Those of you who speak Russian can now have the pleasure of reading my latest article, which has recently been published in the Russian journal Neprikosnovennyi zapas. In English the title is ‘Bruised but not broken: the international order in the 21st century’. It is available online here. Numerous commentators argue that the international order is in crisis, maybe even on the verge of collapse. Others, though, are more optimistic. The point of the article is to determine who is right. For those of you who don’t speak Russia, here is a brief summary of what I have to say.
The international order has been defined as ‘the body of rules, norms, and institutions that govern relations among the key players in the international environment.’ This may be seen as consisting of three sub-orders. The first is the ‘security’ or ‘political-military’ order. This promotes international peace and security. Its centrepiece is the Charter of the United Nations. The second element is the economic order. This regulates and encourages international trade, and is founded on a large number of international laws, institutions (World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), etc), and treaties. The third element might be called the ‘values-based’ order. This promotes good governance, democracy, and human rights, and is based on a body of international human rights law dating from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To determine whether the overall order is in good health, I therefore look first at inputs (i.e. the level of participation in the order) and second at outcomes in each of the three sub-orders (what are the results – is the world becoming more peaceful, more prosperous, freer, etc?).
Inputs: I note that while some treaties have recently been abrogated, most notably those to do with US-Russia arms control, states as a whole continue to bind themselves together with more and more agreements and through membership of more and more multilateral institutions. Specifically, there were around 10,000 international organizations in 1980, and 30,000 in 1992 when the Cold War came to an end. There are now nearly 70,000. States also continue to submit their disputes to international organizations (e.g. WTO) for resolution, and generally abide by the decisions. The nations of the world are therefore more intertwined that ever before. In terms of inputs, the international system seems quite healthy.
Security outcomes: A simple way to measure whether the international order is achieving its objective of international peace and security is to look at statistics concerning conflict. These show us that from 1992 to 2007 the magnitude of armed conflict worldwide fell by 60%. Since then it has been on the rise, but is still well below 1992 levels. Moreover, it is highly concentrated geographically (as is terrorism), with recent increases being primarily due to wars in the Middle East and North Africa. The conclusion we can draw is that we face a regional crisis not a global one. It is true that the situation worldwide is worse than it was 10 years ago, but it’s a lot better than 30 years ago. So, one’s opinion on whether the situation is getting better or worse in large part depends on one’s reference point.
Economic outcomes: International economic integration has stalled in recent years, with the collapse of the Doha round of WTO negotiations and with the United States returning towards protectionism in its relations with key trading partners. However, numerous regional economic institutions have recently come into being (e.g. Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank), no major country is showing any interest in abandoning or reducing international trade, and worldwide rates of economic growth remain fairly high. International trade has yet to recover from the 2008 financial crash, and thus remains below its 2007 peak, but is still high by historic standards. Thus compared to 2007, things are little worse, but compared to 20, 30, or 40 years ago, they don’t look so bad.
Values outcomes: After 1992, the number of states deemed ‘democratic’ increased sharply, while the number considered “autocratic” declined proportionally. The Global Report 2017 concludes that, ‘the global system … is more democratic than it ever has been.’ Likewise, the Global Peace Index 2018 comments that, ‘Over the past 100 years, democracy has spread, reaching a 100-year high.’ Viewed through a long-term lens, the values-based order seems to be in good shape. In the short-term, though, there has been some backsliding. Freedom House has recorded a constant decline in global freedom over the past 10 years. The Global Peace Index measures ‘positive peace’ (i.e. factors such as well-functioning government, low levels of corruption, and acceptance of others’ rights), and concludes that, ‘The average level of Positive Peace increased steadily between 2005 and 2013 … However, this trend levelled out in the two years to 2015, after which Positive Peace deteriorated in 2016.’ Once again, the conclusion is much the same as with the security and economic orders – something of a deterioration over the past ten years, but a substantial improvement over the last 30.
Conclusion: From this I conclude that the short term trends across the three elements of the international order are largely negative. In the past decade, there has been an increase in violence (albeit mostly in just one part of the world), a slowing, or slight reversal, of economic integration, and some regression in terms of democratization and human rights. However, these negative phenomena have only slightly dented the positive progress made in previous decades. Compared to the Cold War era, the current international system appears to be doing fairly well. The international order, in other words, is bruised, but far from being broken.