Ismail Serageldin


Facing Facts: What’s Wrong with the Current World Order!

 05/09/2014 | NGIC-CdM meeting in Andorra

Facing Facts:

What’s Wrong with the Current World Order!


Ismail Serageldin

Opening remarks delivered at the

NGIC-CdM meeting held in Andorra

5 September 2014




Introduction : A moment of Crisis:


Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen


We are gathered here today at a critical moment in world history. The world order that had so patiently been erected in the last half century has become unraveled.  It is not the end of history as Fukuyama claimed, nor is it the clash of civilizations as Huntington believed… it is much worse.


The present world order with its expected norms of behavior for the member states of the United Nations, is being severely challenged.


From a Russia that reaches outwards…ascertaining rights to interfere in all areas where Russian speakers may exist… a new kind of Brezhnev doctrine that we thought was long since dead and buried..

We see not only the current crisis in Ukraine, but we see the stalled situations in Russia’s periphery, from Nagorno Karabagh in Azerbaijan, to Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, as well as a resurgence of Russian influence in the countries that were either part of, or under the tutelage of, the Soviet Union, and who are NOT currently protected by the shield of NATO.


From a newly assertive China that claims its own sphere of influence in the South China Sea in a sort of a mirror image of the Monroe doctrine of 200 years ago.


Both of these new giants are asserting their sphere of influence, and in the best tradition of balance of power politics are probing their periphery to gauge the extent of resistance and to try to expand their political dominance.


Today, the specter of war in Europe has been awakened

While on the other side of the Mediterranean

The specter of barbarism has been resurrected…


There the world of the middle ages is upon us as the so-called Islamic State wages all-out war and seeks to claim the legacy of the Ottoman empire, if not beyond..

The Fanatics are everywhere from Boko Haram in Nigeria to Al-Qaeda in the Sahara and the Maghreb to the mountains of Afghanistan…

They are trying to impose by force and intimidation their own vision of a state that is medieval in outlook and modern in its weaponry and technology…

That project and better disguised Islamists, turned the Arab spring into an Islamist winter, as the humanist forces of modernity in those countries fought back.

The Egyptian people, in a magnificent example of people power, came out in their tens of millions and rejected the Islamist project, while Egypt, resurrected, battles fanatics in the Sinai and terrorism at home.   And all around Egypt war rages: in Gaza, in Libya, in Yemen, in Sudan, in Syria, in Iraq, in Somalia, and in the vast Sahara…


Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen


The world order is in crisis. Democracy is weakening with crises of confidence between people and their elected governments. Fresh thinking is required. I am glad that the CdM, the NGIC and the BA have been thinking of what new democratic instruments suitable for the 21st century would be like.  But our current discussion is about the current crisis and how we move on rebuilding trust in a wider Europe and beyond. 


Today as our world order lies in shambles we have to try to understand why? What went wrong?


Before we make recommendations for rebuilding trust in a wider Europe, perhaps we should briefly consider two themes:


Where did the current world order (of which Europe is an integral part) originally come from? What were its founding principles and ideas? 


Why is it in crisis today?  What are the key challenges that we need to address to rebuild trust in a wider Europe and beyond?


Allow me to say a few words about each of these questions.


The Foundations of the Current World Order:


Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen


The current world order was largely crafted by the western allies after WW2, and there have been three views of the international order that have co-existed without any of their contradictions ever being fully sorted out. 


One view is the view that emerged from the treaty of Westpahalia in 1648 which basically recognized sovereign states as the building blocs of international legitimacy, and assumed that governments that had full control of that territory were the legitimate partners for discussions led by authorized representatives of these governments.


But after WW2, Europe changed, and we witnessed Europe’s march toward a Union.  But it did not become the United States of Europe with a unitary central government.  Undoubtedly a magnificent experiment to create a community of nations bound together in a supra-national Union, through a series of alliances and relying on soft power to achieve their objectives.  That, of course produced its own contradictions, and the variable geometry of the overlapping treaties made these both subtle and complex.  It made pursuit of a clear strategy difficult for the union as a whole while important nations had their own agendas to pursue their interests as they saw them.


