Toward Benign Global Leadership in a Post-Trumpist World Order
BY TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 11 Jun 2018
This is a revision of a post that was published as #534 on May 14, 2018 in the TRANSCEND Media Service with the title “World Order after the Cold War.” This essay discusses possible future geopolitical relationships that might provide beneficial global leadership, much needed if current world order challenges are to be met this side of catastrophe.
7 Jun 2018 –The Cold War ended abruptly and surprisingly, not only preceded by the Gorbachev softening of the ideological dimension but his offers to the world of an uplifting alternative to geopolitical rivalry and predatory neoliberal globalization: war prevention and common security, as well as internal democratizing reforms crystallized by the Russian words glasnost and perestroika. At first, it seemed to sympathetic observers an overhaul of socialism that resembled the program of reform that Franklin Roosevelt had put into practice in the United States during to rescue the country from the depths of the Great Depression. Missing a golden opportunity for global reform the West watched with triumphal glee as the Soviet system unraveled. Instead of lending this innovative leader in Moscow a helping hand the United States did all it could do to hasten the Soviet collapse. How different, and better, the world might have been if Washington had sought to make Gorbachev’s Kremlin in the redesign of world order along humanistic lines!
This lost opportunity to transform the negative bipolarity of the Cold War era in the direction of positive bipolarity illustrated a historically significant failure of moral and political imagination. The essence of positive bipolarity would have involved transformations of the war system and predatory capitalism as the basis of world order. This would be combined with an embrace of common security at the level of sovereign states, human security as the level of society, and a reliance on robust lawmaking multilateralism in the face of such global challenges as nuclear weaponry, climate change, acute poverty, and migration.
The aftermath of the Cold War exhibited several forms of dysfunctionality: failures by the American-led West to recognize and act upon a new global agenda that served the human interest rather than continue to pursue geopolitical ambitions by relying on coercive diplomacy, an inadequately regulated world economy, and militarist leverage. With a variety of global disasters in the offing, it is more urgent than ever to explore whether there remains an emergent possibility of positive forms of world order. A brief overview of what went wrong after the Cold War ended serves as a prelude to exploring what might be put right, although not at all likely to happen without transnational revolutionary ferment in support of humane global governance.
The Failed Response: Unipolarity
With the Cold War over, a unipolar moment appeared to be the most accurate way of regarding the geopolitical structure of world politics after this geopolitically painless ending of Cold War bipolarity, fortunately occurring without an accompanying major warfare or civil strife. The United States despite the wide open window of opportunity, seemed to take no notice, and instead built a bridge to nowhere called ‘full spectrum dominance.’
It does appear in retrospect that U.S. suffered from a paralyzing version of triumphalism after the Soviet collapse, glorified in various shortsighted narratives of its victory, most influentially, perhaps, by Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. Establishment gurus supported the American-led response to Iraq’s attack and annexation of Kuwait in 1990, especially with the backing of the peacekeeping consensus at the UN, and a ringing proclamation by George H.W. Bush of ‘a new world order.’ He based this enthusiasm on the apparent new potential for P-5 cooperation under U.S. leader and a more active UN role, finally seeming to fulfill Charter intentions. Unfortunately, these hopes were never thought through, and proved in any event to be transitory.
The Bush, Sr. presidency showed quickly its lack of commitment to the emergence of a new world order beyond the opportunistic and temporary relevance of the label to help mobilize an anti-Iraq consensus to support a legally questionable recourse to war. The idea that this was the beginning of more serious forms of collective global governance in the aftermath of the Cold War was just not present in the American political imaginary. Rather the low causality efficiency of the military operations that achieved an easy victory in the Gulf War overcame the lingering so-called Vietnam Syndrome, thereby restoring the confidence of the U.S. in the relevance of its military prowess. Not since the humbling defeat in Vietnam was there any public belief that the war machine could prevail quickly in time and at acceptable costs.
Bill Clinton’s presidency was no more capable of shaping a constructive international response to the new realities of international life than had been the elder Bush. Clinton promoted the predatory capitalist view of the new world order by giving priority to the efficiency of transnational capital at the expense of the wellbeing of people. This goal of facilitating the transnational flow of capital contributed to a perverse shift of ideological emphasis from Keynesian to neoliberal economics, further marginalizing concern for the harmful human consequences of unregulated markets, setting the stage for various forms of trouble. This shift to neoliberalism is significantly responsible for the severe inequalities that now afflict the internal public orders of many states, as well as insufficient attention to global warming. The resulting alienation helps explain the rise of freely elected autocrats whose popularity rests on a mindless hostility to the established order.
Perhaps the most tragic effect of such responses to the end of the Cold War was the lost opportunity to exert two major forms of positive U.S. leadership: seriously proposing international negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament and other forms of demilitarization; and strengthening the UN by adding non-Western permanent members to the Security Council to reflect the new geopolitical landscape, as well as confining the veto to circumstances of self-defense.
The 1990s did achieve a temporary depolarization in international relations yet without accompanying normative improvements by strengthening international institutions to uphold global interests. U.S. leadership was focused on narcissistic geopolitics lacking even a self-interested long-term vision. This kind of lapse was further aggravated by the rise of neoconservative influence in the U.S. that favored relying on military superiority to promote strategic interests, especially in the Middle East.
Mishandling Mega-Terrorism after 9/11
The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were apparently the work of a non-state actor, heralding two broad developments affecting the structure and processes of world order: first, the resecuritizing of international relations, which meant reasserting the primacy of politics over economics as the vector of geopolitical behavior; secondly, deciding that the proper response to the attacks should be shaped by the war paradigm rather than the crime paradigm, which had been relied upon in the past by governments when dealing with terrorism.
