The End of Institutions or New Forms of International Discourse?

Like the last G7 meeting, the G20 summit in Hamburg will not be remembered for new ideas or for breakthroughs in international economic governance. In the latter case, the media focused solely on the Russian-US presidential meeting, while the summit itself commanded little attention. When it was created at the height of the financial crisis in the late 2000s, the G20 was conceived as a universal forum of world economies. Today the format seems to have outlived its usefulness. As the economic upheaval that frightened everyone recedes into the past, the G20 is losing relevance. Solutions to problems posed by globalization are increasingly found at the level of countries and regions that are quietly and consistently work together.

As a result, G20 meetings have now fallen into a number of bilateral or trilateral formats. The media, analysts and opinion leaders predominantly pay attention to the outcome of bilateral meetings between leaders of G20 member states. The fate that befell a format that originally was projected as something of a replacement for the UN Security Council now invites a discussion on the role of international institutions and the restraints they face. An institution that matters to China, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa is BRICS.

It is crucial to give thought to the position and capabilities of international organizations, given that world politics continues to show signs of dangerous instability. Moreover, if earlier there was potential for conflict between the West and the rest of the world, today there are tensions inside the Western community. The NATO summit and, importantly, the G7 meeting in late May were marked by serious contradictions between the United States and its European partners. These were primarily about the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement on climate and the new US president’s extremely exacting attitude towards military spending by the leading European NATO members. It will be recalled that currently only five of them – the US itself, Greece (which is butting heads with Turkey), Turkey, militarist Poland and tiny Estonia – spend the required 2% of their GDP on defense. The debates inside NATO and the G7 were so intense that the German Chancellor declared that the Europeans needed to start thinking about how to take security issues into their own hands. The majority of analysts believe that even if Donald Trump steps down before his term expires, his successor is unlikely to be much softer on the allies.

Europe will certainly have to adapt to this new reality. The European countries will never be able to play an independent role in world affairs because, first, they seem to have exhausted their internal resources. Some EU countries – France, Germany and outgoing Britain – can still play a certain role in world and regional politics. But no one needs this any longer. And second, Europe’s military and political independence could lead to a higher surge in international tensions than even now. Europe’s most important neighbor, Russia, has also had difficulty communicating with the European countries in military and diplomatic areas.

European leaders seem to be aware of this. Therefore, they will inevitably need a protector, no matter how exacting it may be towards its junior allies. It is particularly important how the new US policy reflects on the fate of the central Western institutions that have predominated in world affairs over the last 27 years, both politically − through heavily armed NATO and powerful EU, and economically – through the IMF, the World Bank and the easily manipulated WTO.

Formal and informal institutions have become a crucial component of international discourse over the last 100 years. While at the end of World War I, Woodrow Wilson’s proposal to establish a League of Nations appeared revolutionary, today international institutions are seen as a natural and essential part of the world landscape. However, universal and even regional institutions are facing serious problems and challenges, the most important of which is the attempt by certain states or alliances to use international institutions for selfish goals. At the global level, this tendency has seriously undermined the prestige of the IMF and the World Bank. But Western countries have repeatedly alleged that the United Nations (UN), the most democratic of all existing international institutions, is inefficient as well.

A graphic example at the regional level is the dramatic fate of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE was created after the Cold War as an inclusive venue for a discussion of issues of importance for international security in the space from Vladivostok and Pamir to Lisbon and Vancouver. But as is common knowledge, NATO and EU countries have monopolized the OSCE agenda in recent years and rooted out any dissent owing to their numerical edge. The Western countries’ egoism prevents them from making even symbolic steps towards other OSCE states. In July 2017, for example, it was decided that Western European representatives would fill all four leading positions in the organization.

This is the reason the OSCE can no longer be saved. But Russia and a number of other nations should at least try to re-launch the OSCE by inviting states that play a key role in maintaining international security in Eurasia to take part in the work of the organization. These are primarily China, Iran, Mongolia, the Republic of Korea and Japan, but also Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Given the current scale of economic globalization in Eurasia and regional development trends, the non-involvement of China, one of the leading investors in the Eurasian states, in the regional collective security organization appears strange. The same, if for other reasons, refers, for example, to Iran.

But the self-styled Cold War winners are in no hurry to share their monopoly. No wonder, therefore, that the non-Western countries are both demanding fairer rules within existing organizations and beginning to establish new institutions more reflective of the changed alignment of forces in the world. But the new institutions are not undermining the existing institutions like the so-called Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership that the US has put off for the time being would have done to the WTO. They only complement and improve the existing architecture. China is undoubtedly the leader in international economic governance. It is the Chinese who came up with the initiative to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and a number of other financial institutions. China has, for some time, urged the creation of a SCO financial institution. Following the accession of India and Pakistan it makes sense to return to this import6ant issue.

Today, the non-Western countries should take care that the institutions they are creating are not weak against the background of their West-dominated counterparts. They should ensure a high level of democracy in decision-making, which necessitates understanding the principles that will make them stable and beneficial for all participants. If these two central requirements are not met and the new institutions end up playing a zero-sum game, they will have little chance of survival.

