A new world order is emerging — and the world is not ready for it

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DUBAI – “Are we ready for the new world order?”

The provocative title of the panel that lead off the ambitiously named World Government Summit here last week was framed to suggest that a new global order is emerging — and the world is not ready for it.

There has been a proliferation of writing about who will shape the future world order since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the most murderous Europe has suffered since 1939.

The tempting conclusion: Should Ukraine survive as an independent, sovereign, and democratic country, the U.S.- and Europe-backed forces will regain momentum against the previously ascendant Russian-Chinese forces of authoritarianism, oppression and (at least in Putin’s case) evil.

That sounds like good news, but there is a downside.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine and a series of COVID-related shutdowns in China do not, on the surface, appear to have much in common,” writes Atlantic Council fellow Michael Schuman in The Atlantic (a publication not related to the Council). “Yet both are accelerating a shift that is taking the world in a dangerous direction, splitting it into two spheres, one centered on Washington, D.C., the other on Beijing.”

My conversations in Dubai — at the World Government Summit and at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Forum — show little enthusiasm or conviction for this bifurcated vision of the future. The Middle Eastern participants have no interest in abandoning relations with China, the leading trading partner for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, or breaking with Russia, which established itself as a force to be reckoned with when it saved Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through its military intervention in his war.

Beyond that, our Mideast partners have lost confidence in America’s commitment to global leadership or competence for it following last year’s botched Afghanistan withdrawal. They are also experiencing whiplash from a Trump administration that trashed the nuclear deal with Iran to a Biden administration they feel is pursuing it without sufficiently factoring in Tehran’s regional aggression.

In all my many travels to the Mideast over the years, I have never heard this level of frustration from Mideast government officials with American policymakers.

That said, they are watching Ukraine with fascination, because a Ukrainian victory — with a strong, united West behind it — would force a rethink about U.S. commitment and competence and shift the trajectory of declining transatlantic influence and relevance. Conversely, a Putin victory — even at a huge cost to Russians and Ukrainians alike — would accelerate Western decline as an effective global actor.

My own answer to the panel question on our preparedness for “the new world order” was to quote Henry Kissinger (who else?) in questioning the premise. “No truly ‘global’ world order’ has ever existed,” Kissinger wrote in his book “World Order.” “What passes for order in our time was devised in Western Europe nearly four centuries ago, at a peace conference in the German region of Westphalia, conducted without the involvement or even the awareness of most other continents or civilizations.” Over the following centuries, its influence spread.

With that as context, the question is not what the new world order would be, but rather if the U.S. and its allies can through Ukraine reverse the erosion of the past century’s gains as a first step toward establishing the first truly “global” world order.

Former U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley tells me the effort was the fourth attempt toward international order in the past century.

The first effort after World War I, through the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, tragically failed. Instead, the world got European fascism, U.S. isolationism, a global economic crisis, and millions dead from the Holocaust and World War II.

Following World War II, the U.S. and its partners were dramatically more successful, building what came to be called “the liberal international order,” through the Marshall Plan and new multilateral institutions like the United Nations, the World Bank and IMF, NATO, the European Union, and others.

The third effort came following the West’s Cold War triumph. European democracies emerged or were restored, NATO was enlarged, the European Union expanded, and it seemed for a time that the rules, practices, and institutions developed in the West after World War II and during the Cold War period could absorb and steer an expanded international order. China profited from and embraced this order for a time.

What has been eroding now for some years is U.S. leaders’ commitment to defend, uphold and advance that expanded international order — what Kissinger called “an inexorably expanding cooperative order of states observing common rules and norms, embracing liberal economic systems, forswearing territorial conquest, respecting national sovereignty, and adopting participatory and democratic systems of government.”

American foreign policy leadership has rarely been consistent, but it was remarkably so after World War II and through the end of the Cold War. Since then, the inconsistencies have grown, underscored by former President Barack Obama’s “leading from behind” and former President Donald Trump’s “America First.”

Both, in their own ways, were a retreat from former President Harry Truman, and the post-World War II architecture and U.S. global leadership he established and embraced.

In the Middle East, countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE that were once our closest allies now are hedging their bets. Beyond the Iran disagreements, the failure of former President Trump to accept his own electoral defeat raises doubts among our friends about the durability of the American political system and the consistency of U.S. foreign policy.

Beyond that, our Mideast friends resent the Biden administration’s characterization of the emerging global contest as one pitting democracy versus authoritarianism.

“Every democratic attempt in the Arab world has turned ideological or tribal, so I’m not sure it is something we can work out successfully,” Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE President, told the World Government Summit. He sees the issues between democracy and authoritarianism as not binary, but ones of governance and the solution being “something in the middle of both.”

President Joe Biden’s decision to release on Thursday an “unprecedented” 180 million barrels of crude from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve was an acknowledgment that America’s traditional oil-producing partners were not prepared to help him. The decision came hours after OPEC ignored calls from western politicians to pump oil more quickly – and to resist any suggestion they should remove Russia from the organization.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited New Delhi this week to thank India for its refusal to join sanctions against Russia, an approach shared by Brazil, Mexico, Israel, and the UAE. Said Lavrov, “We will be ready to supply to India any goods which India wants to buy.”

To shape the future world order, the U.S. and Europe first need to reverse the trajectory of Western and democratic decline in Ukraine.

The rest will need to follow.

Frederick Kempe is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Atlantic Council.

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