Tag Archives: liberal international order

Russia, the Arctic, and the Healthy Nature of the International Order

The Arctic tends not to get a lot of headlines. But here in Canada, it’s a big deal. Or at least it is rhetorically speaking. Canadians like to think of themselves as a wintery, northern people – as Gilles Vigneault sang: ‘Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver.’ We get all emotional about the north, and pump ourselves up with stirring speeches about defending our sovereignty. After which, we then do nothing – at least until the next time somebody else does something we don’t like in the Arctic. At that point, we make some more stirring speeches, before slinking off back to our local Timmy’s in Toronto or some other place as far from the Arctic as we can get without actually ending up in the United States.

And so it is that the Canadian press was none too happy this week when the Russian Federation deposited its latest submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to advance its claim to a large portion of the Arctic Ocean seabed. ‘That’s our Arctic Ocean seabed, you wretched Russians! How dare you?”

The Commission in question is a product of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), that gives states the right to exclusive exploitation of the seabed up to 200 nautical miles from their continental shelf. To claim such a right, however, states have to provide the Commission with scientific evidence of where the continental shelf extends under the sea. If they can satisfactorily show where the shelf goes, then the UN will approve the claim. If they can’t, then the UN won’t.

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Post-secularism and the liberal international order

In October last year, I gave a talk entitled ‘Rules, Rights and Values: Contradictions in the Post-Secular Liberal International Order’ at a conference at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). This has now been published, in Russian, in the latest edition (2019, no. 3) of ‘Tetradi po konservatizmu’ (‘Notebooks on Conservatism’), and can be found here.

As the piece is only available in Russian, below is a much truncated version of it in English, which provides the gist of the argument while leaving out most of the academic baggage.


Rules, Rights and Values: Contradictions in the Post-Secular Liberal International Order


In recent years it has become common in the West to talk of the ‘liberal international order’. Western politicians also make regular reference to the ‘rules-based international order’. Both are considered ideals which the West wishes to promote and defend. Yet rules do not have to be liberal and many of the rules governing state behaviour are founded as much on utility and necessity as on liberal values. Indeed, in the traditional Westphalian model of international relations, values were set aside in favour of international peace and stability. Western states thus find themselves in a paradoxical position, unable to pursue both rules and values without one in some way contradicting the other. Using post-secular theory, I argue that one reason for this contradiction may be that contemporary Western liberalism has taken on many of the characteristics of a political religion which has shed God but incorporates Christianity’s universalism and messianism.

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Bruised but not broken

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.

Liberal illiberalism

This is turning out to be a good week for hearing from top-level Russian ministers. First Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov penned an article for Russia in Global Affairs, and then Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu gave an interview to Moskovskii Komsomolets. The latter has got the most publicity so far, in large part because it’s the first interview Shoigu has given in many years, but I didn’t find much of interest in it. The main takeaway was that Russian soldiers now all have access to a washing machine. The fact that this is considered such a great thing makes it clear just how terrible conditions in the Russian army were until very recently. Beyond that, the interviewer tried occasionally to ask Shoygu personal questions, but the defence minister generally refused to be drawn, except to say that ‘I have great nostalgia for the Soviet Union’ and to inform us that his mother comes from Ukraine and that he himself was baptised, aged 5, in a church in Stakhanov in Lugansk Oblast. That last revelation drives home the point that the war in Donbass is quite personal to many Russians. Is someone like Shoigu going to let the Russian state abandon Lugansk?? Somehow, I doubt it.

Beyond that, Shoigu’s perspective on world events was pretty much what one would expect. The world is ceasing to be unipolar, he argued, ‘And naturally, the West doesn’t like this, and it’s exerting every effort to regain its monopoly of influence in the world.’ To this end it’s doing what it can to overthrow potential rivals, ‘And of course this is done under the pretext of spreading democracy.’

This is pretty much the consensus viewpoint in Russia as far as I can tell, and it should come as no surprise, therefore, that in his article Sergei Lavrov says pretty much the same thing. But what makes Lavrov’s article interesting from my point of view is where he goes from there. The main theme of the article is the failings of Western liberalism. Again, this is hardly something new. But what I found revealing was the logic that Lavrov used. This is what he had to say:

The West’s reaction to what is happening allows one to judge the true principles of its wordview. The rhetoric on the themes of ‘liberalism’, ‘democracy’, and ‘human rights’ are accompanied by the promotion of approaches based on inequality, injustice and egoism, and conviction of their own exceptionalism.

‘Liberalism’, which the West claims to be defending, gives centre place to the person, his rights and freedom. And that raises the question: how does this correspond with the policy of sanctions? … Sanctions directly strike ordinary people, their well-being, and destroy their social-economic rights. How do you reconcile the imperative of defending human rights with the bombardment of sovereign states, and the deliberate effort to destroy their statehood, which leads to the death of hundreds of thousands of people? …

As for Europe, the zealots of the liberal idea get on fine with massive breaches of the rights of the Russian speaking population of the European Union. …

And what’s ‘liberal’ about the visa and other sanctions imposed by the West against those living in Russian Crimea? They are punished for the democratic expression of their will to rejoin their historic motherland. …

Liberalism in its healthy, undistorted meaning, was traditionally the main constituent of world, and Russian, political thought. However, the multiplicity of models of development do not permit one to conclude that there is no alternative to the Western ‘basket’ of liberal values. …

[The West] has developed the concept of a ‘rules-based order’. … Its aim is to undermine internationally agreed legal instruments. …

In the economic realm, protective barriers have become the norm. …

What’s the result? In politics, the shaking of the international legal foundations, the growth of instability … in the realm of security, the washing away of the boundary between coercive and non-coercive methods of achieving external political goals … in the economic world – increased volatility, and fierce competition for markets.

