Imperatives of Contemporary World Order(s)

Establishing a new world order requires a global effort rooted in the idea of “social consciousness”

World flags are displayed at the new Flag Plaza in Doha, Qatar. Hamad I Mohammed /Reuters 

The global order established in the post-World War II (WWII) era still prevails. However, the geopolitical paradigm is fundamentally different today, creating a challenge in itself and reasons for discord. Post-WWII, the two most significant blocs, mainly the United States and the Soviet Union, established a “balance of power” between them and informally delineated “areas of influence” that the other should not cross. In 1823, the United States adopted the Monroe Doctrine, declaring that it will not accept competitive doctrines in the Americas.

A “balance of power” is not however static and even slight shifts can have direct implications. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was a major testimony to this reality. The two powers subsequently resorted to reactive opportunistic tactical policies, shifting gears according to their reading of the available counterweight and didn’t shy away from occasionally testing each other’s spheres of influence.

In many respects the recent Ukraine crisis has brought the Cold War and its concepts to the fore again. The Russian military invasion is a blatant unacceptable violation of international law. However, this tragic event was preceded by sustained irresponsible encroachments by the West in Russia’s perceived Cold War sphere of influence. I personally recall being told by Russian President Vladimir Putin in February 2014 that the West had treated him in an undignified manner and that he vowed to regain international respect. The Ukraine war, it seems, was his response to perceived U.S. isolationism following the failures of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and evident discord and lack of resolve in Europe.

“Balance of Interests”
To move forward, the world needs to forego the concepts of “balance of power” and “spheres of influence” in favor of “balance of interests” and “collective conscience”. This is essential to deal with global and regional problems in the 21st century. We must make a paradigm shift, whereby marginalization and inequality will be reduced in favor of more equitable, inclusive, and tolerant practices. It is imperative to refocus on the “common good” to reinvigorate the “social conscience and collective perspective,” which are essential to generate order in an ever-changing global and regional landscape.

Often this goal is erroneously perceived as a divide between “democratic” and “autocratic” systems of government. Democratic orders are not perfectly value-based, and autocratic systems are not necessarily agnostic to values. Neither are immune to critical thinking or common good concepts. The main difference lies in the shades of grey of their application and in how these systems engage their constituencies on shared governance.

All systems of public order without exception are being challenged domestically, regionally, and globally. I believe the reason behind this is that those in positions of power in the public sectors have grown elitist, ignoring and even disrespecting a large segment of their societies, who are feeling increasingly marginalized. And double standards and occasionally hypocrisy, which have been widespread, discredit almost all systems of government.

We need to reconsider and recalibrate national, regional, and global orders to respond to this situation before it completely erodes our confidence in the very viability of a world order. In short, public orders, whether liberal or illiberal, have lost their “social conscience” failing to set or manage global and regional priorities for the benefit of all. Our systems need revamping around the concept of “common ground”.

We have all witnessed pragmatic and realpolitik balance of power making social values subservient to the objectives of those in positions of power. A testament to the absence of a “social conscience” is that at its peak the Cold War, involved actors attempted to find security by providing extremely substantial resources to ensure the capacity to massively destroy each other. This absurd but highly proclaimed Cold War concept was called “mutually assured destruction”.

The Global Social Conscience
Concentration of wealth raises further questions about “social conscience”. In the United States for instance, the wealthiest 1 percent acquires more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Meanwhile, 10 percent of the world lived below the poverty line of 1.90 dollars a day in 2015. This remains true even after globalization had brought vast numbers above the poverty line and reduced global poverty levels from 36 percent in 1990 to 9.5 percent in 2020. The recent pandemic is estimated to have pushed 40 to 60 million under the 1.90-dollar poverty line.

In this context, it is important to highlight that globalization is a process of unauthorized integration and interaction among constituencies. Therefore, one of its main characteristics is the growing interdependence of the global economy, cultures, and populations, often with increasingly limited and definitely non-exclusive state control. As states realized that they cannot solve problems on their own, they developed treaties, conventions, and international organizations. Today, we must embrace an international culture increasingly reflecting a “social conscience” and a “collective perspective” to deal best with the opportunities and challenges of globalization

It is noteworthy that the United Nations was established to safeguard the world from the scourge, devastation, and ravages of world wars, and from the outset brought realpolitik and global social context into play. The preamble of the UN Charter uses the phrase “We the people” to give context and texture to the pursuant charter goals and provisions. While respecting sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of states, the charter is replete with references to “collective action”. It was the “social conscience” of the global community that was the springboard for most of the legislation developing norms and standards for international practices that have emerged over the last seven decades.

Why did the international community lose its “social conscience” at the global level, in regional domains, and within respective national systems? Ironically in some cases, the loss was an unintended consequence of individualism’s success. Without the drive, determination, ingenuity, and creativity that are characteristic of high-achieving individuals and nation-states, much of the progress of the last century would not have occurred. However, this progress has frequently come at the expense of the call for “collectivity”.  Rebalancing the genius and productivity of singular ambitions with collective interests is our greatest contemporary challenge, one which will require societal changes.

Another reason behind loss of a global “social conscience” is twofold. First, the extended period of the bipolar world led its main proponents to assume they had acquired rights and special status, thus embracing realpolitik without a soul or conscience. As the world community grew and the balance of power was shattered, tenets of the world order quickly collapsed.

Needless to say, the major (previous) Cold War powers will neither initiate nor enthusiastically embrace new concepts, principles. and tenets for a new world order. The onus and initiative has to be on the Global South, especially but not exclusively its visionaries and younger nations.

I also recommend that the UN Secretary-General organize discussions with groups of individuals in their personal capacity to bypass governmental competition or bureaucracies. The level, composition, and format should extend well beyond the traditional weekend brainstorming sessions held previously, truly allowing for perspectives that relate to future challenges without ignoring present realities, with a special emphasis on collectivism and common interests.

Once a set of principles, goals, and measures are developed about how best to revive collective social conscience, they should be subject to an intensive effort of quiet diplomacy, both with governmental bodies and opinion-makers, to create a societal discussion and debate around these issues. These ideas and principles should then be put up for adoption collectively before the community of nations at the UN General Assembly or its Security Council, with concrete topical issues discussed further and in-depth in the respective international and regional bodies.

I appreciate that the politics of the nation-state system today are challenging. However, we cannot shy away from taking on substantive and ambitious efforts to re-establish our national, regional, and global order. In the last century, devastating losses caused by world wars created a collective awareness pushing us to work together to avoid history from repeating itself. In the 21st century, it is time to raise our aspirations to ever higher levels by once again committing to a collective common good and sharing a stalwart social conscience.

This essay was first published in the Future Institute for Advanced Research & Studies.  

Nabil Fahmy is a former foreign minister of Egypt. He is also Dean Emeritus and Founding Dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo. He served as Egypt’s ambassador to the United States from 1999 to 2008, and as envoy to Japan between 1997 and 1999. On Twitter: @DeanNabilFahmy.

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