/11 wars? How much damage was done to democracy by the violent efforts to depose the Middle East autocrats in its name and by all the death and destruction that followed? Even if it is true, of course, that the motives for the post 9/11 wars were mixed, including the pursuit of terrorists in Afghanistan, oil in Iraq and Libya and domestic electoral advantage in Libya and Syria, the idea of democracy and the pursuit of human rights became embroiled in the war makers’ rhetoric.
The Short-lived Arab Spring
Some of the consequences of this can be traced throughout the Arab Spring. The uprisings that swept across the Middle East in 2011 promised a political transformation as significant as that of 1989—the velvet revolution that brought down the Soviet Union and its satellite states. The economic stagnation of the region, the failures of corrupt and repressive regimes, conjoined with a disenchanted youthful population wired together as never before, triggered a political struggle few anticipated. Yet, almost from the outset, there was a lack of a common vision for the transformation of the region’s political regimes and the wider Middle East. The initial peaceful demonstrations in Tunis and Cairo quickly gave way to a messy and uncertain pathway of transition. A few years on, the contagious revolutionary fervour faded as successor regimes failed to deliver quick or lasting improvements in living standards, the quality of life and governance. Moreover, the brutal civil war in Syria, the radicalisation of militia groups in Libya, and discrediting of the Muslim Brotherhood as a governing alternative in Egypt all strengthened the forces resisting change throughout the region. The removal of Mohammed Morsi from the Egyptian Presidency in July 2013 and consequent reinstatement of military-led rule encapsulated the stunning reversion to the status quo ante in the Arab world’s most populous nation.
In 1989 the movements of Central and Eastern Europe by and large shared an ambition to topple their governments and replace them with Western European forms of democracy, the entrenchment of human rights and the benefits of consumer-led economic growth. As the direction of travel was in western interests, governments in Europe and North America wholeheartedly welcomed them. By contrast, the signifier ‘democracy’ carried much more complex meaning in the Arab world in 2011. This was because the West had propped up most of the Arab autocrats, seemed to switch sides to support the peoples seeking change only at the cynical last minute, and, crucially, led a war against terrorism largely in the Arab world, which was perceived by young Arabs across the Middle East as imperialism in yet another manifestation. Against this background, democracy appeared all too readily as a veil masking the shifting tide of western geopolitical interests, propping up authoritarian leaders in the name of ‘stability,’ commercial and oil concerns, and support for Israel’s security.
The factors underpinning the weakening of the Arab Spring and its subsequent usurpation by anti-revolutionary forces from within and outside the Middle East were complex and various. But the tainting of democracy by the post 9/11 wars was certainly one of the disorganizing and disorienting forces of the movements for change. Who gets what, when and why are no longer questions confined to particular state silos, democratic or otherwise. The era we live in today is one of both colossal promise and uncertainty. Why? One of the primary reasons is globalization, which has unsettled established political relations, altered labour market conditions, created dense webs of global economic interconnectedness, shifted the costs and benefits of established social and economic policy, and formed new patterns of winners and losers.
Globalization and Global Governance
Globalization is not a new phenomenon: various forms of globalization have developed over time from the spread of world religions and the rise of empires to the rebuilding of the world economy after the Second World War. The extensity, density and velocity of global interconnections today, however, were given an enormous impetus by the digital revolution and the advent of satellite communication. The epiphenomenon of these global shifts is the instantaneous movement of information, which has made social media a feature of everyday life across the world. But deeper shifts have occurred in the very way the world economy is organized making possible 24 hour trading in world financial markets, the stretching of the economic division of labour across the world, and the rapid movements of goods and services. In short, we have entered a world of overlapping communities of fate, where the fate and fortunes of countries have become increasingly intertwined in all aspects of life, from the economy to security and the environment.