The second view consisted of a belief in the peoples of the world, and assumed that governments that controlled their territories by force, were not necessarily legitimate.  This view was articulated in public declarations by the United States, though some of us – perhaps more cynical than others – would point out that American actions in places like Chile in 1973 and elsewhere did not really conform to the rhetoric.  But that view, namely that people are inherently reasonable and inclined toward peaceful compromise and common sense; meant that the spread of democracy was an, if not the, overarching goal for building the new international order.   Ardent supporters of globalization argued that free trade and open markets would uplift individuals, enrich societies and substitute economic interdependence for traditional international rivalries. That view was buoyed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberation of Eastern Europe.


The third view which did not survive much beyond its initiation, was that multilateral constructs: starting with the UN, with its Security Council, plus the International Court of Justice, and subsequently the International Criminal Court, not to mention other multilateral  bodies like the IMF, the WTO and the World Bank, should govern the behavior of nations, and that all must abide by the international legal regime created by the sovereign nation states acting in consort through these multilateral bodies.


The coexistence of these three points of view has created inherent tensions and conflicts that have never been formally resolved in the last fifty years.  But the general thrust of the new world order, that replaced the Cold War, emerged largely with a dominance of the first two viewpoints at the expense of the third.  The G-7 or G-8 was replaced by the G-20 but the Security Council remains as it was in 1945.  Sovereign states still run their foreign policies and jealously guard their sovereignty (except in Europe where the EU is a somewhat different beast) and increasingly the pressures of nations and civil society ask for legitimacy of regimes to be manifested by some form of participatory democratic process. 


The Emerging paradigm that came out of the interaction of these three points of view is what we have inherited today.


In the decades following World War II, the U.S.—with its economy representing almost 50% of global GDP, and its armies able to strike at the farthest reaches of the planet, and sole possessor of the atom bomb, crafted the global system to suit its ambitions and its aspirations.  One of these aspirations is that – as Woodrow Wilson said after WWI – to “make the world safe for democracy”. 


It became fashionable to argue that with the spread of liberty and democracy there would be a global order that would provide just and lasting peace for all. Globalization and free trade would replace enrich nations and societies, and uplift individuals and economic interdependence would dissolve traditional international rivalries. 


The cold war consolidated that view into the dominant ideological construct.  Towards the last decades of the 20th century, the vision seemed to be coming to fruition: The dictatorships of Latin America had largely been replaced by democracies, and with the collapse of the USSR Eastern Europe was liberated and largely joined the consort of the European nations, forging their ever more perfect Union. 


So as the 20th century gave way to the 21st , and for a brief moment, we had the hope to formalize a new world order that would favor democracy, human rights, and open markets and trade and communications.  The Internet revolution and mobile telephony were promising new miracles every day, and the idea of global peace seemed to be within our reach, and we designed the Millennium Development Goals to deal with the burdens of poverty and under-development.



Five major Contradictions


So: What’s wrong with that picture?  What went wrong?


Well, there are at least five major contradictions that have come to a head and make this moment of crisis one of the most serious in history.


The first contradiction is that this set of concepts and ideas is a totally western creation and the vast majority of the rest of the world acquiesced but did not participate in formulating or implementing these visions.  For many, the nation state remained sovereign, and the premium of non-interference in domestic affairs was important, and they started behaving like the European powers of an earlier age.


The second contradiction is the rise of Muslim fanatics.  These forces that have disturbed the stability and order of countries from Indonesia to Nigeria and pose a different challenge than past terrorist movements or rogue states.  They now pose a real threat to Europe and America.  They are actually trying to undo the existing world order – the “lines in the sand drawn by the Sykes-Picot agreement” during WW1 – and to establish a religious state based on a barbaric, fanatic ideology.  They kill far more Muslims than non-Muslims. They are waging fierce wars, create failed states and displace millions of persons. 