But what is needed for stability? In NATO and in the G7, stability is ensured by incontestable US leadership. In the former case, other NATO members cannot fully provide for their security in relations with significant outside partners. For now, NATO is something of a cultural phenomenon. The alliance emerged after World War II as a tool for rallying the Western European countries around the US in their confrontation with the USSR. But today it is full of military nonentities whose participation in the bloc makes sense only as a signal to others that they are dealing with a team rather than individual states. NATO membership, in their book, is something that sets you apart as a privileged nation.

The G7, for its part, was created as an institution for civilized American management of the economic policies pursued by the most important world market players. Approved by the United States, decisions are relayed through the G7 and accepted by the OECD as its norms. This done, they are imposed on all others. The non-Western countries, particularly the bigger ones forming BRICS, clearly cannot afford this kind of relationship. China is the economic leader. But Russia will for some time remain the strongest nation militarily. No one can impose their will on such important and proud countries as India or Brazil. Though inferior to its partners in terms of GDP, South Africa is the leader in Africa. In other words, the individual leadership method assuring Western unity will be ineffective with regard to important countries in the rest of the world.

The search for other sources of stability will bring to the fore the issue of values in relation of their emergence and development. How important for stability is it for participants to share views on the nature of relations within society and internationally? Traditionally it was believed that common values were of significance. The European countries are proud of their unity of values as something that sets them apart.  But let’s look at historical examples that are more important from the point of view of international stability. If we take the 19th century European “concert of powers” as the precursor of modern international institutions, the value factor should not be underestimated, primarily because it helped Europe avoid major wars for almost 100 years (a record in the history of international relations).

There were contradictions between “concert” members. They did not always agree with each other, as is now required in NATO or the G7. They were even in conflict over territory. The “concert” countries differed widely in size, economic development and military capability. But all of them shared an approach to the rules that an international system should follow. The “concert” was based on the legitimacy of royalty and absolute respect for each other’s sovereignty. Thus, it was based on definite rules rather than unification or uniformity. It will be recalled that what, in fact, the non-Western countries are demanding today is respect for their sovereignty and universal rules. We could even say that the philosophy of organizations like BRICS is based on respect for each other’s differences and the acknowledgement of these differences as an incontestable precept.

In this respect, BRICS, for one, is closer to the 19th-century European “concert” than, for example, NATO or the UN Security Council. BRICS was created as an almost informal mechanism for meetings between the heads of state of Brazil, India, China and Russia about eight years ago (2009). In 2010, they were joined by the Republic of South Africa. In 2017, BRICS has held eight summits and it is consistently expanding its activities. Despite the fact that there are differences and disputes between the member states, which have dissimilar views on a number of important development issues, the organization has come into its own and lives a life of its own, making a lie of Western analysts’ repeated allegations about an upcoming “finale.”  The same goes for their claims that this format has used up its potential since the participants are unable to go as far as to formalize and institutionalize their cooperation. But to gauge its potential and recommend preferable ways to make further progress it takes an understanding of why BRICS emerged at all. It is the reasons that determine the backbone of the agenda.

The emergence of BRICS was an interesting example where the accidental merged with the objective. In 2001, an analyst at an international consultancy singled out a group of important non-Western countries whose economic development indicators made it possible to regard them as a hypothetical community. What distinguished all four countries was that they were dropped from post-Cold-War global economic decision-making. Despite its growing economic power, China was not duly represented in the World Bank or the IMF. Russia, a nominal G8 member, could not influence the group’s economic decisions. India and Brazil, though densely populated and possessing considerable economic potential, were also unable to influence world economic decision-making.

Annually, the modern information environment is a source of dozens of hard-hitting definitions and new concepts. But it is only the BRICS concept that was really accepted by the political leaders. By all evidence, the reason for this was much deeper than just striking economic comparisons underlying the original concept. We cannot be totally sure that even its creator understood how opportunely and accurately he hit the target. All BRICS countries were motivated to join the format by considerations that were important for national development and international positioning. Most importantly, however, they shared common values and a common outlook on the world.

It is for this reason that BRICS can, on the one hand, become an example of a new type of international cooperation, while, on the other, adjust its own mission and agenda based on the prerequisites of its emergence. I don’t think that now or in the near future the member states will take more resolute steps towards economic integration, although in certain areas, such as creating development institutions, this would be possible. In so doing, they should take into account the record of the non-Western international financial organizations established in recent years so as to avoid committing the same mistakes and seek to improve successful practices. It also makes sense to identify several comparatively localized projects, say, in a post-disaster relief area, given the undisputed importance of declared frameworks like strengthening international economic governance and building up human contact and interconnectivity.

Most importantly, however, BRICS should remain an example of a new type of civilized intercourse by a group of major independent states. The ability to uphold common approaches to a preconceived ideal world order is quite rare at a time when certain countries pursue an increasingly selfish policy that calls into question the need to obey the rules and the law as such. The BRICS powers have developed this quality and apply it to relations between themselves and to appraisals of key international events and processes. This is a major achievement in itself, which must be carefully safeguarded. Geographically, BRICS can be open to accession by other states. But the basic criterion for joining should include the objective ability to steer an independent foreign policy rather than economic indicators. One more thing that makes the current BRICS members unique is that no external force is able to make them do anything against their will. Any new member should meet this criterion because it ensures mutual respect and recognition of legitimacy.        

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.