23 January 2020   Leave a comment

Francis Galvin has written a very provocative essay for the blog, War on the Rocks, entitled “Asking the Right Questions about the Past and Future of World Order“. It is an essay written for international relations scholars but its logic and language are easily accessible. Glavin goes through the debates about the current world order, punching some well-deserved holes in the prevailing debates about the demise of the rules-based order that many believe that the US created after World War II. He is careful about what he is talking about:

“First, we often think of world order as emerging from a long-term master plan and sober debate and consideration, based on deep reflection about the future. This is how things often look in retrospect, especially when described by political scientists and even historians, but that may be the product of outcome bias. In fact — as every decision-maker knows — ex ante, policymakers faced radical uncertainty about the future, and often stumbled towards ad hoc, reactive ways to create what now seems so impressive and pre-planned. We often forget the efforts and initiatives to build order that failed or were re-adapted for other purposes.

“Second, no singular world order emerged after World War II. The Cold War produced competing orders, such as the system imposed by the Soviet Union on its own country, its near periphery, and its global allies. There were some issues and areas where it would be hard to identify any order. More often than not, chaos and uncertainty, rather than order, marked decolonization and the rise of new states in Africa and parts of Asia. My focus will be on what some call the “Western” liberal world order that emerged after World War II (though that name is not without its own problems).”

Despite these very important caveats, we should keep in mind that there is almost always an “order” to world politics. We tend to think that the international system is completely anarchic. That assessment overlooks the very important sustained, peaceful interactions among peoples and states: trade, travel, migration, and culture. Even though the US world order was characterized by several violent wars and conflicts, it is also the case that there were tremendous economic and social changes, notably the dissolution of the formal controls of the European empires and the advancement of human rights.

Nonetheless, there is overwhelming evidence that some well-established patterns, such as steadily growing international trade and the influence of international institutions, are increasingly frayed. Galvin analyzes the reasons for the change:

“There are two great challenges to the contemporary world order — the dramatic rise of China and the consequences of the profound transformation of the global economy and international system, a revolutionary change on par with the Industrial Revolution. Most of the current debates on world order focus on the capabilities and intentions of a growing China. This is understandably important; in the past, rapidly-rising powers have challenged global arrangements, with calamitous military conflicts as the result. These two stories, however — the rise of China and the global dynamics of technology, demographics, and socio-economics — are intertwined and cannot be understood, or dealt with, separately. Furthermore, the second challenge — which has transformed everything from demographics to governance to how people live and work and self-identify to calculations about war and peace — is the key challenge, and the one that people aren’t focusing on enough. Beginning in the United States in 1960s, accelerating in the 1970s, and spreading and intensifying in recent decades, how the global system operates has been completely upended. It is, to a great extent, the reason for China’s rise. The consequences of this revolution are impossible to overstate and hard to fully accommodate under current arrangements.

“Much of this has to do with the digital revolution and the profound expansion of access to information, unmediated by traditional institutions. Part of it is an upending of how and where and at what cost things were manufactured, with world trade and prosperity build upon a complex and deeply integrated global supply chain. Part of it has to do with a financial revolution even larger and more profound than that which launched early modern Europe. Part of it has to do with a rights revolution that completely upended traditional categories of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, with a focus on individual autonomy and the tolerance of difference. Part of this has to do with a complete reshaping of identity and how people live and relate to each other — individual, family, and communal — that upends historical relationships between personal autonomy and collective belonging.”

Galvin then discusses how he thinks the new world order will emerge, but the challenges of a new order are daunting. The essay demands a close read.

Posted January 23, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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