A fair balance of power, as difficult as it is to achieve, can mitigate unnecessary conflicts and confrontations. Otherwise, all players, small and big, state and non-state, are bound to lose in an increasingly chaotic and uncertain world
The existing world order seems fractured at its seams again. It is an order undermined by its own failures and excesses. While the Westphalian order of nation-states remains to be the backbone of the current global order, other factors such as non-state actors, international law and transnational companies are increasingly gaining prominence. How we manage the uneasy relationship among this panoply of players will determine the future of world order.
The major failures of the current international order make up a disturbing list of pressing issues: the growing gap between the rich and the poor, energy wars, domestic and international terrorism, unfettered capitalism, oppression, war, occupation, refugees, human trafficking, drug cartels, et cetera. Each of these problems blur any neat distinctions between what is domestic and what is global. Like a big ocean wave, globalization brings both power and destruction to the shores it reaches. The current world order is propelled by four main players and moves in four main directions. The first is the traditional business of conventional nation-states whereby states defend their national interest while respecting others.
The second direction is shaped by the major powers of the world. Here we have one superpower, i.e., the United States, and several major powers, i.e., China, Russia, India, Germany and others. Much of the business conducted among great powers is predicated upon keeping a reasonable balance of power. But in cases where this principle fails, we face crises and wars. A good example of this is the current tensions between Russia and the West. Russia's aggressive policy on Syria, Ukraine and energy, among others, is a response to what Russia perceives to be a tilting of the power equilibrium toward the West. In and of itself, the Ukraine crisis can be resolved without much sweat. But the larger issues involved turn it into a prolonged conflict and a proxy war.
In the Arabian Gulf, the crisis in Yemen is also possible to resolve. But the balance of power in the Middle East shifting toward the Iranian-backed groups in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain make each of these conflicts rather intractable. The Saudi-led operation in Yemen is as much directed at pushing the Houthis back and restoring the country's elected President Hadi as it is pushing Iran back to a reasonable sphere of influence in the region.
The third element is the field of non-state actors that challenge traditional nation-states based on the Westphalian system of sovereign states. In much of Africa, the Middle East, India-Pakistan realm and Latin America, non-state actors shape political agenda. The militia groups in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen and such terrorist organizations as al-Qaida, ISIS, al-Shabab, Boko Haram pose serious political and security challenges to all stake-holders. As I have written before, failed and weak states compound these problems as they allow non-state actors to take charge in places where there is no public order.
Finally, we have the increasingly multifaceted field of social media, international and transnational organizations, human rights groups, international law and global networks of political activists that challenge the policies of big and small nation states and transnational corporations. Much of their work has been a force of good in helping the oppressed, resisting occupation, rejecting war, helping the refugees, protecting the environment, et cetera. But there are also instances where the major powers have used them to advocate their own agenda in the developing world. The Westphalian system of international order, established in 1648 after the bloody 30 years of wars among European nations, was based on two simple yet important principles: that the sovereign nations of Europe would refrain from interfering in each other's internal affairs and that a generally accepted equilibrium of power would keep the excessive ambitions of states in check. In theory, this is a fairly reasonable order whereby nation-states as the building blocks of the international order act in a world of multiple players and thus respect each other. This is not so much idealism or romanticism but a simple fact of the world in which we live.But reality trumps ideas. The European nations had paid a high price and were forced to establish the Westphalian equilibrium of power. Despite the bitter lessons of history, however, they mostly failed to abide by it since the 17th century. The two world wars, which were in fact mostly European and Russian wars, and all the wars before and after them underscore the fragile nature of the Westphalian order. Yet, the emergence of a multi-polar world with powerful new actors has not produced an alternative global order. The European Union can be seen as a model that goes beyond the Westphalian order through its notion of shared sovereignty. But you ask any European about this and you will get 10 different answers. And each answer would most likely end up with a sort of defense for a particular member in the EU.
In the final analysis, the current world order based on the Westphalian model is fractured at multiple levels. The questions of power, justice and legitimacy remain at the core of the main crises. Since there is never a universal world order that can regulate every single issue in the world, we need to develop new strategies of shared responsibility to respond to the urgent problems of the world. A fair balance of power, as difficult as it is to achieve, can mitigate unnecessary conflicts and confrontations. Otherwise, all players, small and big, state and non-state, are bound to lose in an increasingly chaotic and uncertain world.
About the author
Presidential spokesperson for the Republic of Turkey