At a regional security conference in the Middle East, an intervention by a distinguished participant provoked a think. He asked about the implications of active conflicts across three continents on global peace, security and stability.
The reference was to the Russian aggression on Ukraine in Europe that is now in its twentieth month, Israel’s war on Hamas and by extension on the ill-fated people in the Gaza strip provoked by Hamas’s barbaric attack on innocent Israeli civilians on October 7, and the continuing transgressions by China across the Line of Actual Control with India since April 2020 and the simmering tensions in the South China sea. The latest provocation was the Chinese navy ramming the Philippines’s civil and naval assets to prevent them from reaching the Second Thomas Shoal.
Added to these are the drug cartel wars in Latin America, Islamist insurgency in both eastern and western Africa, and violent coups in several West African nations.
On January 26 this year, the Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, Amina J Mohammad, warned the 9250th meeting of the UN Security Council: “The United Nations’ raison d’être is now under grave threat.”
This comes against the backdrop of the highest number of violent conflicts since the end of the Second World War, leading to a pervasive sense of insecurity worldwide. Every continent in the world is witnessing a conflict of such magnitude that threatens the stability of the entire region.
After witnessing the unprecedented scale of devastation caused by the Second World War, the pyrrhic victors decided to modulate the prevailing rigidity in the Westphalian global order.
The Westphalian system emphasised sovereignty and was premised upon raison d’état. In simple English, it means the balance of power rests on the rational calculation of what was in the best interests of the country and its ruler.
Elevated to the exalted heights of the holy grail of strategic thought by Cardinal de Richelieu, first minister of France during 1624-42, it unfortunately only fragmented the global order as it only served to fuel the vested interests of nation-states notwithstanding the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and the Concert of Europe in Vienna in 1814-15 that brought hundred years of peace to Europe.
Raison d’état was primarily responsible for destroying the League of Nations despite the devastating First World War in 1914-18 that had left forty million people dead. After the Second World War, institutions such as the UN, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were created to try and mitigate tribalism in the global order.
Despite the Cold War, there was significant progress compared to the previous state of affairs. The end of the Cold War witnessed the zenith of multilateralism. Institutions such as the World Trade Organization came into existence seeking to end trade protectionism and the UN became much more proactive in dealing with global conflicts. An example is the UN Security Council resolution 678 adopted on November 29, 1990, which legitimised the use of force against Iraq for invading Kuwait.
Unfortunately, there has been a gradual degradation of multilateral institutions since then with the UN system failing to measure up to the occasion on several instances. The most glaring being the ineffectual inanities mouthed by the World Health Organization in the initial months of the Covid pandemic and the inability of the UN Security Council to even discuss the pandemic in March 2020, when half the world was already in some form of lockdown or the other since China held the rotating presidency for that particular month.
The WTO has been in a deadlock since the Marrakesh Agreement and the ongoing trade war between China and the US has resulted in the creation of protectionist sentiments in the international trade regime.
Another reason for the downfall of multilateralism is the rise of right-wing populism and the challenge it has presented—both ideological and political—to globalisation, liberalisation and the mores of liberalism.
The downfall of multilateral institutions has revived the Westphalian system of global order. Rather than relying on the WTO for facilitating trade, countries are now trading within their blocs, this has resulted in the rise of regional trade agreements and the so-called mini-laterals.
In the realm of geopolitics, the rise in tensions between the US and China has once again reignited the East-versus-West rivalry. The three-way naval exercise between Russia, North Korea and China in the Indo-Pacific, and the recent visits of President Putin to China and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to Russia demonstrate the innate desire of these belligerents to challenge the US and its allies in the Indo-Pacific.
Also read: The clash of civilisations in the Caucasus
On another front, the increased bonhomie of China and Russia with Iran, Syria and Iraq has shown the desire to challenge the US-led Saudi-Israel bloc in the Middle East. The recent Israel-Hamas war has reopened every faultline in the greater Middle East, going back to the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 and the Balfour Declaration of 1917. It significantly degraded the possibility of an Israel-Saudi Arabia entente or a larger rapprochement in the Middle East in the near future.
Unfortunately, this divide in the international order comes amid the fact that the world is facing unprecedented challenges. Democratic countries are decreasing day by day and the democratic gains made in the last three decades have been greatly reduced. Now climate change threatens the fundamental resources crucial for the survival, security and prosperity of nations in the global order. Economic inequality between the Global North and the Global South has widened, and global public debt has reached an unprecedented $238 trillion, which will have severe ramifications for our future.
In order to tackle these challenges, it is essential to reimagine the structures of the institutions of global governance; the aim is to prevent them from becoming more inefficacious and redundant in addressing the prevailing state of play. In more than one sense, we are back to the period between the two cataclysmic World Wars of the 20th century.
(Views are personal)
Manish Tewari, Member of Parliament, lawyer, and former I&B minister