In one respect, the war on terror was an extension of unipolarity, especially given the political logic articulated by George W. Bush to the effect, ‘you are either with us, or with the terrorists.’ Beyond this demand for solidarity with the counterterrorist side, there is the sense that territorial sovereignty of any country can be legally breached if its government is unable or unwilling to eliminate terrorists from its soil. There are no safe havens if the entire world becomes the battlefield.
The decision of the Bush Jr. presidency to treat the 9/11 attacks as ‘war’ rather ‘crime’ has caused many concerns about civilizational decline, and the abandonment of international law and common humanity. The names Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are appropriately invoked to epitomize what went perversely wrong in the response to 9/11, considering the early attempt to portray the conflict as pitting the evil terrorists against the benevolent democrats.
As with the earlier failure to take advantage of the end of the Cold War, the 9/11 attack were another lost opportunity to enhance world order by devising a regime of common security. Such a regime could be adapted to regulating non-state violent political crimes and transnational extremist movements by inter-governmental police cooperation, as abetted in exceptional circumstances by paramilitary and military tactics.
The 9/11 response by way of a series of controversial and costly international wars that failed to achieve their security goals despite a massive military commitment weakened international law, the UN, and multilateralism generally. It also seriously compromised the quality and reputation of democratic life in liberal societies by its excessive encroachment on civil and political rights.
While the U.S. was engaged in military adventurism at a time when war was losing its historical agency, China, India, Brazil, Russia were gaining influence and making impressive developmental progress. The G-20 was established to create a more representative venue for global economic policy but its lack of institutionalization and authority are part of a confusing situation that features inadequate and incoherent international regulation of the world economy. States, led by the United States increasingly rely on narrowly nationalistic economic policies posing rising risks of trade wars and regressive forms of protectionism. What has emerged is an ineffectual form of multipolarity that leaves at risk the agendas of trade, investment, and development. In relation to global security there seems to be emerging an amalgam of military unipolarity without political effectiveness, exhibiting a helpless passivity with respect to repeated atrocities and massacres, typified by pathetic responses to the Syrian War raging since 2011 and the failure to protect the people of Gaza subject to repeated abuse by Israel over the course of many years.
Alternatives to Anemic Multipolarity
The sort of anemic multipolarity (as distorted by an inept unipolar militarism)just described is inherently unstable given the increasing tensions and harms resulting from insufficiently attended contemporary challenges of global scope. As seems obvious, either a creative alternative will emerge or there is likely to be a series of regressive trends and events associated with worsening conditions arising from one or more of these unmet world order challenges. The most plausible positive alternatives under these conditions are benevolent leadership for either multilateralism or bipolarity. The assumption here is that the United States under Trump, as complemented by a reactionary and unprincipled Congress, is no longer motivated or capable of exercising the kind of leadership role that it had assumed since 1945, admittedly always with mixed results from the perspective of humane values.
What might multilateralism with benevolent leadership mean? China has demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for soft power extension of influence together with the greatest surge of economic growth in all of history. China seems to have a mature and realistic appreciation of the need for global problem solving and management of global warming, nuclear policy, and the world economy. Whether it can deliver the kind of globally oriented leadership needed at this stage of history is an unanswered question. As the most promising next global leader China will need to overcome several obstacles: the fact that Chinese is not spoken outside its borders; China lacks a globally traded currency; China has little experience in global, as distinct from regional, diplomacy; China has a poor human rights record at home; and Chinese ideology, itself now rather obscure, is without many foreign adherents even if its own practice seems pragmatically motivated.
Maybe it is premature to count the United States as out of the leadership game. It seems possible, maybe likely, that the Trump presidency will, in one way or another, be rejected by means other than global catastrophe, that is, by electoral rejection, impeachment, resignation. It also seems that a progressive backlash to Trumpism will occur in the United States and perhaps elsewhere, as well as a rejection of the recent global wave of exclusivist nationalism. A new global mood might be receptive to a revival of creative multilateralism, vitality for the UN and other international institutions, and display support for more compassionate global public policy processes that are not narrowly focused on national interests, and more attuned to the promotion of global and human interests.
A variant of this kind of more hopeful world order scenario would result from a new global political atmosphere induced by a shared recognition of urgent challenges. Such an atmosphere could lead to what might be called benevolent bipolarity in which the United States and China collaborate much as wartime alliances have produced strong cooperative relations temporarily bonding heretofore antagonistic political actors. This was the case with the anti-fascist coalition. Such bipolarity would complement multilateralism by concentrating policymaking in these two governmental centers of authority, status, influence, and capabilities. It would extend their current reach to encompass common and human security systems that gradually rendered the war system obsolete and discredited reliance on coercive geopolitics. During this process security would increasingly be assessed from the perspectives of human rights, global justice, civilizational equality, and ecological sustainability.
Such a reframing of policy formation in the domain of security would achieve a new kind of two-level world order:
- leadership exercised by the collaborative efforts of China and the United States;
- multilateral lawmaking and humane policy pursued by states, as influenced by and coordinated with civil society actors around the world.
A Concluding Remark
We are living in a period of radical uncertainty, although increasingly imperiled by palpable world order challenges. The dominant current trend is highly problematic, configured by various expressions of resurgent and exclusivist nationalism that is irresponsibly unresponsive to an array of global challenges. It is highly unstable because the challenges on the global agenda urgently require an unprecedented scale of cooperation and global leadership or catastrophe is almost certain to follow. We hope for the best, especially the resilience and mobilization of civil society accompanied by the reemergence of visionary leaders of state and non-state actors sensitive to and creative about meeting the array of global challenges.
What is politically feasible at this point will not do. The peoples of the world deserve and require a politics that recognizes what is necessary and aspires and acts to attain what is desirable. A first step in the right direction is a recognition of the vital role that could be played by greater trust in what might be called the public imagination.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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