Global Memos are briefs by the Council of Councils that gather opinions from global experts on major international developments.
A girl plays with a ball decorated as globe in front of buildings during the Global Climate Strike of the Fridays for Future movement in Sao Paulo, Brazil on September 20, 2019.
REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Multiple challenges are causing instability and uncertainty around the world. Whether conflict, cyber security, artificial intelligence, climate change, migration, protectionism, financial instability, or terrorism, the challenges are more than any one country can tackle alone. The sensible thing for the world would be to act in concert to meet those challenges. However, countries are finding it difficult to connect with each other and agree on solutions. 

Armed conflicts in Europe and the Middle East are leading the headlines with no end in sight. How the United States and China will manage their competition and whether it will lead to conflict are also of concern. The fact that the United States and China are so intertwined financially and economically does not prevent the possibility of an armed encounter; the extensive trade between the United Kingdom and Germany more than a hundred years ago did not avert the First World War. 

However, today’s interconnected world is much different. Multilateral institutions cover almost every issue or sector, some performing better than others, such as the World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization, and NATO. However, the most important institution, the United Nations, and specifically its Security Council, has become increasingly inoperable with each passing dispute. Countries have become emboldened in flaunting the rules of non-interference. The most important issue today is how the world can return to holding countries to respect each other’s interests. Thus, as the existing international rules-based order is fracturing, a new debate is emerging: What should a new order look like, who will build it, and how will it be respected? While the answers are difficult, it is clear that shared leadership—beyond just the United States and China—is necessary to meet today’s challenges. 


The Fraying Liberal International Order

Major powers have imposed orders in the past, such as the nineteenth century’s Concert of Europe. It lasted almost a hundred years despite quarrels among its adherents, and it took a major war to change the status quo (as well as another world war to establish a new order). 

The current liberal international order created by the United States in the aftermath of World War II and supported by the West is challenged not only by others but also by those who built it. Take the World Trade Organization, which the United States has made dysfunctional by preventing the dispute mechanism from operating, as the body ruled many cases against Washington’s interests. Furthermore, the UN Security Council’s permanent members have taken turns blocking it from taking measures necessary to prevent conflicts. Now, Security Council decisions are not always followed or implemented.  

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the short-lived U.S. unipolar moment, China and several middle powers started to resist the liberal international order. As many Western countries rhetorically supported the rules but selectively followed them in action, more countries have become reluctant to abide by those rules. As acts of impunity remained unpunished, the twenty-first century has seen a reversion to hard power. 

The question remains as to what kind of order the world wants. Any decision will eventually involve taking sides, which will require deciding which vision of order is right—that of the United States, China, the European Union, Russia, middle powers, or the rest of the world. This question will continue to cast a shadow no matter what order is established.  


Who Could Shape a New Order?

The United States has the advantage of building on the existing order, but it needs to take into consideration the interests of other countries, notably countries outside of the West. Another advantage that Washington has is its history of building alliances. The United States has recently continued this trend with several countries, mostly in South and East Asia. However, those alliances are concerned with containing China’s influence rather than solving other crucial issues. 

China, the other major power, is an upstart and does not yet have the reach of the United States. Despite its claims of non-interference, promotion of economic development, and protection of sovereignty, it regularly intimidates its neighbors. China’s association with Iran, North Korea, and Russia is also uninspiring. China benefitted from the current order and is now bent on asserting its own vision. Nevertheless, China has not led countries on any global challenge and demonstrably failed during the COVID-19 pandemic.   

Meanwhile, the European Union is rudderless. For the first time, the results of the European Parliament elections have affected national politics—particularly in France. The European Union remains a commercial power but has been unable to muster unanimity in assembling military capability. Security in Europe depends on NATO, which in turn is reliant on the United States. 

Russia has overplayed its hand after its so-called success in Crimea, Georgia, and Syria, and is a regional danger rather than a power that intends to establish any kind of order beyond its immediate borders. Russia’s goal is basically to increase its influence through conflict and threats. 

The middle powers, including countries such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Turkey, are part of a multilayered power structure that is incapable of leading or establishing a new order. The recent elections in India, Poland, and Turkey are promising but largely indicate a turn toward unbalanced democracy. They are also less likely to follow any new hegemon as they have gained more clout and are able to resist outside pressure. Their ambitions are also regional. Countries outside of the West remain historically conscious of the colonial and imperial legacies of Western countries.


Jaded ‘Rule of Law’

As the liberal world promoted democracy, rule of law, and human rights, others saw those initiatives as a pretext for intervention, whether by withholding aid or introducing sanctions. Moreover, Western countries’ double standards have been exposed when they have cooperated or conducted business with authoritarian regimes as it suits their interests. The latest example was the EU deal with several countries to curb irregular migration to Europe. The European Union can pursue such policies for its own interests but it cannot be selective in asserting its values. 

Thus, the world is facing a situation where leadership on major issues is discretionary. Washington’s global outreach is receding as the United States does not have the appetite to act in several theaters. While the United States wishes to focus solely on China, it is pulled back to other parts of the globe by Russia’s aggression in Europe and Iran and its proxies’ menace in the Middle East. Israel’s defiance of the United States, its main benefactor, also raises questions about U.S. influence.  

National sovereignty is threatened by a lack of effective international rules. Borders are less secure. States have to fend for themselves or form alliances which may not always be to their liking. Thus, the first priority for any new order should be to guarantee the independence of states without fear of any threat or intimidation from third parties.     


The Perils of Populism

As democracy wanes in various countries, nationalist and populist sentiments are growing. Economic downturn, irregular migration, the increasing negative influence of nonstate actors, terrorism, and disinformation all feed into right-wing policies that allow authoritarian measures to gain traction. The U.S. presidential election will be pivotal in deciding whether Washington will continue its efforts to lead or turn inward. The world is holding its breath for a possible second Donald Trump administration. Never before has the specter of one man caused so much consternation on a global scale. A second Joe Biden administration could uphold its commitments, but a significant chance would be most likely after the 2028 presidential election, where younger candidates with different perspectives will emerge.    

No easy way out exists. It is even more difficult to gain trust, as once rules are established, exceptions soon emerge. Countries are reluctant to follow any power, however benevolent it seems. Thus, the need for genuine and increased dialogue. This is even more urgent with issues that are global in nature such as climate change and health. While protectionism increases and countries prefer or are forced to go it alone, major global challenges will not be resolved and could actually exacerbate. As long as countries continue to ride the tide of hard power, the threat of widening conflicts is all too real. Only a common threat could be the catalyst to act in unison. But the new order should not wait for another world war. It must evolve and be voluntary.   

The U.S.-created order, although flawed, has endured in an uneven manner and still garners the most support globally, but it will only last if it can take the interests of other countries into consideration. There will never be a perfect order, but a semblance of justice and conscience is required if the world is going to cope with growing global challenges.

The time has come to accept shared leadership if our planet is going to have a chance for prosperity.  The United States and China not only need to respect the interests of middle powers and accept that two is not a crowd, but also middle powers have a responsibility to sustain and help reform the international—not just regional—order and manage the competition between the United States and China. The danger of non-cooperation is that countries will go their own way.