Much has been said of late of Russia’s alleged ‘conservative turn’. Lavrov’s assault on liberalism will no doubt be added to the evidence in support of that. But read it closely. How does Lavrov attack Western liberals? By reference to liberal ideals! He appeals to human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and free trade. In short, it’s a homage to classical liberalism – liberalism in its ‘healthy, undistorted meaning’ as Lavrov puts it, liberalism which is, in his words, ‘traditionally the main constituent of … Russian political thought.’

In other words, the complaint is that Western liberals are hypocrites and have ceased to practice what they preach. They claim to be liberal, but they’re not. But there’s nothing here which challenges the ‘liberal international order’. If anything, it’s a call to return to the liberal international order.

I fully appreciate that this is a controversial interpretation of Russian thinking. Again and again we are told that the Russian government is illiberal and hell bent on destroying the ‘liberal international order’. I think that makes the mistake of taking radical geopolitical thinkers like Aleksandr Dugin and assuming that the Russian state shares their ambitions. But, as I see it, the Russian state is actually far more cautious. Far from wanting to destroy the international system, it would rather like to preserve it, but considers that the West is undermining it. For all the talk of a ‘conservative turn’, I don’t see that Russia actually has an alternative to offer to the liberal international order. I don’t see that it has any different political vocabulary to offer the world other than that of liberalism – human rights, democracy, free trade etc. Even when criticising liberalism, the Russian state uses its language. In his book Frontline Ukraine, Richard Sakwa noted that, ‘Russia makes no claim to revise the existing international order, but demands that the leading powers abide by the mutually established rules.’ I think that Lavrov’s article backs that conclusion up.


The liberal international order

The Holy Roman Empire, it’s often said, was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. The same might be said about the so-called ‘liberal international order’ – it’s neither liberal, nor international, nor an order. That might be a little unfair, but it’s not unreasonable to ask whether the system governing international relations is really quite what the proponents of the ‘liberal international order’ imagine it to be (democratic values, free trade, international institutions, international law, and the like). Whatever the answer, a lot of people are saying that the existing system is in crisis due to a resurgent Russia, a rising China, and far-right populism in Europe. Of course, if the liberal international order doesn’t exist, it can hardly be in crisis, but discussions of the matter are nonetheless revealing as they tell us quite a lot about how the advocates of this system truly view it.

This thought came to mind after attending a talk today by John Herbst and Daniel Fried. Herbst was at one point American ambassador to Ukraine; Fried was Assistant Secretary of State for Europe. Both men now work for the Atlantic Council, and their presentations were pretty much what you’d expect from that organization: ‘Kremlin aggression’, ‘Kremlin aggression’, and ‘Kremlin aggression’, with occasional references instead to ‘Russian aggression’, and the odd nod to concepts such as the ‘Putin regime’, ‘corrupt kleptocracy’, ‘hybrid war’, and ‘the Gerasimov doctrine’. It’s striking how men with such enormous diplomatic experience can have such an unsophisticated view of international affairs, in which their chosen enemies are entirely to blame for the problems of the world and are apparently motivated solely by malice rather than any type of legitimate interests which we might have to take into consideration.

But that’s by the by. Along the way, both Herbst and Fried had a lot to say about the ‘liberal international order’, which they felt was under threat for all the reasons mentioned above. And then Herbst said something quite interesting. Talking about Ukraine, he remarked that he was confident that reform would continue even if current frontrunner Yulia Timoshenko wins next year’s Ukrainian presidential election. Timoshenko is running a campaign based in part on rejection of much of the proposed reform program. But, Herbst pointed out, Ukraine is in desperate need of money. So we needn’t worry, he said, for the West can use the IMF ‘to bash her on the head’ (or words to that effect) to force Timoshenko and the Ukrainian parliament to enact the reforms that the West deems necessary.

And there’s the ‘liberal international order’ for you. Unwittingly, Herbst let the cat out of the bag and told us something important about how members of the Western establishment view the purpose of international institutions – not as institutions designed to facilitate foreign governments’ efforts to pursue the policies they wish to pursue, but as tools of the West to force them to do what the West wants them to do. In other words, the liberal international order, isn’t really international, but an extension of Western power. As you will notice, there’s also very little about this which is ‘liberal’. Forcing foreign governments to do things they were elected not to do doesn’t have a whole lot in common with democracy. (Though it’s hardly exceptional – think of the Greeks, for instance.) And it’s hard to see how it’s compatible with freedom either – after all, you’re not really free if you have to do what foreign governments tell you to do. Whatever its theoretical principles, when put into practice in this way, the liberal international order is simply a codeword for what those on the left like to call ‘imperialism’.

And that’s a shame. At heart, I’m a typical Western liberal democrat. I believe in the theoretical principles of liberal international order – free trade, international institutions, respect for international law, and all that. To some extent, I think they are indeed part of the practice of the international system, and it would be great if they could be practiced in an even more perfect way. But they’re not going to be if the states with the most power don’t respect them. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that reform in Ukraine is a bad idea. But you can’t preach freedom, democracy, and all the rest of it, if what you  practice is something very different. When ‘liberal international order’ is just code for ‘bash her on the head’ till she does what we want, the liberal international order is in trouble. But the root of the trouble doesn’t lie without; it lies within.