Consider some problems: climate change, the challenges of new technologies, the crisis in nuclear arms control, inequalities, freedom of navigation in the Gulf, increasing hunger and food insecurity, demographic pressures, the greater number of armed conflicts in this decade than the previous one, discrimination and repression on the basis of gender or faith or sexual preference, plastic pollution, pandemics, the sixth mass extinction and more. What conclusions can we draw?
The key to international relations today is cooperation. The devotees of each state standing alone and standing up for its own interests are no longer the realists. They live in a dreamland of their own creation, sadly risking the well-being of the rest of us living in the real world.
Because the fact is that it is hard to think of a major international issue that any single country, however rich, can solve alone.
In the latest very short film in SIPRI’s Peace Points series, I give a quick and dirty take on how I assess state of international cooperation. One-word version: mixed. It depends on the issues and on who you’re asking about.
Who backs international law? Consistently?
In the film, I also comment on what I think is one of the key characteristics of world politics today: the lack of a strongly status quo great power.
China, Russia and the USA all challenge and seek to modify aspects of the world political order. Accordingly, each takes opportunities as they arise to act unilaterally and sidestep international law and agreements, creating uncertainty and instability in international relations.
For China as a rising power and Russia, given its perception that it lost out badly in the decade after the end of the cold war, making this challenge is easily understandable. More comment-worthy is that the USA is at least disgruntled and often actively opposing the norms and actions of some of the key international institutions it had a major role in shaping and from which it has long benefitted.
This may go deeper than Trump. US exceptionalism and distrust of ‘permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world’ (George Washington) or ‘entangling alliances’ (Thomas Jefferson) have long been part of US political thinking.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that great powers want to choose when to be bound by the law and when not. Why expect otherwise? In the study of international relations, that’s realism for you. But if so, it should be equally axiomatic that medium and lesser powers both should and will favour international law much more consistently and work together to nudge the great powers to conform. It is in their interests and helps build the global common good. That, for me, is the new realism.
This is a new dividing line in world politics. The big challenges necessitate cooperative action. Cooperation requires trust and mutual confidence. These are achieved by respecting the same norms and laws. Each action that flouts international law or defies an international agreement does something to erode the global capacity to address the big problems and not just survive but thrive. Conversely, each time a stand is made in favour of international law and cooperation, the global capacity for good increases just a little.