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The elusive quest for effective global governance

Article by Nathalie Tocci Director of the Istituto affari internazionali

We have known for some time that the old order is on the way out. While the crises that have dogged the international system since the turn of the century are very different in nature, they have all been connected to each other and point in the same direction. However, the direction indicated contains inbuilt contradictions that still must be resolved. This makes reaching coherent agreements on the future international security architecture fundamentally elusive.

The new century began with the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Especially the latter became associated with both the excesses of American hegemony and, thus, the start of its demise. For the last two decades we have at least known that the days of Pax Americana were numbered. What we didn’t know is what this would be replaced by.

Only a few years later, commencing in 2008, the global financial crisis (GFC) and ensuing eurozone crisis appeared to provide the first answers. The GFC was a crisis of the West, revealing the deep vulnerabilities of the hyperliberalism permeating western capitalism. This led to debate on multipolarity as an alternative system to the unipolarity of the USA, with groupings like BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) being formed, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank being established and thereby highlighting the reform failures of Western-led international financial institutions, while new multilateral groupings like the G20 seemed both more representative of the global distribution of power and better equipped to deal with crises affecting the global economy. The GFC also ignited debates concerned with the desirability of unfettered globalisation which, although reducing inequalities between countries and lifting millions out of poverty, had added massively to socioeconomic disparities in the West.

The GFC, especially its mishandling in Europe with the 2011–2013 sovereign debt crisis, established fertile grounds for a third crisis – the crisis of democracy – as accentuated by the ‘migration crisis’ in Europe. The crisis of democracy, featuring the election of Donald Trump, the Brexit referendum, the nationalist populist wave in Europe and the wider world, from Türkiye to Brazil, as well as the rule-of-law crisis in the EU with the democratic backsliding of Hungary and Poland, revealed a world in which the promotion of democracy was long gone and liberal democracies were in the business of protecting democracy, with authoritarian countries like Vladimir Putin’s Russia explicitly portraying themselves as leaders of an illiberal world.

Then came the pandemic crisis that made it very apparent that the international system was indeed fragmenting once again. Yet, rather than a clear multipolar structure, a new form of bipolarity was emerging, one in which the nature of political systems was central (democracy vs. autocracy) and gravitated around the growing rivalry between the USA and China. The pandemic was often portrayed in terms of competition (‘which political system is best equipped to deal with major global challenges?’) while also showing that effective results hinged on aggregate efforts and hence multilateral responses. The same is true of other transnational challenges like climate change, artificial intelligence and non-proliferation. The pandemic also put the spotlight on another contradiction: on one side, the growing connectivity and interdependence of the world whereas, on the other, the push for deglobalisation, protection, redundancy and to shorten supply chains.

Finally, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, by touching on so many dimensions of security, (dis)order and global governance, is completely exposing the contradictions of our time.

The invasion shows that the world is both bipolar, multipolar and non polar all at once. Yes, there is indeed a growing form of bipolarity, with the closer transatlantic relationship and cooperation within the G7 Plus, and a strategically diminished Russia increasingly being relegated as China’s vassal. At the same time, the world also displays features of multipolarity, with the agency of mid-sized powers holding ambitions of greatness that have refused to align with either the West or Russia preferring to seize opportunities by working with both sides. India, Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and to some extent Turkey, rather than fence-sitters have all acted as deal-makers intent on exploiting fully the gains accrued by global confrontation. Nevertheless, the world has also demonstrated that it is non polar, with the broad majority of abstentions on UN General Assembly Resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion essentially being made in an effort not to get involved in the conflict, and primarily concerned with its global consequences rather than its regional causes. This refers to countries in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia which believe they have enough on their domestic and regional plates and are simply unwilling to be dragged into a war they do not consider to be theirs. They are preoccupied with their own local affairs and not bound to one another by some global ideological glue. In this sense, today’s fence-sitters are fundamentally different from the Non-Aligned Movement countries during the Cold War.

Related to this, the war also reveals that the world is at once more integrated and more fragmented. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is both a European and a global war. What makes it global are both the principles at stake, from international law, colonialism, democracy and rights, and its repercussions from the energy crisis to food security and nuclear proliferation. The weaponisation of energy and food have emphasised in their starkest form the security risks of an ever more interdependent world. Yet, the war has simultaneously plainly shown that universal ideas like sovereignty and territorial integrity actually have relatively little traction globally, with countries far away and unlikely to be directly affected by the violation of such principles simply being unwilling to pay a price in their defence. Sad as it is, the war has brought greater honesty into the international debate.

The war, coming on the heels of other crises that have scarred the 21st century, enables us to see with greater clarity the world in which we are living. This clarity has also revealed incongruities in the nature and distribution of power as well as in the centripetal and centrifugal forces driving it. These contradictions are nowhere near being settled, making the search for effective global governance centred on existing, reformed or new institutions, ever more elusive. Reading through the fog of war, we are destined to muddle through for some time still, alternating between competition and ad hoc cooperation, and inevitably zigzagging as we seek to provide tentative and generally suboptimal solutions to the biggest challenges of our age.

This article was published in Bled Strategic Times 2023. Bled Strategic Times is the official gazette of the Bled Strategic Forum. Check the full 2023 edition here.

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