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How to build a post-Covid world order

Tuesday 2 March 2021

Structural reform of international bodies is only part of the solution. The key is to identify the main challenges – China, climate emergency, global economic change, the next pandemic – and develop a new and nuanced multilateralism


Our system of global governance is creaking. Today’s structures were designed in the aftermath of World War II and have barely changed since. We have added the G7 and the G20 as informal means for coordination and that has helped. But the distribution of global power has changed dramatically. New issues – climate change, pandemics, technology – which have no respect for national borders, have thrust themselves to the top of the international agenda. Can the post-1945 system be adapted to provide stability for the next 75 years? What should we be looking to do differently? 

The first priority is to avoid war between the major powers. The two previous systems of order in Europe both broke down when a rising power decided that it could gain more through military aggression. 

The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 ended 150 years of religious wars by allowing territories to make their own decisions about which religion to follow, and in so doing introduced the concepts of sovereignty and non-interference. The peace lasted 150 years until Napoleon’s ambitions for France drove Europe back into war. 

The Congress of Vienna (1815) built on the Westphalian principles and added the concept of a balance of power in Europe that, by and large, kept the peace for nearly a century. But Germany’s rapid rise put the system under great strain and one death in Sarajevo proved to be the final straw. The punitive post-First World War settlement then created the conditions for Hitler’s election. Europe went through 30 years of bloodshed and turmoil which, during the Second World War, spread across the world. 

The post-WWII settlement has held the ring since. Crafted by the Americans with British and French support, it built on the principles of its two predecessors and created institutions to oversee the new world order. The United Nations Charter was adopted universally, committing all nations to resolve disputes peacefully. 

Where the great powers could agree, UN Peacekeepers were able to separate warring parties, for example in the Middle East and Africa. The IMF and World Bank helped underpin global economic stability, and, from the 1970s, the G7 (then representing almost 70 per cent of global GDP) coordinated the international financial system when it was challenged by high inflation, high oil prices and low growth. 

However, the crucial task of avoiding war between the great powers was still a role for national governments. Despite some desperately close scrapes, the United States and the Soviet Union managed to navigate the Cold War and end it peacefully. In many ways the UN Security Council came into its own only after it was over, authorising the eviction of Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, trying to keep a lid on the conflicts in the Balkans and intervening (sadly, ineffectively) in terrible bloodshed and chaos in Rwanda, Somalia, Haiti and elsewhere.

All three systems of order required the participation of the major powers and for them to be content with their role and influence in the system. The 1919 Versailles Treaty failed because it exacted retribution and failed to establish sustainable peace. The League of Nations (1920-46) broke down because the major powers could be overruled: the United Nations addressed that with the veto power granted to each of the five permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, the US, and the UK). 

China’s rise is the principal geopolitical issue with which we are now grappling. Already a powerful player in the post-1945 system, it makes use of its Security Council veto and has flexed its muscles to get Chinese nationals appointed to head several UN agencies. It has also shown that, if necessary, it is more than willing to set up a new supranational institution. So when the US Senate refused to ratify an increased say for China in the IMF and World Bank in recognition of its greater economic weight, Beijing simply opened the Asian International Investment Bank for business in 2016. China seems to be saying: “If the existing bodies don’t recognise our power, we will go our own way”. 

That sort of unilateral display of raw power is precisely what we, in Europe, don’t want to happen. For mid-sized powers, accustomed to settling disputes without recourse to force, a rules-based international system is vital. 

But China itself is making it harder for other countries to accommodate its ambitions. Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, his country has asserted itself more aggressively. Just at a time when the lessons of history tell us the system needs to be flexed to accommodate a greater Chinese voice, China itself is behaving in ways that makes it much more difficult to agree to such changes. 

There are echoes of the years before WWI. In 1911, the leaders of the six European powers would have been unanimous in wanting to avoid war and in their conviction that a Europe-wide conflict was unimaginable. In 2021, neither China, nor America, nor Russia, conceives of a major conflict between the big military powers. But they could stumble into one as we did in 1914. 

