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We stand on the shoulders of those who created the international order, which has prevented world war for more than 70 years.
“American leaders who laid foundations of the contemporary world order envisioned a world in which all peoples might pursue shared peace, prosperity and dignity.
They hoped to forge a global community under the rule of law, governed by international institutions, in which sovereign nations could cooperate to deter and defeat aggression, trade openly and fairly and enjoy domestic liberty. Enlightened self-interest, not altruism, underpinned these aims,” wrote Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations in January for World Politics Review.
Of course, not all those hopes have been realized by the United Nations and the other forums that embody this international order. Aggression occurs every day when smaller-scale wars break out, acts of genocide are committed, billions of people continue to suffer under authoritarian regimes and more.
The world regularly forgets what former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold said: “The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.”
Ongoing cooperation and progress to shared peace, prosperity and dignity was, in fact, fostered under the post-World War II order. The Marshall Plan led to a peaceful rebirth in Western Europe, the nuclear nonproliferation regime has resulted in the avoidance of new nuclear weapons use, global systems of trade and finance have flourished and global efforts on disease, hunger and development have saved lives and lifted billions of people out of poverty.
This level of cooperation has led to a new understanding of common human interests and challenged old thinking about the sovereign right of nations to mistreat their populations without interference. Disease, terrorism, climate change, arms and human trafficking and other threats that pay little or no attention to national borders have led most people to conclude that humankind must work together or fail separately.
The post-World War II international order provides the platform for this collective action.
Global Cooperation at Risk?
“Global cooperation, dealing with other countries, getting along with other countries is good, it’s very important,” President Donald Trump said in an address on Feb. 24, 2017.
Yet in his next lines, he summarized why many Americans believe the system of multilateral cooperation that has served the United States so well is at risk.
“But there is no such thing as a global anthem, a global currency, or a global flag. This is the United States of America that I’m representing.”
An inability to see how continuing to promote the common good strengthens the United States, coupled with a worldwide rise in nationalism and a growing distrust of institutions, gravely threatens the global order. The election of Trump signaled “the era of multilateralism is at an end,” according to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
“For the first time in 70 years, the American people have elected a president who disparages the policies, ideas and institutions at the heart of postwar US foreign policy,” wrote Walter Russell Mead, a professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College.
While these trends are certainly worrisome, fault lines and fractures in the global order are not exactly new. Challenges to the system have been emerging for more than a decade, and the 2016 US election, as well as Brexit, may be symptoms of the problem rather than the cause.
Rising powers such as China, Brazil and India and nonstate actors in the private sector and civil society, as well as regional actors and substate governments, are seeking their own seats in the multilateral process. Yet the leaders of nation-states have struggled to accommodate these stakeholders in a global order founded on principles of state sovereignty.
Stronger International Law Needed
The founding pillars of international law have also been under assault for years. Collective amnesia about human rights is rampant, expansionist actions are on the rise, international refugee law is undermined at every turn, countries are threatening to leave the International Criminal Court and, increasingly, government leaders assert the primacy of national law over international agreements.
The challenges and growing pains in the international order are real, but they are not new.
For more than 60 years, the Stanley Foundation [in Muscatine, Iowa] has been dedicated to creating and preserving a world in which there is a secure peace with freedom and justice. Our bedrock belief is that more effective multilateral action on critical issues of peace and security will lead to more effective global governance. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that we believe the international order should be defended — and improved.
While the contemporary world order has delivered positive results and challenged old thinking about war and narrow national interests, there is so much more to do. In the last two years alone, there have been a number of efforts to analyze the elements of the global order and develop achievable recommendations for reform.
In June 2015, the high-level independent panel on peace operations, convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, released a report reminding the world that UN peace operations involve more than 128,000 women and men in almost 40 missions across four continents working every day to prevent conflicts, help mediate and sustain fragile peace processes and protect civilians.
The report says “changes in conflict may be outpacing the ability of United Nations peace operations to respond,” and adds, “A number of peace operations today are deployed in an environment where there is little or no peace to keep.”
The panel called for essential shifts in UN peace operations, including a greater emphasis on political solutions, more flexibility in deploying missions, stronger and more inclusive peace and security partnerships and renewed resolve to engage directly with the very people the UN operations have been mandated to assist.
According to the Commission on Global Security, Justice and Governance — chaired by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Nigerian Foreign Minister Ibrahim Gambari — the three major challenges and opportunities for global governance are (1) fragile and conflict-affected environments, (2) climate and people, and (3) the hyperconnected global economy.
The commission’s report, “Confronting the Crisis of Global Governance,” includes detailed recommendations for addressing all three and, importantly, included a call to those beyond traditional nation-states to address global problems.
The international system built over the last 70 years can be preserved and improved. Although the risk of failure is increasing, the problems are identifiable and the prescriptions for reform are abundant. Of course, we need a more nimble international system with more resources, but that won’t happen unless all nation-states once again embrace the inherent benefits of collective action.
In the face of the warning signs of possible system failure, the commitment to reforming the international system must be coupled with constant reminders of why the system matters.
As the singer Joni Mitchell wrote, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”
This essay was originally published by The Stanley Foundation.