Globalization today creates a world of remarkable opportunity and risk. Opportunity because a global division of labour, world trade patterns, global communication infrastructures, a rules-based institutional order and a growing sense that action is needed now on global challenges creates unparalleled prospects for prosperity, development and peaceful coexistence. Risk because never before have human communities been so densely connected allowing a crisis in one place, whether economic or security driven, to ricochet across the world in seconds. Hence, the era is one of significant promise and colossal challenges. At the same time, the knowledge humankind has developed is no longer just an elite privilege; diffused and available on the internet (accessible to over a third of the world’s population), the cognitive resources of science and culture can be explored and exploited by a diversity of actors, with benign or regressive intent.
The global challenges we face today cross many sectors of human life. But by and large they are indicative of three core types of problems – those concerned with sharing our planet (climate change, biodiversity and ecosystem losses, water deficits), sustaining our life chances (poverty, conflict prevention, global infectious diseases) and managing our rulebooks (nuclear proliferation, toxic waste disposal, intellectual property rights, genetic research rules, trade rules, finance and tax rules). In our increasingly interconnected world, these global problems cannot be solved by any one nation-state acting alone. They call for collective and collaborative action – something that the nations of the world have not been good at, and which they need to be better at if these pressing issues are to be adequately tackled.
Until recently, the West has, by and large, determined the rules of the game on the global stage. During the last century, Western countries presided over a shift in world power – from control via territory to control via the creation of governance structures created in the post 1945 era. From the United Nations and the formation of the Bretton-Woods institutions to the Rio Declaration on the environment and the creation of the World Trade Organization, international agreements have invariably served to entrench a well-established international power structure. The division of the globe into powerful nation-states, with distinctive sets of geopolitical interests, and reflecting the international power structure as it was understood in 1945, is still embedded in the articles and statutes of leading intergovernmental organizations, such as the UN, the IMF and the World Bank. Voting rights are distributed largely in relation to individual financial contributions, and geo-economic strength is embedded and integrated into decision-making procedures.
The result has been susceptibility of the major international governmental organizations (IGOs) to the agendas of the most powerful states, partiality in the enforcement of their operations (or lack of them altogether), their continued dependency on financial support from a few major states, and weaknesses in the policing of global collective action problems. This was dominance based on a ‘club’ model of global governance and legitimacy. Policy at the international level was decided by a core set of powerful countries, above all the G1, G5 and G7, with the rest largely excluded from the decision-making process.
Shifting Centre of Economic Gravity
Today, however, that picture is changing. The trajectory of Western dominance has come to a clear halt with the shortcomings and failures of dominant elements of western economic and security policy over the last three decades. The West can no longer rule through power or example alone. At the same time, Asia is on the ascent. Over the last half-century, East and Southeast Asia has more than doubled its share of world GDP and increased per capita income at an average growth rate almost 2½ times that in the rest of the world. In the last two decades alone, emerging Asian economies have experienced an average growth rate of almost eight per cent – three times the rate in the rich world. In the 1980s, the Asian tigers – South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore – put themselves on the global economic map; from the 1990s onwards, India and China, among others, began to grow at unprecedented speed until, of course, China became the largest economy in the world (measured by Purchasing Power Parity) and the second largest (in nominal terms). This trend was given an enormous impetus by the financial crisis of 2008, which for several years saw a collapse and subsequent stagnation of growth in much of the West, while the Asian economies continued to grow at a rapid pace. These developments have generated a significant shift in the centre of economic gravity eastwards. In the nineteenth century, the world’s centre of economic gravity lay somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. By 2050 it is predicted on current trends to fall between India and China.
The trajectory of change is towards a multipolar world, where the West no longer holds a premium on geopolitical or economic power. Moreover, different discourses and concepts of governance have emerged to challenge the old Western orthodoxy of multilateralism and the post-war order. At the same time, complex global processes, from the ecological to the financial, connect the fate of communities to each other across the world in new ways, requiring effective, accountable and inclusive problem-solving capacity. How this capacity can be ensured is an altogether different matter.
