This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
In the new polycentric world, global institutions must be reformed so that regional powers have a say in the system.
It is no secret that the “keys” to the global system are in the West’s hands. The smarter participants in world politics and economics, such as the countries of East and Southeast Asia, have successfully capitalised on this Western-driven system. But the Ukraine crisis has dramatically illustrated the capacity for politics to have an impact on the system. The pressure brought to bear on the Visa and MasterCard international payment systems, as well as on the SWIFT bank communications system, to block Russia for political reasons undermines the main tenet of globalisation: that it is equitable because the market decides, not the governments.
Representation by itself is not a cure-all: it provides no guarantee of efficient governance.
This global system will be transformed, and its transformation will be fraught with upheavals and will follow different trajectories. One will be the democratisation of world governance and the adaptation of current institutions to a diversified world, taking into account the opinions of various groups and the need to coordinate interests based on the economic and political weight of the participants in the system. However, representation by itself is not a cure-all: it provides no guarantee of efficient governance. Not every aspiring power, even if it has the material resources, possesses adequate capabilities. And those who do have them do not always use their potential for the good of world governance.
In recent years, international institutions have been sharply criticised for their inefficiency. In terms of their performance, this critique is probably justified, but it would be unjust to say that international institutions, especially structures such as the United Nations, are solely responsible for the dysfunction of the world order. The UN is a mirror that reflects the state of affairs in the world community, which is a function of its ability to negotiate. The UN, just like many other international institutions, is only as workable as its member states allow it to be. What the world is experiencing right now is not a crisis of its institutions, but a crisis of the very notion of what is possible and desirable. The same framework could be filled with more up-to-date content, appropriate to the current situation, if the participants were to agree to coordinate their basic interests and to pursue reasonable self-containment.
The UN was conceived as a tool to prevent military conflicts between the leading nations, not to exercise global governance.
The UN was conceived as a tool to prevent military conflicts between the leading nations, not to exercise global governance. In this sense, the end of the Cold War did not expand, but in fact narrowed the organisation’s capabilities. The West believed that its victory in the systemic confrontation of the second half of the twentieth century gave it the moral and political right to make global decisions. But the UN’s institutional structure has not changed – it reflected the results of another conflict, the Second World War – and it was impossible to reform it based on the West’s “informal” victory in the Cold War. For that reason, the United States preferred to bypass an international body that it deemed obsolete, thereby challenging the original mission of the UN.
As a new, polycentric world order takes shape, the UN can take a deep breath, since there is not, and there cannot be, any other international forum comparable to it in terms of legitimacy and representation. But an agreement is needed between old and new leaders to make the UN structure fit the new reality. There are no precedents for such a peaceful agreement (without a major military conflict that shapes the world hierarchy), but in the present climate, the lack of an agreement will precipitate a decline in the overall efficiency and authority of the UN Security Council.
It is pointless now to discuss an alternative system of global institutions.
It is pointless now to discuss an alternative system of global institutions. The problem that most countries face today is the need to save money or use it more efficiently, so nobody is going to pay to duplicate institutions that are already in place. Meanwhile, the changing nature of the global environment and its transition to polycentrism – that is, the empowerment of the world’s regions – creates a demand for the institutionalisation of the “poles”, the establishment of powerful regional organisations that can be responsible for “their” part of the world. The role of global institutions could transform into the coordination of the activities of the regional “pillars”, including the elaboration and enforcement of their rules of interaction.
So far, the only objective process is the gradually rising prominence of the United Nations General Assembly, which does not have the right of veto. But although its resolutions have no direct action, they create the atmosphere for world politics. It is noteworthy that on many issues the majority of mankind speaks out against the moves of the Security Council permanent members, in fact voicing their distrust for the way the major powers govern.
No country can “unplug” itself from globalisation unless it is ready to be doomed to autarky and backwardness.
Another tendency in the world today is growing sovereignisation: state institutions, struggling for authority and control, are trying to close out external influences and processes. No country can “unplug” itself from globalisation unless it is ready to be doomed to autarky and backwardness. However, signs of disappointment are present in various countries and societies – and their efforts, no matter how uncoordinated, could soon begin to seriously undermine the global system. The harsh measures taken by the West to retain global domination are likely to generate counterreactions.
This piece is an edited extract from NEW RULES OR NO RULES?: the XI Annual Valdai Discussion Club Meeting Participants’ Report, edited by Fyodor Lukyanov and Ivan Krastev. Fyodor Lukyanov is editor-in-chief of the journal, Russia in Global Affairs. Ivan Krastev is chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, and a founding board member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.