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How Should We Define International Order in the Modern Era?

How Should We Define International Order in the Modern Era?

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By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security

Historian and occasional pundit Niall Ferguson recently penned an op-ed in The Global Times, questioning the existence of an international order. More specifically, Ferguson referred to the existence of a liberal international order as a myth. He channels his inner Voltaire, declaring that the liberal international order is “neither liberal, nor international, nor very orderly.”

For Ferguson, the post-World War II events that gave rise to the United Nations and its associated institutions are not the harbingers of a new international order. Instead, it was the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War that truly brought something resembling an international order into existence.

To support his claim that a true international order does not exist, Ferguson largely relies on economics. He states that the era of globalization did not fully come into fruition until 1990.

According to Ferguson, 1990 was when “truly free trade, truly free capital flows and large-scale migration across borders” were codified in numerous free trade agreements. The 1985 Schengen Agreement, which allowed for visa-free travel among numerous European nations, provided both economic and social benefits to the signatory countries.

Ferguson is correct for focusing on economics. Many players who benefit from globalization often engage in human rights abuses – a decidedly illiberal function of some nation-states’ domestic politics.

Kissinger Had a Different Definition of an International Order

We need to define “international order” if we want to consider Ferguson’s argument. Furthermore, it is important to consider if such an order is possible at all.

A confusing aspect of defining an international order is how it is comparable to the concept of a world order. According to former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a world order “describes the concept held by a region or civilization about the nature of just arrangements and the distribution of power thought to be applicable to the entire world.”

Using Kissinger’s definition, it is clear that a world order has never existed. Kissinger further states that an international order would be the application of these concepts to a substantial part of the globe.

Former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, a vehement defender of the liberal international order, would likely agree with Kissinger’s thinking. As a result, the shared values of much of North America and Europe could theoretically be described as an international order. This definition and application, however, deviate significantly from Ferguson’s argument.

The Relationship of East Asia to an International Order

Ferguson includes China as a member of the liberal international order primarily because of trade, but also because he believes the relationship between the U.S. and China is intractable. In fact, Ferguson first wrote about the “Chimerica” concept in 2007.

Considering the importance of East Asia and its relationship with the rest of the world’s largest economies, there is an international order. It’s one that is chaotic, but definable. It has many liberal elements, primarily economic, yet its political aspects are certainly not cohesive.

Ferguson defines the liberal international order as something more akin to Kissinger’s definition of a world order. In that vein, he is correct in dismissing its existence. But there is an international order, imperfect in definition and application as it seems to be.

Does a True International Order Actually Exist?

A true world order does not exist and is simply not attainable. Consider that any international order, such as the European Union, is made up of numerous nation-states. These nation-states do not always agree. For example, the Brexit drama, Greek insolvency and Polish domestic politics have strained the EU.

Additionally, each of these nation-states has significant domestic political dissent. It is possible for a political- or economic-based international order to exist, but it will not be universally accepted and will not be immune to political change.

The pursuit of international orders to improve political and economic cooperation continues. Whether they will work any better in the future is anybody’s guess.

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