It is almost 30 years since the former Warsaw Pact countries were invited to a NATO gathering for the first time. It was a last-minute decision to invite them and some name plates were missing. I remember a delegate from an Eastern European country asking me in a somewhat embarrassed tone, “Sorry miss, but I do not seem to have a nameplate”.
It was the end of the Cold War, we were unprepared for the drastic changes taking place but at the same time, all of us, no matter how small our roles, had to think fast on our feet. I rushed to the stationery cupboard, found a cardboard box, a pair of scissors and a marker. The gentleman nodded at me with a gracious smile, his eyes beaming at the makeshift representation of his country at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s annual event. As a young intern in 1991, that was my contribution to the end of the Cold War.
The need to act expeditiously in times of great change is as relevant as ever. However, the West’s strategy to deal with change in the international order has been one of intransigent denial, while zealously clinging onto what we inherited from the Cold War.
Much of this denial to face change has been embedded in what was the original ‘transatlantic bargain’ and the fact that it was much too good a deal to be jettisoned for something else. The transatlantic bargain was to economically rebuild Europe from the ashes of a devastating war so that it became the principal strategic partner in a global political economy, while the US provided the bulwark of security against the Soviet Union with extended nuclear deterrence.
The moral imperative behind this deal, which strengthened the social legitimacy of its international institutions, was the need to defend a certain 'way of life' against a different one. That murky definition was coloured with the principles of freedom, democracy and human rights, but there were parts of the so-called ‘Western bloc’ that did not fall within these principles at all.
It was only after the Cold War that putting the defence of principles before the practicality of military defence became a reality. This was not because of any benign intent. The immediate post-Cold War period rested on a grand design to absorb the post-communist world into the transatlantic institutions that were inherited from the Cold War, and the forebearer of that absorption were norms and values.
Even then a European scholar had commented that wars like Yugoslavia may not have had a direct bearing on the West’s economic and security interests, but they constituted ‘bad examples’ at a time when ‘we’ in the West were trying to advance enlargement of institutions through universal values. It was a time when values and norms did become the interests at hand.
Eventually, the past 27 years evolved into a struggle of maintaining that post-Cold War grand design with the enlargement of the EU and NATO, whilst a battle of norms ensued as Russia and China also took a stab at owning international norms to fit their own designs.
At the heart of Russia’s realpolitik ventures in its own region, was an attempt to curb Western normative expansion in its neighbourhood. While the intervention in Georgia in 2008 was framed as one undertaken under ‘international humanitarian law’, the annexation of Crimea was presented as one of championing ‘self defence’. Both were concepts used quite widely in the break-up of Yugoslavia and the ensuing NATO interventions in both Bosnia and Kosovo.
China, on the other hand, prefers to promote and soften its growing international influence by referring to ‘cooperation’, and a ‘win-win’ approach under a globalist outlook. China’s use of infrastructure-for-resources loans in Africa, as well as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have been put forward as a new regional and globalist ‘win-win’ strategy.
Underlying this approach are nevertheless serious challenges to the persistent transatlantic-centred liberal world order. Not only does the BRI present new challenges to the management of the global commons as primary trade routes, but it also presents a new path paved with investment, not just trading routes, that grow together with alternative new institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
At the end of the day, what has not changed since the 1990s is that power and influence are still being dressed up in normative language to legitimize expansion. The only difference being in the 1990s the ‘transatlantic core’ held the original copyright, whereas today other powers are playing the same game.
This has exacerbated the transatlantic core’s tendency to refuse to accept change in the global order. At the heart of this has been a persistent rejection of Russian attempts to circumvent international norms, that have proved to be both disturbing and frustrating for the West.
Another reason why this denial of change persisted so long was the impending doom of replacing that order with a downward spiral into chaos. It was the vision of a lack of alternatives that stoked this fear of not letting go of the 1990s. What lay behind this was the erroneous belief that, the mission of shaping the world through essentially western institutions and norms, "gave diverse people a sense of a shared mission and a common vocabulary." This is likely to be less and less the case.
However, does this necessarily mean the international order will have no alternative but to descend into chaos or something far worse? Furthermore, we should ask ourselves if a changed international order, ought to necessarily be an illiberal one? The answer to both questions is if the emergent, the rising and the declining, can manage change together. Surely this is the true ‘win-win’ scenario that all can benefit from. Perhaps a brave new world in the making, one that we can all embrace and shape together is not so far-fetched an idea.
This brings us to the hardest part in answering these questions. How can change be managed together? There are no easy answers but the starting point has to focus on what needs to be done. There are a long list of challenges that impact us all, from creating sustainable peace and growth, to curbing the growing global refugee crisis, and tackling climate change.
By working together in a global functional framework, we can create a ‘Mitrany’ model for the world, of pragmatic international cooperation, where transnational and international webs of transactions focusing on a particular activity will eventually lead to more solid, normative bonds in international relations.
Mitrany’s model of functionalism worked in creating those bonds in post-War Europe. With the building of bonds and trust through functional cooperation we can thus create a Mitrany model for the world, where we will eventually write our own common norms that bind us together. Perhaps these will be the same norms that were embedded in the transatlantic bargain that created a liberal world order, but they will no longer be empty words, but tangible deeds attached to values that mean something.
In 1945, the focus was to rebuild after a devastating war. Despite the onslaught of the Cold War, there was much that brought people and states together. What was behind the original transatlantic bargain was not a vision laced with fancy words but deeds that built order from ashes. That is what gave meaning to those values and the institutions that upheld them.
Perhaps we will move from an order of ‘interlocking institutions’ to ‘interlocking regions’. Interlocking institutions was a phrase coined in the 1990s that referred to reconstituted transatlantic institutions such as NATO, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, at the heart of a renewed and expanding liberal world order.
This is now likely to be replaced with interlocking regions, where there is no institutional or normative core, but competing and cooperative structures of convenience forming global webs of transactions between different regions and different regional institutions. This has to be the heart of managing change together.