Challenge from the East

| November 2014
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Last month, both Russian president Vladimir Putin, in remarks to the Valdai Discussion Group in Sochi, and Chinese president Xi Jinping, at the Fourth Plenum of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, raised questions about the structure of the international system and the role that international law ought to play in global affairs. Given Russia’s annexation of Crimea earlier this year, and China’s increasing willingness to stake out maximalist claims in the South and East China Seas (as well as their joint vetoes cast in the United Nations Security Council to block Western proposals for taking actions against regimes, like that of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who are seen as transgressors of international norms), some have suggested that any talk by either Xi or Putin about the sanctity and importance of international law is hypocritical at best. Neither Putin’s nor Xi’s remarks have received much attention in the U.S. media, which is unfortunate, because their preferences for how the world ought to be organized and managed will be on full display at the forthcoming summit of the Group of 20 convening later this week in Brisbane, Australia–and is likely to resonate with a majority of the states who will be represented, outside of the Euro-American bloc. Putin, in particular, hopes to leave the G-20 showing that the so-called “international community” that the United States loves to invoke to support its policies does not exist, and that significant portions of the world actively disagree with Washington’s use of the terms. Not surprisingly, U.S. spokesmen have already begun to modify their language, no longer maintaining that Putin faces isolation by the international community as a whole, but a “broad swath” of that community.

Neither Putin nor Xi want a return to a pre-1945 condition; both recognize the importance that having a set of rules in place to govern interstate interaction has in promoting stability and prosperity. In particular, China’s “rise” over the past three decades has been facilitated by the existence of a global order that has facilitated trade and development and worked to restrain great power rivalries that otherwise might plunge East Asia or the world as a whole into war.

But their complaint is that the initial postwar system championed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt–who, in pursuit of idealist goals of international peace, harnessed the realist “concert of powers” systems–has, since the end of the Cold War, undergone further and unwelcome evolution. The West has tended to write the rules (and, as the rising powers of the south and east complain regularly at both economic and environmental conferences, written them in a way to lock in their advantages) and to retain the right to interpret what those rules mean and when they will apply–a state of affairs that both Putin and Xi are no longer prepared to accept.

The older “concert” concept, particularly as it was practiced in Europe from 1815 to 1914, took a much more subjective view of what international law covered and how it was to be interpreted and applied. It was not the analog of domestic law applied to a higher level of human organization, but a series of contractual obligations undertaken by states to make their activity and behavior more predictable and regular. Moreover, in how relations between greater and lesser powers were to be structured–items of critical interest to both Putin and Xi today–the concert system imposed some restrictions on the great powers but also required smaller powers, in return for having their sovereignty in the international system guaranteed, to accommodate great power interests and concerns. A smaller power might be compelled to adopt a neutral status, or to make territorial or political concessions, in return for commitments guaranteeing protection and support. The fact that the governments of the smaller powers might be required to make such concessions even in the absence of a popular mandate or in express contradiction of the people’s will was not a factor that was supposed to influence international diplomacy. It prioritized stability over self-determination.

Woodrow Wilson, of course, rejected this view of how the world order ought to be constructed, but failing to convince the U.S. Senate or the American people to embrace and defend his vision, his efforts to create new institutions based on freedom, self-determination and the supremacy of an international law which stood above the sovereign state (and which bound and constrained its actions) did not endure. FDR made significant concessions to the concert model (via his conception of great powers serving as regional policemen and in the structure of the UN Security Council). The fall of the Berlin Wall twenty-five years ago this week seemed to usher in a new era where a more Wilsonian view of the world (and which also cemented American leadership of the global community of nations) seemed realizable. Putin and Xi have put everyone on notice that they will not stand idly by and allow this evolution to occur. The likely deadlock that will result at the G-20 (even if disguised with a lowest-common-denominator summit communique) will signal that an alternative vision to global order distinct from the assumptions put forward in Washington and Brussels is acquiring coherence.

 

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Category: Blog, Global Governance, International Law and Human Rights

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