The world is changing, as must multilateral diplomacy, writes Asle Toje, a Norwegian political scientist and a member of the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee.
The West was never so powerful and so influential as it was in the years immediately after the Cold War. Over time, this community had been tied together by institutions; given a central nerve system where technologies, patterns of trade and security were shared between states in the flow of goods, services, capital, ideas and people. Not since the Hanseatic League had small and large entities united to create something so much larger than the sum of its constituent parts.
This could happen because there was an alternative model of co-operation, in the east, where the Soviet Union treated its satellites in the imperial fashion. This helped to awake Western democracies to the necessity of giving up sovereignty in order to take part in the added value. The experience of the long Cold War is fundamental to understanding why the West is in flux now that the international system, the established alliances and the balance of power among the great powers is shifting.
In the West, we tend to interpret the new events through our historical perspective, that is, we always win. An expanding order has become a defensive project where the fear of losing old gains is stronger than the urge to win new ones. The West is anxious. Time and time again we see that the solutions that our leaders insisted to be the only possible solutions, do not find their way from the teleprompter and into reality. One example can stand for many: Syria.
The West and Europe, two core concepts in European state’s foreign policy understanding have lost their old meaning. Western civilization is to the degree deconstructed and devalued that the term no longer is a source of community. By renouncing our own culture and history, we have lost meaning. Europe has become synonymous with a union in permanent crisis and is constantly breathing new delirious visions, like a bedridden patient on a morphine drip.
On the edge of vision, it is the ancient empire powers that move the world. Turkey, Iran, India, China, Russia – all have directed attention to the lands they once controlled. They share the reluctance to let their interests be shaped by, or subordinated to, Western norms and values. Chancellor Merkel’s journey to Ankara with cash payment for its ally to halt the migration across the Mediterranean was a prime example. It points to a world dominated by the power of states that the West do not control.
We often forget that these testing times for the West are a golden age for others. This is most obvious on the Asian continent that is in the process of forming its own nerve system. New roads, train lines and routes snake through the post-communist wilderness – and in the wake new institutions, new alliances follow. The combination of capitalism and authoritarian nation states offer an enormous potential for mobilization. In the east, new megacities pop up faster than most learn their names.
This strength is also a weakness. China and Russia have not yet realised that liberal democracy’s foremost advantage is independent institutions, not unfiltered people’s rule. Both are internally riven by momentous societal changes and the inability of the state apparatus to keep up.
Asia’s obsession with security cannot be understood without imagining the monumental uncertainties arising from the globalization and market economy of headlong. For hundreds of millions, work, schools, homes and families – all roots of everyday life – have been uprooted and transplanted into strange new soil. Globalization has led to parts of the recipe for Western modernity finding their way into novel contexts. More Protestants, for example, now go to church in China than in Europe.
It is no wonder that people demand security, order and national identity. Their leaders do not want to be like the West, they want the West to make room in the sun. In Africa and the Middle East, the same trends have been reflected in Islamists’ internet-driven anti-modernism and emigration. Liberal immigration policy has created a new fault line in Western politics – everything seems to be about immigration, except for immigration – which is about a modernity that suddenly seems threatening.
And confronted by this the recipe of the custodians of the international order is to dream of resurrecting an imagined past, where international politics were multilateral and carried out in august institutions, notably the UN. They are talking about change, but offer continuity. Huge sums of money are used to prop up institutions and organisations that are not fit for purpose.
Not even the UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres has been willing to draw the obvious conclusion of the members being unwilling to provide adequate funding for the byzantine institution. He has not said ‘We should do less and do this better’. Instead, he spends his time fundraising and trying not to offend the permanent members of the Security Council for fear they may cut his budgets further.
So, what are the prospects for multilateralism in this emerging multipolar order? Not good. We have already seen the US falling back into its Cold War habit of dealing with rival powers bilaterally, without the Europeans in the room. China and Russia, particularly, also seem to prefer to celebrate multilateralism in speeches, but not in policy. A host of middle-sized powers from Turkey too Iran and Brazil seem more eager to gain some of the unilateral privileges of the great powers for themselves than they are to bind the big into an international order.
If we were students at a model UN, the cure would be a root and branch reform of the UN, including the Security Council combined with a “Marshall Plan” for whatever happens to be the cause célèbre of the day. This will not happen. The events of the past decade have drained the mutual trust that has been the fountain of strength for multilateral diplomacy in the past. Like a mountain climber who have gotten to a crux where ascent and decent seem equally dangerous we cling to the footholds and hope for rescue. This is where we now stand. It is a situation that carries in it the temptations of opportunism, miscalculation and conflict.