As the Syria war enters its ninth year, as countries struggle to find a legal path to deal with citizens who lived in ISIS-held territories, as resource-rich Venezuela implodes, and as a multitude of crises are ‘managed’ rather than resolved, one reality holds true. The global order is at breaking point and the rules to govern it are broken. And yet not all is lost.
Those in positions of power can seize this moment as an opportunity to re-write the rules; the rules will either serve a collective future based on rights and responsibilities, or can act with impunity in a self-serving manner. Some countries have already decided they will take absolute advantage of the situation, while others are trying to secure a more orderly transition for 21st century global governance. At the heart of the matter is what a rules-based order looks like.
Without a doubt, the post-World War II order has ended. Geopolitical shifts, technological advances, and demographic changes have been primary contributors to this change. As Europe grapples with Brexit, the United States prepares for 2020 elections and China addresses slowing growth, other countries are seeking new regional roles. A global order is increasingly becoming a multi-polar order, where regional heavy weights exert out-sized influence and impact global politics. Smaller or weaker countries suffer from larger neighbours, however, internationally it becomes more manageable.
The trends and realities that emerged after the attacks of September 11th 2001 meant that the rules of war have been transformed without the right international humanitarian framework. While an effort was made to codify ‘the right to protect’ under the auspices of the United Nations, that effort has failed. The emergence of armies of ‘combatants’ who look like civilians or who form in the digital realm means that maintaining peace or ending wars is more complicated than ever.
Acceleration of technological development and population growth means that people are connected and on the move at unprecedented levels. Technology companies like Alphabet and Amazon lead stock markets around the world, and hold more data than governments. A global order cannot be maintained without rules that govern data and police access to that data. As the lines between the public and private spheres blur, and so do the lines between the tangible and the virtual, laws must be introduced to clarify the rights of citizens and responsibilities of those generating and holding data. As people see how their peers across the world live at the press of a button, expectations and aspirations have changed. Those who cannot hope to meet their aspirations at home, will pick up and leave to a place they can.
These trends cannot be turned back. The question is, how can a new world order emerge based on agreed upon laws and regulations, especially in areas where technology has advanced faster than the policies that should govern them.
Non-state actors consistently seek to undermine the legitimacy of nation-states. The most impactful way to push back is through the respect of law and precedence. The more rogue international relations becomes, the less capable nations are at meeting the challenges of governing. New power, whether through influencers or armed non-state actors, has disrupted old power relations. New ones have yet to emerge – and may never emerge in the traditional context that we have become accustomed to. New power relations will be informal, recognized by some and not by others. However, international governance cannot be held hostage to these developments.
An international organisation that brings world leaders together and allows for collective decision making is vital. The United Nations provides that platform and should not be under-estimated or too quickly dismissed. The paralysis of the United Nations Security Council and its lack of representation of citizens around the world means it is incapable of delivering solutions. While world leaders acknowledge the need to reform the UN Security Council, few have given any real consideration on how to do that. The reality is that the UN General Assembly is the platform for all world powers and through it the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can provide an important path forward. We have only one decade left to realise the Goals that were agreed upon by the world’s countries and that tackle many of the challenges that have been identified. Rather than trying to re-invent the wheel, we must recommit to these globally-agreed to Goals and make sure they are realised.