While large parts of the world were in ruins after the Second World War, the US and its allies were able to create a new institutional architecture to help produce a form of ‘governed globalization’. The UN system, the Bretton Woods institutions, and many more agencies, despite being shaped by American interests above all, put in place a rules-based international system that was sufficiently peaceful, open, and liberal to allow the world economy to take off once again. What is striking about this system is that, over time, it allowed new entrants to the world economy, not just on liberal terms, but on their own. India and China, along with other BRICS countries, are often understood to have been successful because they adopted the liberal rule structures of the post-war international economy. The mantra of the so-called Washington Consensus was that market liberalization and global market integration are the key to prosperity, and many economists have understood India and China’s success in these terms. But the truth is that they managed their entrance into the world economy, only liberalizing sectors once they were strong, only lowering tariffs selectively, keeping hold of core investment decisions and maintaining managed currencies.
Of course, the post-war liberal order was far from peaceful for everyone. The US and the Soviet Union fought proxy wars across the world for nearly 50 years, and sought to carve out their own distinctive spheres of political economic influence. Nonetheless, the post-war institutional structures kept the Great Powers talking to each other and, along with the threat of mutually-assured destruction (MAD), created the conditions for a deepening of interdependence between them and their allies. The nuclear stand-off of the Cold War paradoxically drew world powers closer together as a way to mitigate the threat and ensure that military posturing did not escalate into all-out nuclear confrontation. Thus, despite all its complexities and risks, the post-Second World War era of ‘governed globalization’ contributed to relative peace and prosperity around the world over several decades. While the economic record of the post-war varies by countries and region, many experienced significant growth, and living standards rose rapidly across several parts of the world.
Gridlock and Multilateral Politics
The post-war institutions created conditions under which a multitude of actors could benefit from forming corporations, investing abroad, developing global production chains, and engaging with a plethora of other social and economic processes associated with globalization. This is not to say that they were the only cause of the dynamic form of globalization experienced over the last few decades. Changes in the nature of global capitalism, including breakthroughs in transportation and information technology, are obviously critical drivers of interdependence. Nonetheless, all of these changes were allowed to thrive and develop because they took place in a relatively open, peaceful, liberal, institutionalized world order. By preventing World War Three and another Great Depression, the multilateral order arguably did just as much for interdependence as digital communication, satellite technology, and email.
These developments, however, have now progressed to the point where they have altered our ability to engage in further global cooperation. That is, economic and political shifts in large part attributable to the successes of the post-war rules-based order are now amongst the factors grinding that system into gridlock. As a result of the remarkable success of global cooperation in the post-war order, human interconnectedness weighs much more heavily on politics than it did in 1945, and the need for international cooperation is marked. Yet the “supply” side of the equation, institutionalized multilateral cooperation, is stalling. In areas such as nuclear proliferation, the explosion of small arms sales, terrorism, failed states, global economic imbalances, financial market instability, global poverty and inequality, biodiversity losses, water deficits and climate change, multilateral and transnational cooperation is now increasingly ineffective or threadbare. Gridlock is not unique to one issue domain, but appears to be becoming a general feature of global governance: cooperation seems to be increasingly difficult and deficient at precisely the time when it is extremely urgent.
There are four reasons for this blockage, or four pathways to gridlock as they are called: rising multipolarity, institutional inertia, harder problems, and institutional fragmentation. Each pathway can be thought of as a growing trend that embodies a specific mix of causal mechanisms. First, reaching agreement in complex international negotiations is hampered by the rise of new powers such as India, China and Brazil, which means that a more diverse array of interests have to be hammered into agreement for any global deal to be made. On the one hand, multipolarity is a positive sign of development; on the other hand, it can easily bring both more voices and interests to the table that are hard to weave into coherent outcomes. Second, the institutions created 70 years ago have proven difficult to change as established interests cling to outmoded decision-making rules that fail to reflect current conditions. Third, the problems we are facing on a global scale have grown more complex, penetrating deep into domestic policies and are often extremely difficult to resolve. Fourth, in many areas international institutions have proliferated with overlapping and contradictory mandates, creating a confusing fragmentation of authority.
