The United Nations flag. Picture: 123RF/Steve AllenUK
The United Nations flag. Picture: 123RF/Steve AllenUK

Contrary to expectations, the post-Cold War world has become a more violent, more dangerous and more unpredictable place. Western dominance of world affairs is inexorably moving to an end, and with it the present liberal global peace architecture is foundering. At this critical time a totally unprepared world fell victim to the deadly coronavirus pandemic, an invisible enemy that respects neither national borders nor ideology.

Reflecting the deepening faultlines in international society, this new threat was met with a chaotic response, even “upmanship”, as leading nations competed aggressively with one another to discover a vaccine that would be honoured as “the saviour of mankind” and regarded as “one of the greatest scientific and humanitarian accomplishments in history”.

In the frantic unpreparedness to fight the pandemic, populations were in many cases treated not as citizens with rights and dignity but rather as pawns in domestic political squabbles. A new “vaccine nationalism” emerged, signifying that for some nations national prestige mattered more than human lives.

A more callous approach is hardly imaginable, confirming the dismal reality that nations have lost all faith in working together for the common good. Chaos prevailed over insight, demonstrating the dearth of leadership — particularly in the West — and threatening the liberal world order.

No less of a tragedy is the main guarantor of this order for 75 years — the US — giving up on internationalism. In 2016 US President Donald Trump boastfully declared that “we will no longer surrender this country ... to the false song of globalism”. These are words of capitulation that may very well spell the end of the notion of a liberal international state system.

Under the presidency of Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) the notion took hold that a global liberal order was “vital to American interest”. Peace was sought through the rule of law, human rights, democratic governance, multilateralism and alliances, primarily understood in ever-closer international co-operation and globalism. These concepts formed the basis of the “international society” in which like-minded states pursued common interests for the sake of peaceful international coexistence in an anarchical global system.

The Wilsonian rules-based paradigm served as a lode star for the US’s foreign policy for many decades, rendering the society of nations a relatively peaceful and rules-based configuration. All of this may now come to an end. The US could become like China or Russia, operating in a Hobbesian world, forfeiting its unique intellectual, moral and geopolitical role of the past. The fate of Hong Kong may well serve as an early warning. According to The Economist, erosion of American power of deterrence is “no longer alarming to its foes or reassuring to its friends”.

Trump may well argue that the US’s overweening hard power (military and technological) supremacy is not in decline and that the country is safe. However, China and Russia are catching up. Even so, power politics alone is not a sufficient guarantee for global security. Hence the importance of a legitimate and universal liberal order, which the present rules are not.

During the 19th and 20th centuries the European international system was imposed globally, to the exclusion of non-Western cultures in a “mono-civilisational” system. Oswald Spengler denounced the myopic view of history based solely on Western experience as an “empty figment of one linear history”. Also, Arnold Toynbee criticised the “parochialism and impertinence” of the West assuming “egocentric illusions” of how the world evolved, to the effect that there was only “one river of civilisation, our own”.

However, says Samuel Huntington, despite these warnings, the illusions and prejudices “have blossomed forth in the widespread parochial conceit that the European civilisation of the West is now the universal civilisation”.

These notions echo Third World Approaches to International Law (Twail). Coming about in response to decolonisation, Twail challenges the legitimacy of international law because it reflects mostly the intellectual, moral, historical and cultural experiences of Europe. International law, despite being postulated as universal, do not reflect the voices of former colonies.

Historically, the Third World has viewed international law as a discourse of domination and subordination, reflecting what they view as the hegemony of the West. Whether a legitimate and truly universal rule-based system is at all possible given the present deep cleavages between North and South, East and West, remains a challenge to global leadership.

What is certain is that the foundational values of liberalism, such as democracy, freedom and human rights, are no longer aspirations confined to the West. They have permeated global thinking and become part of a set of common values often encapsulated in a so-called right to democracy, even though interpretations of what this really means differ vastly.

A new global peace paradigm is clearly necessary to render world politics more congruent with realities. As Henry Kissinger observed, there are no universally shared perceptions, inevitably leading to different views of what the rules should be: “There is the Chinese view, the Islamic view, the Western view and, to some extent, the Russian view.” The UN’s inability to bring consensus on the important issues affecting war and peace, and human rights in particular, is precisely due to East-West ideological, power-political and cultural cleavages.

The Covid-19 pandemic provides an unrivalled shared emotional experience cutting across ideology and region. Similar to world wars and revolutions, this could well provide a proverbial “constitutional moment” prompting change in the decrepit architecture of international co-operation; the spur towards inclusive internationalism the world needs to bring back some level of order.

Learning from history, a concert of the powerful nations, such as at the end of each epoch, seems to be a sensible idea. At the Congress of Vienna (1815) after the fall of Napoleon, leading nations collectively planned a new comprehensive architecture to ensure world peace. After World War 1 the League of Nations was established, and after the World War 2 the UN. However, when the once mighty Soviet empire collapsed and the Cold War ended, things went horribly wrong as the West put its faith in global unipolarity under the protection of a Pax Americana that is now ending.

Of course, a similar entente, with China and Russia participating given the present state of world affairs, seems well beyond reach. Of major and immediate concern should be to prevent the lurking Chinese hegemony. For the West, a return to the safety of a status quo ante after the Trump fiasco would also be a false hope. For Europe, piggybacking came to an end with the passing of the Pax Americana. The only, and perhaps the best, option left seems to be a reformed UN, where states can act collectively as equals and keepers of world peace.

• Gerrit Olivier, a former SA ambassador to Russia, is professor emeritus at the University Pretoria. Michèle Olivier is associate professor and chair of law at Dar Al-Hekma University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

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