One of the points President Obama made in his note to President Trump is: "It's up to us, through action and example, to sustain the international order that's expanded steadily since the Cold War."
Just within the last few days international news has included a seemingly endless brutal civil war in Syria; an equally brutal war in Yemen that has morphed from civil strife to a devastating proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran; the slow motion crisis on the Korean peninsula; tensions and conflict in the South China Sea; the resurgence of anti-democratic, hyper-nationalist movements in Europe; a humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, among other problematic situations. It’s easy to ask skeptically, “What ‘international order’ are we talking about?”
I think we need to clear away some conceptual underbrush before we can talk about what Obama meant by “the international order” and why it is up to us to do something to sustain it.
1) The international system is anarchic;
2) Cooperation is often hard to see and is boring;
3) Conflict takes care of itself; cooperation requires care and feeding;
4) The role of institutions and norms
In its original sense, “anarchy” means a situation in which there is no overarching authority. The connotations of violence and chaos arose from one strain of anarchist thought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
An underlying principle of international relations since the inception of nation-states is that there is no authority above the nation-state. That does not mean that international relations is a war of all against all or that cooperation and peace are impossible. But it does make it more difficult.
Cooperation is often hard to see and is boring.
Cooperation can be hard to see because it is not news and not an immediate threat. “News” is, by definition, something out of the ordinary, and often something that seems threatening. Wars and violence stand out against a background of overwhelmingly peaceful and cooperative relations within and between countries. Today’s headlines are not dominated by stories about French-German relations because there is nothing going on between the two couturiers, but because the host of daily interactions of the governments and citizens of the two countries are cooperative and routine.
Cooperation is also hard to see because it is boring. Successful cooperation leads to solving problems and avoiding bad outcomes. The International Civil Aviation Organization is an international body, headquartered in Montreal that regulates international air travel by getting states to negotiate and agree to rules and standards. One of its achievements is making English the language that all pilots and all air controllers must use.
Super trivia that has absolutely nothing to do with your life? Except that if there were no agreed upon global standard, a pilot would have to know the language of every country she was flying over to talk to the air controllers and the language of the country she was flying to in order to land successfully. And there would be some tragic accidents, which would make the news.
Conflict Takes Care of Itself; Cooperation Requires Care and Feeding.
Think of two individuals who really dislike each other and clash consistently. Neither has to wake up in the morning and worry about keeping the feud going; they can be sure the other will do something aggravating and obnoxious. On the other hand, a friendship does require some attention ot the relationship. Someone has to make an effort to keep in touch, to respond to the other person’s feelings and needs, to make sure to avoid “out of sight, out of mind.”
Two of the most important aspects of conflict and cooperation are the order in which costs and benefits occur and scarce, biased information.
Conflict is a lot like a bad habit – the benefits come now, costs come later. The pleasure of that large banana split is immediate; the bad news that you've gained weight comes tomorrow. There are benefits to national leaders from conflict; the most notable is the “rally round the flag” phenomenon. Most of the costs of a conflict unfold over months or years. Cooperation, on the other hand, often entails giving up some immediate good thing or paying for something now in exchange for being better off later on.
In international politics information is scarce and biased toward the short term. Many governments can get quite good information about what is happening within their own borders but it is much harder to find out what is really happening elsewhere in the world, especially in less developed areas. And even when you do have good information, it tends to be most accurate and reliable about the immediate past and near future. It is far easier to be pretty sure about what will happen tomorrow or next week or even next year than to look ten years in the future. (And most world leaders do not expect to be in office and responsible ten years from now.)
The Impact of Institutions.
An institution, an established body of procedures and rules, can affect the costs and benefits for states. For one thing, they can reduce the costs of cooperation by taking advantage of economies of scale and by burden sharing. For example, the successful global campaign to eradicate smallpox did not require each country to come up with its own plans, drugs and medical personnel. The World Helath Organization marshaled the expertise to develop vaccination programs, the field workers to carry them out and the money to pay for them. A more poignant example is the onset of World War I, when many of the leaders involved in the headlong rush to mobilize and attack believed that the war could be avoided if only the national leaders could meet and talk face to face. But in the absence of an institution like the UN where meetings can be arranged almost immediately, setting up an international summit would take weeks, if not months, and in the meantime the armies were racing toward their bloody embrace.
Institutions can significantly lessen the problems with information. First, they can generate information that no single country can get on its own. In the 1980’s some countries had pretty good information on temperature changes over time within their borders; most did not. And most countries neither knew nor cared about changes in Arctic. But the World Meteorological Organization provided a forum for the cooperative exchange of climate information and support for scientists trying to measure climate in less developed countries. This created information about the planet as a whole and provided the first solid evidence of climate change. Evermore institutions can introduce what economists refer to as “the shadow of the future” providing information about what is likely to happen. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize) has been instrumental in convincing [most] governments that they need to cooperate now to avoid more serious problems in the future.