So there is the challenge of absorbing China into the international system as a near-peer of the United States. Meanwhile, the greatest threats to stability come from issues we have not had to deal with in quite the same way before. Global pandemics. Climate change. Technological transformation. These are global challenges that can only be addressed through global cooperation. We only stand a chance of success if the major powers work together. 

Where do we stand in early 2021? Donald Trump hasn’t left much in the way of a positive legacy. But his administration did lead the way in changing how other Western leaders viewed China – an endeavour in which he was assisted by China’s crude behaviour during the pandemic. 

A much tougher US approach to China will continue under President Biden and his successors. Biden has promised “extreme competition” with China, with markers laid down on Taiwan, the South China Sea and the appalling human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In response, China has drawn red lines around some of these same issues on the grounds that they are internal Chinese questions and foreign interference is unacceptable. 

Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister and now President of the Asia Society, has warned of the dangers of uncontrolled rivalry between the US and China. He has proposed that Washington and Beijing negotiate a framework of “managed strategic competition”. The purpose would be to set limits on the US-China rivalry to ensure no repeat of 1914, no falling into the so-called “Thucydides trap” (whereby, as when Sparta was threatened by Athens, a hegemonic power slides into conflict with a challenger). Top-level traffic policemen would be required in the White House and the Zhongnanhai to manage the relationship. 

Such a system would need to endure beyond the current generation of leaders – something which is now a real challenge for the United States, with the Republican Party roiled by division and Trump’s influence still very strong. Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, has called on American politicians to leave their fierce competition at the water’s edge so America can present a consistent face to the world. That summons is well meant but the prospect of which Haass speaks seems a long way off.

Efforts to avert war need to be buttressed by America’s allies. Japan, South Korea, and Australia have strong defence alliances with the United States, as Europe had its counterpart pacts in the Cold War via Nato. Political coordination is also needed. The European Quad of Germany, France, the UK and US coordinated Western policy on international security through the Cold War and continued to operate under different guises in ending the Balkan wars and the nuclear negotiations with Iran. It needs to be revived, especially now Britain has left the EU and the threat from Russia has become more insidious. 

There is now also an Asian Quad of Japan, India, Australia and the US. India is a reluctant member, not keen to be too closely aligned with America; but Chinese attacks across the border last year have been a sobering reminder to Prime Minister Modi that India faces a choice of either knuckling under to Chinese dominance or standing up for itself. If it chooses the latter path they can’t do it on their own. 

There is scope for these two Quads to come together. Biden’s call for an Alliance of Democracies and Boris Johnson’s plan to expand the G7 which he is hosting this year to a D10 – a Summit of Democracies – are moves in this direction. But there are important caveats. 

The sort of coordination I have in mind needs the blessing and support of political leaders but it can’t be conducted in the glare of publicity that surrounds gatherings of heads of state or foreign ministers. It requires the painstaking work of officials from diplomacy, defence and intelligence to negotiate the detail of common policies and to underpin common political decisions. 

This is not a policy of containment. It is a framework for us all to accommodate China’s growth while setting limits on China’s assertiveness. Clarity of consequences is an essential part of deterrence. A clear defence framework is also the firm platform needed for cooperation on other priorities. 

People may ask: why not reform the UN Security Council? There is a strong case on representational grounds – is the current composition really a fair reflection of the geopolitical balance of power? But the honest answer is that including Japan and India as permanent members wouldn’t achieve a great deal in terms of averting conflicts. Adding Brazil and South Africa would give emerging market countries more of a voice and Germany’s inclusion would recognise its position as Europe’s biggest economic power. But a bigger council with ten permanent members would be even more immobilised than the existing body, even more of an inert talking shop. Yes, the current Security Council is not truly representative of today’s world and that weakens its authority. But, in reality, there may not be a better alternative available.

That said, Britain shouldn’t sit on its laurels in New York. We must continue to justify our position as one of the P5, the Security Council’s five permanent members. If we indulge ourselves in a second national rush of blood to the head by breaking up the UK then there is no guarantee that England and Wales would be accepted as the successor state: all of the four remaining P5 members would need to agree, as they did when Russia succeeded the Soviet Union. 

