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New world disorder

New world disorder

A different set of threats has arisen in recent years, exposing the weaknesses of the international rules-based order. Next week, the leaders of the G7 nations will be meeting in Cornwall – and we’ll be looking to them for answers


First, for some good news: the weather. The ten-day outlook for the weather in Cornwall is good, which, as you can imagine, comes as something of a relief to the UK organisers of the G7 Summit at Carbis Bay next weekend. The forecast for the photo-op is fair.

But how much can the leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations actually achieve? The G7 has not had a good pandemic. When the world needed global leadership on emergency supply chains, on reliable health information, on coordinated travel rules and on a rapid, equitable vaccine roll-out, well, the great powers seemed unable to organise a Zoom call.

I’m James Harding, I’m the Editor and Co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail I thought I’d play back what I’ve been hearing about what you might call the “new world disorder”.

In a conversation last week about the state hijacking by Belarus of the Ryanair plane in order to detain a dissident journalist, Susan Glasser, the New Yorker writer, described Alexander Lukashenko’s actions as “the calculated use of the unthinkable”. And it’s one of many: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s authorised murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi; Vladimir Putin’s mid-air poisoning of Alexei Navalny; the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury; the SolarWinds cyberattacks. You can see there’s a pattern.

And then, when I was talking to one of the people on the UK’s national security team this week about the ability of the West – by which I mean the US, the UK and Nato – to deal with such acts of deliberate recklessness, he said that there’s a lot of thinking in defence circles these days about how to respond to such actions – actions, as he described it, that fall “below the threshold of war”.

The last year has not just exposed the world order forged after World War II. It’s embarrassed it – and they know it. 

Part of the response to that needs to be organisational. If you’ve noticed that we’re publishing Tortoise Takes – i.e. our slow, researched and, we’d like to think, actionable view on some of the big issues that the world is facing – then you’ll have seen that this week’s Take sets out our prescription for powering up Covax, the global vaccine programme. And it’s part of a broader argument that the crisis of globalism that we’re living through needs to be answered by turning global organisations from talking shops into international government that delivers. In the jargon, it’s about the empowerment of tier two multilateral organisations, i.e. those second tier institutions that sit below the very biggest ones like the UN and Nato: organisations like the World Health Organisation, like the World Trade Organisation, like Unicef and others.

But the systemic failures of global leadership are, perhaps, easier to address – by no means easy, but easier to address – than the random and violent snubs to the world order by the new vandal dictators.

We are living in a new age, one that’s only partly explained by the rise of new Asian powers, only partly addressed by tackling the climate emergency and mass migrations. Because just as the Cold War and the geo-politics of deterrence gave way to asymmetric warfare and the dominance of counter-terrorism, well, 20 years after 9/11, the world faces a very different set of threats. It’s what you might think of as aggressive disruption – the militarisation of air spaces and marketplaces; the weaponisation of everything from data to domestic laws; the calculated use of the unthinkable that squeaks just below the threshold of war.

The G7 has lost a good deal of credibility in the past decade. Even more in the past year. People now, across the world, have a new sense of fragility. And so they look to the world’s most powerful men and one woman to explain the dangers, to offer concrete collaboration to tackle the pandemic, to show spine against narcissist autocrats and, of course, to smile for the cameras.

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