These trends combine in many sectors to make successful cooperation at the global level extremely difficult to achieve. The risks that follow from this are all too obvious. To manage the global economy, prevent runaway environmental destruction, reign in nuclear proliferation, or confront other global challenges, we must cooperate. But many of our tools for global policy making are breaking down or inadequate – chiefly, state-to-state negotiations over treaties and international institutions – at a time when our fate and fortunes are acutely interwoven. Signs of this today are everywhere: climate change is still threatening all life as we know it, conflicts such as Syria continue to run out of control, small arms sales proliferate despite all efforts to contain them, migration has increased rapidly and is destabilising many societies, and inequality threatens the fabric of social life across the world. While it is far from gloom and doom in all respects, these are dangerous trends stemming from governance structures that are no longer fit for purpose.
Politics at a Crossroads
We are at a crossroads. One road points to the inexorable rise of authoritarianism, while another opens up a more hopeful cosmopolitan future. The path to authoritarianism can be created by the dangerous drift in the world order and a search for decisive solutions from ‘strong man’ leaders faced with a world that is seemingly out of control and where a retreat to the familiar (and away from the Other) offers a tempting way forward. We see such trends across many different kinds of countries, from Brexit Britain to Trump’s America, Duarte’s Philippines, Putin’s Russia, Modi’s India, and Erdogan’s Turkey. Of course, we have been here before. The 1930s saw the rise of xenophobia and nationalism in the context of prolonged and protracted economic strife, the lingering impact of World War I, weak international institutions and a desperate search for scapegoats. The 2010s have notable parallels: the protracted fallout of the global financial crisis, ineffective regional and international institutions, and a growing xenophobic discourse that places virtually all blame for every problem on some form of Other.
But there are alternative routes. To begin with, we have the option of recalling where the pursuit of authoritarianism leads. The routes chosen in the 1930s all led to calamity and destruction, and the rediscovery in the 1940s onwards of the dangers of simply putting up the shutters, pursuing protectionism and denying the equal dignity of each and all. The architects of the post-war era, who put in place a re-invigorated law of war and the human rights regime, set down elements of a universal constitutional order in which the principles of the equal moral standing of each and every person, and the equal rights and duties of each and all, became the bedrock of peace and stability.
Moreover, a cosmopolitan model of politics and regulation can be found in some of the most important achievements of law and institution building in the twentieth century. These developments set down a conception of rightful authority tied to human rights and democratic values which can be entrenched in wide-ranging settings. In this perspective, political power is legitimate, if and only if, it is democratic and upholds human rights. In addition, the link between territory, sovereignty and rightful authority is, in principle, broken since rightful authority can be exercised in many spheres and at many levels, local, subnational, national and supranational. Accordingly, citizenship can be envisaged, as it is already in the European Union, as equal membership in the diverse, overlapping political communities which uphold common civic and political values and standards. Citizenship, thus conceived, is not built on an exclusive membership of a single community but on a set of principles and legal arrangements which link people together in the diverse communities which significantly affect them. Accordingly, patriotism would be misunderstood if it meant, as it all too often has done, ‘my country right or wrong’. Rather, it comes to mean loyalty to the standards and values of rightful authority – to common civic and political principles, appropriately embedded.
Suitably developed, this conception of global politics envisages a multilayered and multilevel polity, from cities to global associations, bound by a common framework of law anchored in democratic principles and human rights. The state does not wither away in this conception; rather, it becomes one element in the protection and maintenance of political authority, democracy and human rights in the dense web of global forces and processes that already shape our lives. Perhaps more importantly still, it points to a political order no longer exclusively anchored in raison d’état and hegemonic state projects but in principles of global cooperation and cosmopolitan association.
The European Union in Crisis
The European Union today articulates some of these complex and contradictory trends. At its core the EU can be characterized as a Kantian project: an attempt to create a peaceful union of European states from the wreckage of the Second World War and the orgy of violence that left Europe broken and exhausted, one that cooperates on all transregional issues. This ideal remains fundamental to the European project even though the reality is fraught with the compromises of geopolitics. The EU has been through turbulent cycles of deepening and broadening – first the core states, then Spain, Portugal, Greece, then, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, membership was extended to central and eastern European states. But behind all the turbulent transitions, European leaders like Helmut Kohl were eager to move forward the European ideal through the policy and practice of extending and entrenching the Union as a multilevel polity combining elements of supranational, national, regional and local governance.