In practice, the focus on institutional reform should be more on the Bretton Woods institutions and the UN agencies. In this respect, the IMF has shown the way. Kristalina Georgieva, the Managing Director, is recasting the IMF’s role and making it much more supportive of policy transitions in developing countries. Both the IMF and the World Bank need more resources, not least to address the sharp increase in poverty levels caused by the pandemic. And the World Bank needs to rediscover the campaigning drive that marked it out under the leadership of Jim Wolfensohn (1995-2005) and Bob Zoellick (2007-12). Their successors have trod water. 

These two institutions and the network of regional development banks are the means to offer developing countries a real choice between being tied into China’s Belt and Road Initiative (with all the political conditions attached to it) and having closer links to the free markets of the West. The West’s priorities of curbing corruption and putting countries on the path to sustainable growth are much more attractive to ordinary people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. 

Do we need new institutions to deal with pandemics and with climate change? The World Health Organisation had a stumbling start with Covid, in part because its Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus, appeared so clearly in hock to Beijing, to which he owed his election.

That said, the WHO has played a vital role since, especially in providing expertise in Africa where public health systems are weak. The former New Zealand prime minister, Helen Clark, is looking at what reforms are needed. I doubt she will conclude that a new institution to prepare for pandemics is required. We have all learnt so much from Covid that we will start from a different place when the next plague comes along. 

Climate change has at last attracted the political and business priority it long demanded and is the one area where a new, dedicated institution would be worth considering. On its own, a new agency won’t transform the effort. What is needed is a sense of collective endeavour and burden sharing as we reduce carbon emissions and push through the energy transition. Devising incentives like carbon trading and border taxes are part of the solution and the European Green Deal sets out a high level of ambition that sets a standard for others. Climate concerns are becoming embedded into all organisations, national and international. 

COP26 in Glasgow this November offers a chance to give such global efforts a real push, especially with the Biden Administration in place and sympathetic to much of the green agenda. China and India face huge challenges in shifting to a low carbon economy but they are both moving in the right direction. In this case, a new international body could hold governments and businesses to account for their commitments, promote best practice in developing countries and be a forum for monitoring the advance of climate change and the effect of measures to mitigate it.

History suggests that it takes a devastating war to force international leaders to devise a new international order. We can’t afford that. Nor, with relations between the great powers so fraught and American politics so divided, is there any chance of negotiating and ratifying a new global system. Initiatives like “Responsibility to Protect” were well-meaning and remarkable at the time – but they have yielded next to nothing in terms of substantial measures. It’s good to aspire to lofty goals. But we also have to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground and deal with the world as it is rather than as we would like it to be.

Some structural changes are needed to keep the peace through the 21st Century. A new balance of power arrangement is required in Asia that allows China, India and other countries to grow economically without threatening war between the great powers or the independence of weaker nations. 

In parallel, national leaders need to focus their people on the huge challenges the world faces and show them there is a path to solutions. That is a lesson from the pandemic – bluff words don’t change harsh facts. Nationalist distractions don’t solve global problems or improve the lot of ordinary folk. Effective, practical government is needed and will be demanded by voters. 

The return to nationalism and localism mustn’t blind us to the power of the multilateral system. When governments work together and are backed by business and NGOs, the effects can be magnificent. Look at what has been achieved through concerted global action to reduce poverty and to combat diseases like smallpox and malaria. 

I am optimistic we can tackle climate change and future pandemics, and also that we can keep the peace even while the power balance in the world shifts. That requires not just eternal vigilance but an enlightened approach to our common interests. Multilateral institutions are vital to raising our sights, but they have to reform and adapt to the changing balance of power in the world and also the changing challenges that face us in the second decade of the century and beyond.

After the many backward steps of the last five years in America, Europe, China, India and Russia there is a glimpse of sunshine emerging from behind the clouds, at least in the democracies. A revitalised international system, building on what we have now, is essential to take advantage of the new opportunities.

Sir John Sawers is a former chief of MI6 and Permanent Representative of the UK to the UN and is now executive chairman of Newbridge Advisory