Anarchists supposedly believe that there are no laws, only suggestions. But most states do accept the existence and relevance of international law, and international relations scholars have increasingly emphasized the emergence of norms that guide state behavior. For example, it is almost universally agreed that it is no longer legitimate to acquire territory by conquest. In the last 70 years the UN General Assembly has been a major source of declarations and conventions that attempt to establish guidelines for how states treat their own citizens, as well as deal with each other. Even countries who actual policies make a mockery of declarations on the status of women, for example, file reports with the UN and proclaim their progressive societies. As the French philosopher said, “hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.” And it can be shown that international norms do, over time and incrementally, influence countries’ national policies.
Institutions and Norms: The International Order in the Early 21st Century.
Generals, it is asserted, are always prepared to fight the last war. Peacemakers, it seems, are always prepared to prevent the last war. The League of Nations, for example, was clearly designed to prevent World War I.
In 1942, before the Battle of Midway checked the Japanese advance in the Pacific, or the British defeated the Germans in North Africa and long before the Soviets defeated the Germans at Stalingrad, the United States began planning for the post war world and much of that planning reflected an attempt to avoid the problems that led to World War II. But as the planning became multi-national, including Britain, France and The Soviet Union in the discussions, the focus widened from the immediate causes of the war to a large scale restructuring of international relations. While much of the inspiration remained the trauma of World War II, the architects deliberately built flexibility into the proposed institutions and left many of the details to be resolved by future negotiations.
The result was the modern international order: a set of institutions and norms that could grow and evolve even in the face of completely unforeseen circumstances to create the fundamentally cooperative background of the world we live in today and offer our best chance to avoid a cataclysmic future. I will try to describe the major features of the system without going into too much detail and without trying to assess their strengths and weaknesses.
The political dimension.
The United Nations Security Council was designed to prevent the emergence of an aggressive dictator or the escalation of a small conflict into a major confrontation because the major powers (the five permanent members) would coordinate their responses. While it seemed fine to empower the Council to impose its will on other countries, the Big Five gave themselves the veto to make sure it would not happen to them. The General Assembly was designed as a “talk shop” that gave every state a chance to express an opinion.
Since the necessity of major power agreement was an underlying assumption of the United Nations Carter, one might well have expected the eruption of the Cold War to have meant the rapid demise of the UN. While it dramatically reduced the Security Council’s ability to manage any conflict one of the five permanent members felt it had a stake in, it was not completely helpless nor did it become totally irrelevant.
The General Assembly played a key, and unexpected role, in integrating new states into the international system when the British and French colonial empires collapsed far sooner and more rapidly than anyone had imagined. Equally important, the Assembly became the vehicle for developing norms for international behavior. Sometimes those sweeping declarations have had little effect beyond forcing some states to indulge in hypocritical claims of virtue; other times they have led to far reaching results, such as the creation of the Law of the Sea.
Beyond the UN, regional organizations, most notably the European Union, developed as major centers for resolving conflict and promoting cooperation.
An Unexpected Challenge.
The architects and managers of the institutions that have come to define the international system did not, could not, have foreseen the Cold War and the evaporation of the assumption that the winners of World War II would stick together. Nonetheless there was enough flexibility and ambiguity in the key institutions to allow adaptation to a changed environment. And even at the most fraught moments, a significant amount of cooperation continued. Since the end of the Cold War it has become increasingly apparent that the history of the first decades of the 21st Century will revolve around the rise of China. In the long sweep of history, more often than not when a new power emerged on the world stage it was resisted by the established powers and the struggle between a rising power looking for its place in the sun and an established power clinging to its dominance resulted in a major war.*
The question is whether China’s drive to become a truly global power can be accommodated within the current system. The answer will depend, I think, on the adaptability of institutions and prudent leadership from today’s dominant powers.
The economic dimension.
The global ravages of the Great Depression were understood to be exacerbated, if not caused, the collapse of the post World War I economic system. Faced with domestic economic problems, the major nations engaged in so-called “Beggar-thy-neighbor” tactics like tariffs on imports and currency manipulation in a futile attempt to heal their own economy by drastically restricting what they bought from other countries and simultaneously expanding what they sold to them. When one country does that, it can get a big advantage; when everyone does it everyone ends up far worse off.
In addition to the challenges of creating a fair and efficient global market and and preventing countries from playing games with their currencies, Europe was in ruins at the end of the war and it was not clear where the money to rebuild would come from.
Three major institutions were created to deal with these issues.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) would standardize the values of currencies and make them stable and predictable. This would both prevent currency manipulation and would expand the supply of money in the world economy to support more trade.
The International Bank For Reconstruction and Development (renamed the World Bank and reinvented as a global lending institution to promote development in the Global South) was meant to provide the capital needed to rebuild Europe.
And the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which morphed into the far broader World Trade Organization(WTO), initially focused on reducing national tariffs to promote global trade and then moved on to tackle trade disputes that involved sneakier ways of manipulating markets than formal tariffs.
