Preserving the Global Conditions for Europe’s Model: The Case for a Westphalian Grand Bargain

The Russian war of aggression has fundamentally changed Germany’s strategic environment in Europe. Within a very short time, Germany’s own defense capacities must be strengthened, its energy supply decoupled from Russia, and supply bottlenecks and price increases cushioned. In tackling such Herculean tasks, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the foundations of the world are shifting beyond Europe’s horizons. Large parts of the Global South refuse to condemn the Russian war of aggression. The BRICS-plus countries want to reduce their dependence on the US dollar. The war in Europe is embedded in the global competition for the next world order.

With the rise of new great powers, above all China, the historically exceptional concentration of power in the United States is waning. The unipolar moment following the triumph of the West in the Cold War is irrevocably over. In the future, larger and smaller power centers will help shape the destiny of the planet—or at least of their regions.

It is not yet foreseeable whether this will lead to a bi- or multipolar world. It cannot be ruled out that blocs will form around the leading powers of the United States and China. However, while there are many indications that the two superpowers will dominate technologically and militarily, they will at the same time not be economically and politically strong enough to organize the world along ideologically rival systems.

This is because a number of regional powers—such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Brazil, Nigeria, South Korea, and Indonesia—are rising. However, they lack the means to project their power globally. More difficult to assess are the medium-term power potential and geopolitical orientation of the continental powers with global ambitions: Russia, India, and the European Union. If bipolar blocs were to form, Russia would deepen its “no-limits” alliance with China, while the EU would deepen the transatlantic partnership. India is flirting with a new nonaligned movement that could position itself as the tipping point. In the medium term, an asymmetrical multipolarity is likely to emerge.

Meanwhile, Russia’s attempt to impose an exclusive zone of influence by force of arms is being closely watched in world capitals. Even if Russia could hold its own militarily in Ukraine, Moscow would have paid a very high economic and political price. Russia’s neo-imperial dream of establishing itself as a pole in its own right is likely to end in a junior partnership alongside China. But Pandora’s box has been opened. War as a means of geopolitics between the great powers is back.

End of the Liberal World Order?

Does the end of American supremacy also seal the fate of the liberal world order guaranteed by the US after the end of the Cold War? Here it is necessary to differentiate. For John Mearsheimer, American political scientist of the realist school of thought, the liberal world order is composed of three constitutive elements: a liberal mission, i.e. the spread of democracy and human rights; an open, globalized world economy; and a multilateral global governance architecture.

For more than a decade, the global balance of power has been shifting to the disadvantage of the liberal mission. An authoritarian counterwave is destroying democratization successes. Relative to the democratic West, autocratic great powers that perceive democratization as a threat are becoming stronger. For democratic powers such as Brazil, South Africa, India, Japan, or South Korea, the spread of democracy and human rights is not the top priority. The defeat in Afghanistan sent a fatal signal about the West’s ability to set up democratic institutions elsewhere. Behind closed doors in Washington, Paris, and elsewhere, the era of humanitarian intervention is being declared over.

In contrast, the vast majority of states have an interest in maintaining the open world economic order. China, not least, owes its spectacular rise to open world markets. However, the hegemonic conflict between Beijing and Washington is calling this openness into question. The US is trying to delay China’s catching up with the world’s technological leaders by imposing export controls and investment barriers. To reduce its dependence on Western export markets, China has shifted its development model to the domestic market-driven dual circulation economy.

Both superpowers exert pressure on allies and third countries. This politicizes the framework of investment decisions. Market access, infrastructure projects, trade agreements, energy supplies, and technology transfers are increasingly evaluated through a geopolitical lens. Companies are increasingly faced with the decision of choosing one IT infrastructure, one currency system—or the rival offering. The major economies may not decouple from each other across the board, but diversification, especially in the high-tech sector, is picking up speed. It cannot be ruled out that the formation of rival economic blocs will be at the end of this development.

The Search for New Alliances

Around the globe, there are many friends of rules-based multilateralism. Non-Western, non-democratic powers also have an interest in the peaceful resolution of conflicts and in cooperation in addressing global challenges ranging from climate protection to securing trade routes to peacekeeping operations.

China in particular, however, will only engage in multilateral institutions where Beijing is on equal footing with Washington. Where this is the case, such as in the United Nations Security Council, China is engaged; where its weight is underrepresented, such as in the Bretton-Woods institutions, it builds its own organizations. If Chinese demands are not heard, Beijing can build an alternative multilateral architecture on these new foundations in which rules-based cooperation is possible to solve common challenges. Beijing has just presented what “a world order with Chinese characteristics” might look like in its three initiatives on Global Development, Global Security, and Global Civilization. In such an illiberal (partial) international order, however, democracy and human rights are no longer likely to play a role.

The solution to the great challenges facing humanity can only work through the cooperation of states within the framework of a rules-based, multilateral order. It should therefore actually be in the enlightened self-interest of the West to overcome the current paralysis of the global governance architecture through adequate representation of emerging powers.

