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The Hollow Order

6 21 4

There they were, meeting in Beijing on February 4: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Shortly before the start of the 2022 Winter Olympics, the two leaders released a remarkable 5,300-word joint statement about how the partnership between China and Russia would have “no limits.” The document went on at length about the two nations’ commitment to democracy. It called for a universalist and open world order, with the United Nations at the center. It stressed a commitment to international law, inclusiveness, and common values. It did all this even though Russia, as Xi and Putin both knew, was sending tanks and missile launchers to the Ukrainian border.

By comparison, the September 1940 joint statement issued by Germany, Italy, and Japan was a model of candor. The Axis powers were at least truthful when they announced that it was “their prime purpose to establish and maintain a new order of things.” Russia, meanwhile, has described its war against Ukraine as one of liberation. It decided that the country’s Jewish president was a Nazi. It declared that there was really no such thing as “Ukraine.” And it argued that a NATO alliance with a U.S. force commitment in Europe that was only one-seventh as large as it had been at the height of the Cold War was now an existential threat.

In their statement, China and Russia achieved peak hypocrisy. But the existing world order, which aspired to build a global commonwealth, had already been failing. The free world’s leaders had long ago started favoring performative commitments over the real action needed to safeguard the planet from crises. They expanded NATO without meaningfully responding to increasing Russian aggression. Distracted and chastened by misadventures in the Muslim world, Washington in particular disengaged from practical deeds, even as its rhetorical commitment to the international order varied. The United States’ high defense spending had more to do with satisfying domestic constituencies than with supporting any positive strategy. The world’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources was based on hollow pledges and private action. As support for globalization waned, the United States and other countries retreated from trade agreements and neglected international institutions for civilian and common economic action. The world’s drive in the early years of this century to improve global health and human development petered out.

The emptiness of the supposed international system was especially obvious at the end of 2019, when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Charged with unprecedented global responsibilities, China and the United States stepped down, not up. Beijing withheld crucial information about the outbreak. Washington withdrew from the World Health Organization just when it most needed U.S. leadership. Wealthy countries began a mad scramble to develop vaccines, but they moved too slowly to create other treatments and hoarded whatever shots and therapeutics pharmaceutical companies could produce, leaving the rest of the world behind. The best estimates suggest that the virus caused about 15 to 20 million deaths and trillions of dollars of economic damage.

By the spring of 2020, “for all practical purposes the G7 ceased to exist,” wrote the foreign policy experts Colin Kahl and Thomas Wright in August 2021. “Pandemic politics,” they continued, “ultimately dealt the final blow to the old international order.”

Six months after they published those words, Russia invaded Ukraine. It was an attack that could truly have buried the old system, as Moscow believed it would. Yet Ukraine’s inspiring fight has helped the G-7 roar back to life. Its members have organized an economic counteroffensive, and they have joined a coalition providing military aid. Amid the wreckage of so many past hopes, it is possible to imagine a reconstructed world order emerging from this crisis.

But for a new system to succeed, its would-be architects must organize actions, not more theatrics. Over the course of world history, the most powerful idealism has usually been the idealism of what works. Today, that means crafting a practical international order focused on a few basic problems that rally broad interest. Many leaders want to stop unprovoked wars of aggression, especially those that might spark a third world war. They would welcome a new vision of economic order that does not ignore security but is also not a huckster’s promise that everything can be made at home. They would like to convert jolting energy shocks, such as the one caused by Russia’s invasion, into a managed transition to a more carbon-free future. They want to be better prepared for the next pandemic. And most world leaders, and even many ordinary Americans, still hope that China will choose to be part of these solutions, not one of the wreckers of a new international system.

These aspirations may seem modest. They do not include holding war crimes trials or spreading democracy. But effective common action on just these items will be an enormous task. The world order is deglobalizing and dysfunctional, facing challenges that have never been more planetary in scope. Leaders must craft a system focused on actually addressing these issues rather than on striking the right pose.

The idea of a cooperative world order is, historically speaking, relatively new. The European empires created a globe-spanning system meant to be stable and organized, but just to the point that it served their interests. It was not until the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 that nations began purposefully organizing an ambitious order. That era’s peacemakers strained until 1925 to reconstruct a bitterly broken world amid the chaotic collapses of five dynastic empires. But by the end of 1933, these fragile efforts had been swept away by postwar resentments, fantasies of ethnic destiny and self-sufficiency, U.S. disengagement, and the despair of the Great Depression. The result was a second, even more destructive global conflict.

After World War II, the Cold War system that emerged dealt with a divided world. It generated real actions and functional institutions but mainly within two principal confederations: one led by the United States, and the other by the Soviet Union. These confederations organized themselves for global war and competed for advantage in the uncommitted, unaligned world, much of it newly freed by the collapse of European colonialism. But the economic systems of both confederations began unraveling during the 1970s, and the Cold War system itself disintegrated between 1988 and 1990.

International policymakers then set out to create a truly global commonwealth, working from 1990 to 1994 to build new institutions and to improve old ones. Those architects believed that Washington’s role in the system would be central but not domineering. U.S. power, they understood, worked only when it combined the country’s strengths—political, financial, and military—in partnerships with other states. They were mindful of Russian pride; indeed, those policymakers ensured that all the former Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons went to Russia and that Moscow would be a party to and influential in all the pan-European arms control agreements and security systems. Amid the awful economic turmoil that accompanied the end of communism, the United States, Europe, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank offered Russia alone more than $50 billion in financial assistance between 1992 and 1994.

These financial settlements of the early 1990s did much to build a better world, and they lasted for a generation. But from the start, they also bred complacency. Beginning during........

© Foreign Affairs

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