The overall goal was to create a global market economy. The current globalized economy is larger, freer, and more integrated than even the wildest dream of seventy years ago.
Stating the late 19th Century, states began experimenting with technical or managerial solutions to what had been seen as political problems. The first such organization is as good an example as any (but do remember that cooperation can be quite boring.) As barge traffic along the Rhine river from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea in the Netherlands grew rapidly in the 19th Century, problems began to mount. The Rhine goes through Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France, and the Netherlands and a barge would have to stop at each sovereign border, unload its cargo to be inspected and pay taxes, and then reload the cargo. Each country had its own rules of navigation and system of lights and buoys to mark the channel; if the boatmen got confused or forgot the national rules, there would be accidents. At night the barges would tie up and the boatmen would go into town for a bite to eat and a taste of the local brew. From time to time there were heated political discussions between the Rhine boatmen and the locals and they’d end up in jail. That would necessitate the intervention of diplomats and foreign ministries to rescue their citizens from the foreigners or the toils of some alien court system. Not likely to result in a war, but a lot of inefficiency and hassle. The solution became The Rhine River Commission that 1) collected all the appropriate taxes at the point of origin so there was no need to stop at each border; 2) created a standardized system of marking the channel and rules of the road; 3) created a special court for trying boatmen who were foreign nationals.
There are now 15 “specialized agencies” within the UN system and dozens outside it, who try to foster international cooperation by governments on common issues, usually problems that transcend national borders and ideologies. Global climate change is not a Chinese hoax; it was initially diagnosed by experts meeting under the auspices of the World Meteorological Organization. Smallpox was eliminated from the world by the World Health Organization (and they almost eliminated polio before a combination of internal violence and the notion that vaccinations were a foreign plot to control Muslim births in Kano province, Nigeria stymied attempts to complete the program.)
The examples could go on and on. If we realize that in addition to the specialized agencies there are a host of programs within the UN that focus on everything from agriculture to zoos, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that there are no aspects of daily life in rich, poor and middle income countries that are not the focus of some international cooperation.
Importance of Leadership
The system of international organizations, cooperative agencies, and norms has been, I would argue, quite successful in reducing conflict between nations and improving the lives of every day people, as well as identifying threats to our well being that must be addressed. But this system, like all cooperative interactions, is not self-sustaining.
It took a concerted effort led by the United States to initiate the development of the post-war order, it has required continued leadership and involvement to maintain and expand it. The United States is not the only significant supporter of the global order, but given its economic, diplomatic, and military resources it has been the most important.
There are a few hundred men and women in the United Sates who constitute a foreign policy establishment. Some are career State or Defense Department officials, others serve in government when “their” party holds the White House and in think tanks and universities when the other party holds sway, some are scholars at major research institutions. There are significant differences on individual policies and theories of how the world works and partisan interests, but there is a general consensus on the utility of the current system and belief that it should be enhanced. The general consensus on the status quo among these folks,their dominance of the major areas of discussion of international affairs, and their ability to absorb new members have led some observes to give them the tongue in cheek nickname The Blob.
The current administration is the first since World War II to consciously try to avoid The Blob. Many senior management positions in State and Defense have not been filled because many of the Republican members of The Blob were publicly anti-Trump. The President’s view that almost any arrangement agreed to in the past is a bad deal and his view of the world as a series of one time transactions instead of a web of ongoing relationships threaten to dramatically alter the United States role.
The course of the next few years may hinge on the answer to two questions.
1) Can The Blob fight back? One small sign that the answer is “yes, at times” is the recent Senate action to restore some $11 billion that the Trump budget would cut from the State Department and to put some restrictions on the ability of Rex Tillerson to make some controversial administrative changes. But can The Blobs prevail often enough in crucial situations to preserve the U.S. ability to provide leadership?
2) Can someone else take on the job of caring for cooperation? After President Trump announced the U.S. was leaving the Paris climate change agreement European leaders, especially Angela Merkel of Germany, talked seriously about assuming a leadership role. Certainly in some areas other states can, and have in the past, played leading roles in maintaining the system. But no other country has the global reach, economic impact, or reservoir of expertise to maintain the consistent level of involvement that the United States has traditionally provided. And no other country can engage with China on so many dimensions, both contentious and cooperative, to manage the transition from a world in which the United States is the sole super power to one in which China and the United States are more equally dominant.
None of this is meant to suggest that the international system is a Utopian order. There are major problems undermining the effectiveness of central institutions like the United Nations as a setting for managing conflict or promoting cooperation. The IMF, WTO and World Bank have been unable to solve some of the most serious problems of the globalized capitalist economy. But it is better than the alternative. If the United States takes its eye off the ball and focuses on selfish sort term results, we are in greater danger of getting the alternative.
*This pattern was first described by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides and is referred to (by The Blob) as the Thucydides Trap.