Next world or­der: Time for shared pur­pose

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - OPINION - ANA PALACIO

The an­nus hor­ri­bilis of 2016 is be­hind us now. But its low points – the United King­dom’s vote to leave the Euro­pean Union, the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump as U.S. pres­i­dent, the on­go­ing atroc­i­ties in Syria – were merely symp­toms of a process of dis­so­lu­tion of the lib­eral rules-based global sys­tem that be­gan long be­fore. Un­for­tu­nately, those symp­toms are now ac­cel­er­at­ing the sys­tem’s de­cline.

For years, the lib­eral or­der has been un­der strain. Per­haps most ob­vi­ous, there has been a lack of progress in the devel­op­ment of in­sti­tu­tions and le­gal in­stru­ments. In short, we have been try­ing to fit the round pegs of 21st-cen­tury global power into the square holes of post World War II in­sti­tu­tions.

Skewed rep­re­sen­ta­tion re­flect­ing a by­gone era, whether on the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil or the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund’s Board, un­der­mines global in­sti­tu­tions’ le­git­i­macy and abil­ity to re­spond to new chal­lenges. This has spurred a shift to­ward in­for­mal mech­a­nisms like the G-20 and new, untested in­sti­tu­tions like the Asian In­fras­truc­ture In­vest­ment Bank.

A bet­ter ap­proach would aim to boost the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of emerg­ing economies in ex­ist­ing in­sti­tu­tions. It would also seek to in­cor­po­rate more non-state ac­tors, both civil-so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions and busi­ness rep­re­sen­ta­tives, into in­ter­na­tional de­ci­sion­mak­ing pro­cesses.

But the chal­lenge ex­tends be­yond the in­sti­tu­tional me­chan­ics that have pre­oc­cu­pied most com­men­ta­tors, in­clud­ing me. The lib­eral in­ter­na­tional or­der’s philo­soph­i­cal core has been hol­lowed out, with fun­da­men­tal ideas that were once con­sid­ered sta­ples of the mod­ern world – free trade, democ­racy, hu­man rights – ei­ther in re­treat or un­der threat. Un­less and un­til we rec­og­nize and ad­dress this re­al­ity, the lib­eral world or­der that has brought un­prece­dented peace and pros­per­ity to the world over the past seven decades will con­tinue to erode.

Lib­er­al­ism and the in­ter­na­tional or­der that it has sus­tained are a prod­uct of the En­light­en­ment. They are rooted in a be­lief in in­ex­orable hu­man progress, in the no­tion of a uni­ver­sally shared vi­sion and di­rec­tion – fo­cused on mas­ter­ing na­ture – which ra­tio­nal self-in­ter­est dic­tates should be pur­sued. In this view, the rule of law, hu­man-rights pro­tec­tions, and trade are mech­a­nisms for pro­pel­ling hu­man­ity for­ward, even when the road gets bumpy.

To­day, our fates are more in­ter­twined than ever, yet the un­der­ly­ing sense that we have a com­mon pur­pose has been lost, be­cause our ideas about what that pur­pose should be have been chal­lenged – and even negated. We now know that the re­sources that sup­port our progress are not un­lim­ited, and that our planet can­not sup­port an ever-grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple with the life­styles that have his­tor­i­cally ac­com­pa­nied pros­per­ity.

Univer­sal­ist mech­a­nisms can­not func­tion prop­erly with­out a foun­da­tion of uni­ver­sal ethics, ob­jec­tives, and ex­pec­ta­tions. What they can do is fuel dis­con­tent and con­flict and, as we have learned in 2016, drive peo­ple to re­ject ra­tio­nal­ity and deny re­al­ity. That is deeply trou­bling, and it must be ad­dressed.

The first step is a reck­on­ing. In­stead of cling­ing to En­light­en­ment rhetoric and dog­mas, we must rec­og­nize the lim­its of our world, and shift our at­ten­tion from con­quer­ing it to­ward pre­serv­ing it. That is the shared vi­sion and di­rec­tion needed to but­tress a new, mod­ern global or­der.

The next step is an as­sess­ment of what, ex­actly, we should ex­pect from this new re­al­ity – and the devel­op­ment of new pa­ram­e­ters for mea­sur­ing suc­cess. We can­not sup­pose that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions will have more, but we can work for them to have bet­ter. To that end, pol­icy should be based not on blunt in­di­ca­tors of ag­gre­gate change, such as GDP and net trade data, but on more nu­anced met­rics that pro­vide a clearer pic­ture of wealth dis­tri­bu­tion, ed­u­ca­tion, and qual­ity of life.

The third step is to get every­one on the same page. In to­day’s world, com­mon ap­proaches are es­sen­tial to ad­dress chal­lenges and cre­ate new op­por­tu­ni­ties. No amount of na­tion­al­ist rhetoric or anti-trade sen­ti­ment can change this.

Of course, even with­out ef­fec­tive in­ter­na­tional sys­tems un­der­pinned by a uni­ver­sal ethic and pur­pose, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity will have to co­op­er­ate to tackle chal­lenges as they arise. But, chances are, such co­op­er­a­tion will come only af­ter a prob­lem has had a suf­fi­ciently pow­er­ful im­pact on the per­ceived in­ter­ests of in­di­vid­ual ac­tors.

The dan­ger here is twofold. First, the ab­sence of uni­ver­sal norms con­demns the world to be per­pet­u­ally re­ac­tive. The re­sult is an in­ef­fi­cient and desta­bi­liz­ing cri­sis­re­sponse model – and no con­struc­tive vi­sion for the fu­ture. Sec­ond, and more in­sid­i­ous, the ab­sence of an over­ar­ch­ing pur­pose re­in­forces a nar­row view of self­in­ter­est, with de­ci­sions made dis­cretely, based on a trans­ac­tional, rather than a sys­temic, out­look.

Trump, for one, seems con­vinced that such an ap­proach is ex­actly what the world needs. But we know what such self-in­ter­ested deal-mak­ing re­ally pro­duces. In­deed, the con­se­quences of a my­opic pol­icy un­moored from val­ues can al­ready be seen, most out­ra­geously in Syria. The bru­tal siege of Aleppo cul­mi­nated six years of empty rhetoric and half-mea­sures by Western lead­ers who seemed to be­lieve that the atroc­i­ties of Syria’s civil war did not merit real ac­tion.

Syria is an au­gury of a global dystopia. But our fate need not be so dark. In­stead of mourn­ing the lib­eral world or­der, as so many seem ea­ger to do, we should be seek­ing to ad­vance a new, shared pur­pose that can an­chor a truly global sys­tem – and guar­an­tee a bet­ter fu­ture for all.

The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity will have to co­op­er­ate to tackle chal­lenges as they arise

Ana Palacio, a former Span­ish for­eign min­is­ter and former se­nior vice pres­i­dent of the World Bank, is a mem­ber of the Span­ish Coun­cil of State and a vis­it­ing lec­turer at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity. THE DAILY STAR pub­lishes this com­men­tary in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Project Syn­di­cate © (www.pro­ject­syn­di­cate.org).

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