The challenge here is an ideological one, reminiscent of the rise of other totalitarian ideologies, such as communism in the 19th and 20th century.   Today there is a specter haunting the world and it is the specter of these fanatics.   Response to that challenge requires profound rethinking of many things, from diplomacy to military action, from intellectual responses to the relationship of America and Europe to the Muslim minorities among their citizens, all the way to the role of the Muslim majority countries in the new world order.  That is a complex topic that deserves Europe’s immediate attention.  It is NOT a far-off threat; it is here and now.


Third, is the nature of the state itself – which is still the basic formal unit of international life – has been subjected to many pressures.


The challenge in Europe is that Europeans have not yet resolved the tensions between their union and its component parts.  It is a creation that is only half completed, with many new members being integrated into the constructs created by the original six, and more members-in-waiting who have not even crossed the threshold into the EU sanctum.  But the EU does not have the attributes of a unitary sovereign state.   Moreover, the variable geometry of the various military, financial, economic and political treaties that tie different members in different configurations makes for an EU that still lacks the ability to act as a block on foreign policy.  A foreign policy based primarily on “ soft power” cannot be very effective in moments of crisis if it lacks the commitment of its member states to a unified strategy.


At its heart, the EU was a means of replacing balance-of-power politics by agreed concepts of legitimacy, and to project a common foreign policy based on “soft power” rather than military threat.  The forces of NATO still relied extensively on American arms for their credible deployment. 


The challenge in Asia is the opposite of Europe's: Balance-of-power principles prevail unrelated to an agreed concept of legitimacy, driving some disagreements to the edge of confrontation.


The challenge in West Asia and North Africa (WANA) stretching into the horn of Africa is the rapid collapse of the nation states into warring sectarian and ethnic militias with foreign powers backing them as they violate borders and sovereignty at will.  Failed states unable to control their own territory have no ability to speak as sovereign states in balance-of-power constructs nor do they have the credibility to act on the basis of a conceptual legitimacy. 


The fourth contradiction is between Politics and Economics. It is between the development of the international economy with ever freer trade, more Science, technology and innovation (STI) and the political institutions that try to govern it.  The international economic order is increasingly global and the international political order is still built on the sovereign nation state.  Economic globalization and the Internet – I just came from the IGF in Istanbul – ignores national political boundaries. The sovereign state reaffirms them and foreign policy serves the interests of the sovereign states, even as it proclaims its intention to reconcile conflicting national aims or ideals of world order.


The still incipient international order thus faces a paradox: Its members are pursuing their prosperity by furthering and deepening globalization, but the process produces political reactions that often works counter to these aspirations. Soon, the governments of individual countries are forced respond to the felt needs of their citizens when these feel the pressure of imports of cheap goods, expensive energy or plentiful immigration. 


The fifth contradiction  the obvious obsolescence of the UN design and the absence of any alternative design or forum where the great powers can actually address the most pressing challenges of our time and reach decisions that can be implemented, even as much of the rhetoric of the world powers seems to imply that we aspire to a multi-lateral legitimacy for action.  .


Occasional joint declarations cannot produce a contemporary structure of international rules and norms.  A new world order, if it is to prove relevant, cannot merely be affirmed by successive multi-lateral forums, or leaders’ photo-ops and civil society media events; it must be fostered as a matter of common conviction, by supra-national mechanisms that have acquired a legitimacy to make decisions and that can mobilize the muscle to act to enforce these decisions on recalcitrant parts of the global world order.


To the Future:


Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen


Any effort to design a new world order with wider security arrangements must address that legacy of the collapsing world order of today.  Europe is a central piece of the past and present order and will be a central part of the new order.  To do so, we must address the five major contradictions and the challenges that brought us to this unhappy point., Otherwise, it is probable that we shall simply drift into letting major regions be dominated by the regional powers with their own perceptions of the role of the sovereign state.  Tensions between these major regions, or spheres of influence, will inevitably arise as the frictions at their periphery will become tests of strength and determination to expand each regional power’s claim of dominion over more territory.


Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen


I hope that this distinguished gathering will bring to bear the full breadth and depth of its experience in the discussions ahead.  I do hope that we will through today and tomorrow take some significant steps towards more clarity for the road ahead, the arduous road towards rebuilding trust in a wider Europe and beyond.


Thank you.







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