However, this ideal is increasingly compromised by a series of regional and global challenges. The lingering impact of the global financial crisis on European economic growth, the collapse of the Greek economy and its aftermath, the unsettling impact of mass migration across Europe’s southern and eastern borders, and terrorism which has struck in Paris, Nice and Brussels, are, among other problems, testing the governance capacities of the Union itself. These have typically been well adapted to a world of rising prosperity, which could accommodate key interests and allow all boats to rise together. Moreover, the European Union was strongly bound together in the post-war years because of two crucial social and symbolic experiences. The first of these was the Second World War and its legacy. The second was the Cold War which gave Europe a marked sense of negative integration. But when the Cold War came to an end and the Soviet threat was over, the question arose: what would bind Europe in the future? In the 1990s and early 2000s, faced with mounting economic and social difficulties, the EU needed positive ideals and norms of integration, such as commitments to social justice, sustainability and well-being, which were too often either latent or absent. Perhaps the British decision to support Brexit is the most obvious expression of this set of profound weaknesses and difficulties.
Under these circumstances, identity and distributional struggles typically intensify; mutual gain gives way to zero-sum, and the social order risks fragmentation and sectional struggle. It is not a surprise, accordingly, that the rise of the far right is a sustained and troubling trend. From Nigel Farage and UKIP in the United Kingdom, to Le Pen and the National Front in France, to Golden Dawn in Greece, to Norbert Hofer in Austria, and to the Danish People’s Party in Denmark, this trend is manifest across Europe. The retreat to nationalism and militant identity politics is counter to the process of national accommodation that has underpinned European peace since the end of the Second World War. It is as if all that was learnt in the wake of Second World War and the Holocaust and Gulag risks being undone. And yet, it would be false to assign all responsibility for the erosion of accommodation to right wing politics. Exclusionary politics can, and does, come from all sides of the political spectrum and has clear manifestations on the far-left in Britain, France and Germany to name a few.
A future worth struggling for
The years since 9/11 have cast a dark shadow over global politics in many respects. The wars and crises of this period have put at risk the wisdom and achievements of the architects of the post Second World War era: of the founders of the UN and EU, of those who established and advanced the human rights regime, of the many actors and agencies that have tried to mitigate climate change and other environmental threats, and of those who have struggled to address poverty and inequality across the world, among many other pressing issues. But while these wars and crises have put this all at risk, the achievements of the post-1945 era have not yet been undermined or damaged to the point of no return. The future is still in our hands. Our forebears created stepping stones to a universal constitutional order, and we can still walk across them and build on them further. This remains a future worth struggling for.
At the same time, we have to remember at all stages the lessons of the post-9/11 years, lessons which are as pragmatic as they are normative. The approach to politics and social transformation must, in all respects, be the opposite of the era of minimum wisdom, minimum understanding of history and development, and the shoot from the hip attempts to impose single models of government on different peoples and cultures. It is still important to be ambitious for change, yet it is equally important to modest in the means deployed. The use of force must always and everywhere be a last resort and can only be a means to protect people if embedded in a transformative plan that builds on the needs and aspirations of those who have been subjected to brutal regimes, and who will have to live with the consequences of intervention, soft or hard. We need to learn the languages of others, by not simply grasping their words, but by understanding the deep structure of meaning that is rooted in their traditions and ways of living. And we need to be informed by an understanding of what is possible; that is, by an understanding that culture changes according to its own rhythm and typically very slowly, and that people’s identities are embedded in long traditions of cultural development and only shift with the passage of time.
The other side of the cosmopolitan commitment to the equal moral worth of every human being, and to the equal freedom of each and all, is an acceptance of the plurality of ways of living and a tolerance of this diversity in all its richness, with one qualification – that pluralism does not undermine the boundaries of moral and political equality. With this understanding, we can begin to move out of the dark shadow of 9/11 and its aftermath and seek to establish a global order that serves the many, and not the few. But it will not be easy. Every element of this project needs re-articulation, renewed defence and a new generation of activists and champions.
This essay examines some of the themes explored more fully in my recent EBook, Global Politics after 9/11, published by Global Policy and Wiley