August 22, 2022
With the war in Ukraine, “the emerging world order” has become a current topic with conflicting opening gambits.
The West argues for the rules-based international order, the body of rules, norms, and institutions that govern relations. Among those are treaties, international law, formal structures, institutions, and values at the center of which are democracy and respect for human rights.
Those on the other side of the divide are China and Russia, advocates of the law-based international order, who underline the central role of the UN and stress the centrality of multilateralism. They say that international rules must be based on international law and must be written by all, that they are not the privilege of a few, and there should be no room for exceptionalism or double standards. And in response to Western emphasis on democracy as a tenet of the “rules-based international order”, they say that every country has its unique history and culture and needs to take a path of development suited to its own realities.
The debate will continue under the shadow of shifts in global power and strategic competition, but international consensus on a new world order remains a chimera. Moreover, climate change is more than likely to trigger new conflicts.
However, winning international support for one’s worldview is important for countries, even for global powers, and that is why Washington is currently engaged in intense diplomacy across the globe to forge as broad as possible a front to isolate Russia and contain China.
On March 2, 2022, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a resolution demanding that Russia immediately end its military operations in Ukraine. A total of 141 countries voted in favor of the resolution, which reaffirmed Ukrainian sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity. The resolution was sponsored by more than 90 countries and needed a two-thirds majority in the Assembly to pass. Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Russia, and Syria voted against it, while 35 abstained.
On April 7, 2022, the UNGA adopted another resolution for Russia’s suspension from the UN Human Rights Council with 93 nations voting in favor, 24 against, and 58 abstaining from the process.
Of the 58 countries that abstained on April 7, at least 17 stand out as countries of consequence in their regions or the world because of their population size, GDP, possession of nuclear weapons, or cultural impact. Those countries are India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh in Asia; Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand in Southeast Asia; Brazil and Mexico in Latin America; Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda in Africa; and Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa. If China, Iran, Vietnam, and four of the Central Asian countries who voted against on April 7 are added, there are 24 countries with weight in the system who are capable of pushing back on divisive issues, six of whom are G-20 member countries. They make the emerging multivalent global order a reality.[i]
Despite expressed public satisfaction, disappointment with the voting on these two resolutions may also have given added impetus to Washington’s diplomatic campaign.
In their endeavor to win international support against Russia and China, the US and its European allies have to deal with certain impediments.
First is the legacy of their colonial past, particularly in Africa and the Middle East.
The second is the legacy of their failed military interventions extending from the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan to the regime change projects in Iraq, Libya, and Syria and their support for the war in Yemen. The silent withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in December 2011, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, and the French withdrawal from Mali last week were all testament to failure. This is why President Obama referred to the “Washington playbook” in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic back in April 2016.
“Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power,” he said. “That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.” [ii]
The third is the discrepancy between the Western public discourse on democracy and the cozy relationships the West enjoys with countries under authoritarian rule.
And the fourth, unfortunately, is democracy’s decline in the West and its consequent loss of appeal to the masses elsewhere. People’s first priority in Africa and the Middle East is better living standards. And increasing income disparities in the West blunt their yearning for democracy.
President Biden often refers to his strong belief that democracy will and must prevail but even the American democracy faces challenges beyond the assault on the US Capitol. As FBI agents executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump signaled his intention to run for president in 2024. Liz Cheney was resoundingly defeated in the Wyoming GOP primary. Thus, Tehran wants to ensure that Iran will continue to benefit from complying with the JCPOA even if a future US president again withdraws from the deal.
To confront Russia or China, perhaps both as they keep moving closer to one another, the West needs to write a success story, a peacemaking one. Yes, the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of the Cold War. Germany was reunified. NATO and the EU embraced new members. These were Western accomplishments but they essentially served Western interests. And then came the misguided interventions in the broad Middle East leading to erosion of confidence in the West. Therefore, this success story has to be written in the Middle East where there are many opportunities for the West to make up for past mistakes. Reaching an understanding with Moscow to end the decade-long suffering and devastation in Syria should be less of a challenge than ending the war in Ukraine.