Only the United Nations, the Security Council, the General Assembly, and international organizations under its jurisdiction are the most qualified to provide effective guarantee for international governance, writes Valdai Club expert Feng Shaolei. But returning to the United Nations does not mean that the historic clock will return to the moment of 1945, If the international transition in 1945 was under war conditions, today it is still an international transition under peaceful conditions. Instead of deciding upon everything with power or violence, the world is not as black-and-white as that during the war. In other words, the order construction is much more complicated than ever.
After reading the 2020 special report of the Valdai International Discussion Club titled “Staying Sane in a Crumbling World”, I cannot help being attracted by one conclusion of the report. Today the world faces two basic options: either to maintain and strengthen the United Nations, which today is still the most important international organization; or to be trapped in “Sino-US confrontation”. The latter is a prospect which should be avoided. I quite agree with such a wise judgment and constructive conclusion.
In the post-Cold War era, the world has repeatedly witnessed fallacies of replacing the highest norms of international law represented by the United Nations with the so-called “legality” of power, morality and ideology. In fact, the United Nations is not only the most legitimate one, but also the most authoritative international organization that complies with the norms of international law. Only the United Nations, the Security Council, the General Assembly, and international organizations under its jurisdiction are the most qualified to provide effective guarantee for international governance. When the “crumbling world” has almost lost its norms or at most is “semi-ordered”, what reason do we have to abandon the United Nations, which is still working hard despite its need for comprehensive and profound improvement and reform?
Returning to the United Nations does not mean that the historic clock will return to the moment of 1945. According to me, compared with 1945, at least there are following key differences in the world today. First, the international transition in 1945 was under war conditions. Today, as a whole, it is still an international transition under peaceful conditions. Instead of deciding upon everything with power or violence, the world is not as black-and-white as that during the war. In other words, the order construction is much more complicated than ever.
Second, the epidemic warns us that today we live in an era of high uncertainty. The urgent and important task is that all humans need to cope together with severe challenges with sound and powerful governance and order wherever you are, whether you are right or wrong and whether the system is good or not. In this regard, the United Nations is undoubtedly the best choice.
Third, a very different background from 1945 is the long-term trend of the renaissance of emerging powers and the relative decline of the West. When President Macron and the report of the 2020 Munich Security Conference are blunt about this, pointing out that the problem first originates from the West itself, we can no longer be indifferent to this. When the United States, the No. 1 superpower, is reluctant to assume leadership any more, it is quite natural for the United Nations to take this responsibility.
Fourth, the main flaw of the Yalta system is that there has been Cold War confrontation for half a century. In other words, even with the rational design of the United Nations system, it is still not inevitable to avoid alliance confrontation, ideological competition, and even nuclear wars. What needs to be summarized and reflected today is how to avoid repeating the same mistakes of the Cold War. When reading the diary of George Kenan, the centenarian who is called the “Father of the Cold War”, maybe we could find a good medicine against today’s “fever”. Of course, George Kenan also criticized the former Soviet Union system, but after he proposed the “Containment Strategy”, he has regretted all his life due to failing to prevent the global expansion of the US. It was just in the name of “containing the Soviet Union” that the US expands itself including both Truman’s global military expansion from the late 1940s and NATO’s eastward expansion from the mid-1990s till now.
Therefore, returning to the United Nations is far from a repetition of the history. On the contrary, it is necessary to advance the innovation of system and order with the times. Undoubtedly, meanwhile, we also need to emphasize a fact that according to the history since modern times an international order, which could exist for a long time and stabilize cross-national, cross-civilization, and cross-regional affairs, such as the Westphalia system, the Vienna system and the Yalta system, must be the products of coexistence and cooperation based on pluralistic, diverse, and multipolar forces. Just as Kissinger said, the key to the Westphalia system is the change from religious wars to diversification within Europe. Based on the 1648 system, all countries were independent and no longer obeyed Rome. All internal affairs of each country were not subject to external interference, which by rule provided such a possibility of multiple existence. The Vienna system was based on international collaboration among such empires as Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which transcended boundaries of civilizations after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.
History does not seem to care about who is right or wrong between “decaying empires” and “advanced revolutions”. The Vienna order maintained the “century peace” in Europe until the WWI. The Yalta system, despite the Cold War confrontation, witnessed the coexistence of the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China of different civilizations and development levels, maintaining peace for nearly half a century. After the end of the Cold War, there has appeared a model of a unipolar world for a short time, which was soon replaced by a more diverse cooperation from G7 to G20. This shows that multipolarity, diversity, and pluralism is the aspiration of all humans. And it is also the foundation for the United Nations in playing its roles and carrying on innovative reforms. Neither the Crusades, the Napoleonic Wars, nor NATO’s eastward expansion could change this trend. The existence of the United Nations is a profound reflection of this actual trend of diversification and multi-polarization.
Moreover, we also need to create a narrative of “multi-polarization” as multipolarity does not just refer to counterbalance of unipolarity. What I want to emphasize is the coexistence of ideologies and civilizations; the diverse blending of systems, development levels and customs; in addition to cooperation and competition among different countries in their comprehensive strengths. Without the United Nations, who alone could manage this?
If looking back at today’s history a few decades later, perhaps some historians will say that, to a certain extent, Sino-US relationship has been led step by step to “confrontation”. There is no logic, which could withstand serious discussion, proving that the growth of emerging economies and the decline of traditional hegemons will inevitably lead to “Thucydides” confrontation. Nor could it prove that the gap and competition between modern information technologies will inevitably become monopoly, then inevitably overthrowing effective cooperation of all complex systems and getting decoupling and counterbalancing.
What is even more absurd is that the so-called “opposition between democracy and authoritarianism” seems to be the single issue in today’s world, and it will definitely evolve into a battle of life and death between evil and justice. What is particularly difficult to accept is the argument that differences among major civilizations and races, with accelerated contacts yet insufficient communication under globalization, will inevitably lead to full-scale conflicts. In an era with open information and high-speed dissemination yet lack of verification, conscience, in particular, cannot be blinded by prejudice so easily.
On the other hand, although quite a few scholars and ordinary people in both China and the United States do not agree with the judgment of a “bipolar world” prospect and they also spare no efforts to avoid being drawn on the path to “bipolar confrontation”, yet this does not mean the danger could be automatically eliminated without difficulty. Actually, this is still a real challenge for us all.
In addition to calling on all five permanent members to act first to participate in the United Nations Security Council Summit this fall, joint anti-epidemic actions and coordinated economic recovery could at least become an urgent issue, which could start coordination among major countries.
Meanwhile, based on the difficulties faced by the United Nations, it is necessary to re-launch reforms on its 75th anniversary. As we all know, the formation of the G20 is closely related to a series of ideas concerning the reform of the United Nations. At the beginning of this century, I was fortunate to have participated in many of such multilateral discussions. So far, in retrospect, before 2008, it was difficult to reach a consensus among many options. However, once the crisis occurred in 2008, new mechanism such as G20 quickly emerged. It might be concluded that the most valuable experience is no matter how dangerous the situation is, it is highly likely that crisis is a prelude to order reconstruction. Just like the United Nations after WWII and the G20 after the 2008 crisis, we expect that, as President Putin proposed, there will be a new round of improvement of the international order after the victory over the epidemic.