The sticking point at which such a grand bargain threatens to fail lies in the Taiwan and Malacca straits. China feels encircled by the US and its allies and fears being cut off from its vital supply lines. The buildup of China’s military presence in the South China Sea is intended to prevent such blockade attempts. Strategically, Beijing is targeting access to the open Western Pacific. In Washington, the aggressive advance of a rival military power into the Pacific awakens memories of Pearl Harbor. For the US, the defense of its home territory begins at the so-called First Island Chain. Thus, existential interests collide around Taiwan. It is not without reason that Beijing and Washington are openly considering whether a hot war between the two nuclear powers can be waged or won.

It is therefore unlikely that these adversaries for global and regional hegemony will conclude a grand bargain on their own that adapts the American-led world order to China’s increased weight. If the grand bargain fails to materialize, the contested multilateral institutions will not be able to fulfill their function as forums for cooperation, and the world economy will be in danger of disintegrating into rival blocs.

Europe’s Challenges

Such a Hobbesian world is likely to pose the greatest challenges for the European Union. It is therefore high time for Europe to do everything in its power to preserve the conditions for the success of its economic and political model. In order to be able to act collectively, Europeans must clarify the world order for which they are throwing their weight into the balance.

What are the options? Three scenarios are conceivable for the future world order. First, a new cold or even hot war between an US-led alliance of democracies and a Chinese-led axis of autocracies. Second, a multipolar concert of great powers. And third, a Westphalian compromise that at least partially restores the viability of rules-based multilateralism.

In a new cold war, Europe needs to pursue a de-risking and diversification strategy to reduce dependencies. But to prevent today’s deglobalization tendencies from giving rise to competing blocs with high welfare losses for all, or the Sino-US rivalry derailing into a hot shooting war, new partnerships between middle powers are needed. To form such partnerships, however, Europeans must recognize that their potential partners in the Global South have different threat perceptions, constraints, and interests. For many, Russia cannot be replaced as a supplier of energy and armaments.

In Asia, similar to Europe, most states depend on China’s dynamism for their economic development, and on US guarantees for their security. Therefore, our potential partners resist the growing pressure to pick a side. If this choice is also morally exaggerated as a system rivalry between democracies and autocracies, even more potential partners will be alienated. We should therefore mothball the counterproductive binary between of democracies versus autocracies.

For new trust to emerge, the global challenges (climate change, pandemics, hunger, migration) that particularly affect the Global South must finally be tackled with determination. If multilateral institutions remain permanently dysfunctional, weakly institutionalized “mini-lateral” forums could be a solution. In the various formats from G7 to G20, there are already such approaches to “club governance,” in which the major powers coordinate their interests with one another. However, in such a new concert of great powers, it is to be feared that democracy and human rights will no longer play a role in this horse-trading. In view of the challenges facing humanity, this system of minimal cooperation is simply too fragile.

Europe should therefore do all it can to keep what can be salvaged from rules-based multilateralism with the United Nations at its center. To preserve this regulatory framework, however, it must be adapted.

To overcome the current deadlocks, the emerging powers should be given representation and a voice commensurate with their new weight. Europe will have to accept a relative loss of influence because, as a rules-based supranational entity, its survival and prosperity depend on an open, rules-based world order.

Like the Europeans, a majority of the states in the Global South want to uphold the rules-based international order and condemn violations of the principles of the UN Charter. However, there is disagreement about what actually constitutes a rules-based multilateral order. Europeans tend to emphasize the need to preserve the liberal world order with democracy and human rights at its core. This means, among other things, defending the mandate of the Human Rights Council, expanding international criminal justice, and living up to the “responsibility to protect.”

In contrast, large parts of the Global South emphasize the Westphalian principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and non-interference. As the reactions to Russia’s war against Ukraine show, many states in the Global South are certainly willing to bear the political and economic costs of defending the Westphalian principles of the UN Charter. Their willingness to also stand up for the liberal values of democracy and human rights, on the other hand, is weak. What is more, the aversion to the weakening or transfer of sovereignty is also shared by many Eastern Europeans.

How, then, can Europe get involved in a world order that is shaking its own fundamental values? A compromise could lie in adhering to the universality of human rights without any ifs or buts, while renouncing their dissemination through external coercion. In the Global South, humanitarian interventions have always been seen as a cynical fig leaf for the enforcement of the West’s geopolitical interests. In practice, the failed large-scale experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown anyway that exporting democracy at gunpoint cannot be successful.

Those who find this price too high should bear in mind that nothing less than securing the foundations of peace, freedom, and prosperity in Europe is at stake. In view of challenges to humanity such as climate change, migration, and famine, a Westphalian “UN lite” scenario would perhaps be the best of all possible worst worlds.

Marc Saxer heads the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES)’s Geopolitics and World Order project in Asia/Pacific, also directing the FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia. He is a member of the German Social Democrats (SPD) Commission on Fundamental Values (Grundwertekommission).

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