THE WORLD ORDER: QUO VADIS? by Prof. Dr. Hüseyin Bağcı

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THE WORLD ORDER: QUO VADIS? by Prof. Dr. Hüseyin Bağcı





Prof. Dr. Hüseyin Bağcı, 15 May 2021

President of the Foreign Policy Institute, Ankara


Almost all International Relations (IR) scholars agree that the current liberal international order is changing and gradually evolving into a new order. Yet no one is sure about the final shape, structure, norms, and principles of this new order, which is considered to be in the making for quite some time.

I tend to see the international order like a living organism. It changes over the time, evolves and takes different shapes and forms. All these depend on the preferences and world view of the hegemonic power.

In the course of the world history, the international orders have usually been maintained by a hegemon and in the past two centuries, for instance, these have been the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US), respectively.

The steady rise of China throughout the last quarter of the 20th century and the first quarter of the 21st century as an assertive new great power by benefiting from the liberal international order set up and maintained by the US-led West appears to be gradually transforming the liberal international order, which is based the values and norms like democracy, fundamental human rights and freedoms, free market economy, so on.

Realist IR scholars have been debating for some time whether the rise of China will trigger a serious armed conflict with the current hegemon, the US, which refuses to give up its privileged, dominant and influential position at the helm of the existing international system. This scenario about an inevitable conflict between a rising new great power and a declining hegemon is described in IR terminology as “Thucydides trap”.

I tend and hope to believe that despite the ongoing tough competition between the USA and China, which led to so-called “trade wars” during the term of the former US President Donald Trump, a serious military conflict between these two actors is unlikely. Why do I tend to believe so? When thinking about this catastrophic scenario, I am inspired by what has transpired during the Cold War. As known, the Cold War is a concept used after the WWII to describe the fierce competition between the two blocs of the then bipolar world order. Some also use the concept of the Cold War to describe the relations between the US and China, but I believe that this use of the concept may not be a right one and therefore deserves a deeper consideration or academic debate.

The previous US President Donald Trump’s aggressive yet isolationist foreign policy has cost the US a lot in terms of its global influence and shaping power. Whereas his predecessor acted in line with the motto “America First”, to repair the damage caused by President Trump, the new US President Joe Biden came up with a new slogan, “The US is back!”. Except some staunch supporters of the strong and close transatlantic ties between the US and Europe, President Biden’s motto has hardly created a wave of excitement around the world. To the contrary, because the continuity in the proactive and multilateral US foreign policy has been broken due to Trump’s suspicion about the benefits of international and multilateral co-operation, many, including myself, have been trying to figure out what exactly President Biden’s motto will mean in practice. He has taken a few concrete steps to reverse some of Donald Trump’s decisions to leave some international organizations and arrangements such as the Paris Climate Agreement (formally rejoined on February 19, 2021), but as far as the future of the international order is concerned, a lot has happened in the “absence” of the US and even though “it is back”, it is not likely that the US can reset the time and takes the world back to the times before Donald Trump’s presidency.

Furthermore, Covid-19 pandemic, which broke out in December 2019 and quickly spread around the world, has also changed the perceptions of many about the current world order. The US, let alone leading the world out of this unprecedented catastrophe, has failed even to counter and end it on its own territories. Only recently the vaccines have been made available and accessible to almost all population in the US and once the demand for vaccines in the US is satisfied, then the rest of the world, particularly those living in the poorer regions and countries can expect to be vaccinated. So much about the fairness of the current global order!

It cannot be argued that none of China, Russia and the EU has been able to act dynamically enough, capitalize on the US inefficiency in the face of global pandemic and position themselves as the new potential leader of the world and the new hope of the disadvantaged members of humanity.

On the contrary, the inefficient and disorganized picture that the EU has presented throughout 2020 in its efforts against the pandemic has once again tarnished its global image. A wealthy, yet incapable Union has started pulling itself together only in 2021, but still lags far behind the US in terms of providing its citizens with vaccines and generously offering some vaccines to countries in Africa and elsewhere.

While the world struggles in a survival mode due to Covid-19 pandemic, two scholars, Richard N. Haass and Charles A. Kupchan published an article with the title “The New Concert of Powers-How to prevent catastrophe and promote stability in a multipolar world” in Foreign Affairs, on March 23, 2021. In the article, they discuss whether a new global concert of powers like the one created in Europe at the Vienna Congress of 1815 can be a right model for the next form of the international order. In reply to this article, three scholars, Nicu Popescu, Alan S. Alexandroff and Colin I. Bradford, published an article titled as “The Case against a New Concert of Powers” again in Foreign Affairs, on May 11, 2021. The reply included the comments by Haass and Kupchan.  These two articles indeed served as a source of inspiration for this opinion piece. In this debate I am inclined towards the scholars who make a case against the proposed new concert of powers. The proposed new concert of powers seems to be excluding many actors who play or wish to play active role in the international affairs and therefore, it would certainly meet with a strong opposition and thus its legitimacy would be questionable.

It is true that the current international order reflects the balance of power and realities that existed right after the WWII, but the UN Security Council resolutions still represent the legitimacy for international actions.

The rise of China is undoubtedly a major event that will one way or another affect the current international order, but it has not caused a major conflict that destroyed the existing international system, which would necessitate the creation of its replacement. Even though it is mostly dysfunctional, the current international system is still formally in place. In addition, China does not seem to have been able to come up with a set of norms and principles that should be appealing to the rest of the world and generate consent for its political and cultural hegemony. I tend to think that China might have abandoned its policy of peaceful rise too early and prematurely.

On the other hand, perhaps we are thinking about the next international order too conventionally. Instead of bipolar or multipolar world order, maybe the next order will be “multiple worlds” each living in accordance with their own civilizational norms and principles without aiming or trying to impose their set of norms and values on others. Indeed, I find this scenario highly likely and not a worst-case scenario. If the competition of nuclear powers for global leadership and hegemony results in a major military conflict, that would not only be a worst-case scenario, but also a catastrophe for the entire planet.

To some up, turning back to the future international order, we may need to be patient during this transition period as its birth may take many more years if not decades. It is because great powers/hegemons do not die and disappear from the face of earth overnight, and for new great powers not everything may go as expected due to unforeseeable developments. Considering all facts and options, a realistic scenario about the new international order may be like the situation of “developing” countries, none of which has ever been recognized as a “developed” country, and as such, the international order may find itself in an endless period of “transition”.


[1] Quo vadis?: A Latin phrase, which means “Where are you going?”

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