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Online Exclusive 01/10/2024 Essay

Global Justice in a Turbulent World

It is readily apparent that the world is in a state of flux. The changes that we are experiencing may not be unprecedented in their magnitude but they are certainly more rapid than ever before, in part because of the extraordinary connectivity offered by today’s technology. These developments have inspired a burgeoning literature on the condition of the international system.1 But if there is widespread agreement that we have entered a period of unusual turbulence, which is both a cause and a symptom of a failing international order, there is less consensus about the principles that should inform international relations in the coming decades. Order with justice is an urgent imperative in our times. Without order, our world will continue to suffer from deadly conflict, with devastating effects for both lives and livelihoods; without justice, peace will be short-lived, and the gains of development will be enjoyed only by some of the world’s people, and often only by those in whose hands power has long been concentrated.

What is Happening?

That we are living in turbulent times perhaps seems self-evident, but it is also perhaps surprising. It was not too long ago that Francis Fukuyama proclaimed, in the warm glow of the immediate post–Cold War era, that history had “ended,” with liberal democracy as its natural culmination.2 This view seemed prescient during the course of the 1990s, notwithstanding the wars in the Balkans and elsewhere that the end of the bipolar era unleashed, and it even survived 9/11 and the march to war in Iraq. The European Union could still declare, in its 2003 Security Strategy, that Europe had “never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free.”3

After a period where the rate of conflicts had appeared to decline, today, new conflicts are arising in disparate corners of the world, and violence is recurring in societies where peace was assumed to have been consolidated. And so, we witness the Russia-Ukraine war and the specter of conflict in the South China Sea. We witness the Israel-Hamas war with attendant risks of destabilization in the Middle East region. We also witness how seemingly intractable state fragility in countries like Yemen fuel spirals of instability, with civil war and state collapse as their logical endpoints. And even where more robust governments hold sway, as in Nigeria, legitimate authorities face increasing difficulties in dealing with threats to security in swathes of their sovereign territory. And though such trends more often operate under the radar than on the front pages, we increasingly see new forms of violence, including gangsterism and communal conflict, especially in cities whose populations are continuing to grow at unprecedented rates. The consequences of these phenomena are felt most keenly by the people on whose territory they are currently unfolding, but in an interconnected global system there are palpable spillover effects that concern policymakers in even the most powerful states. They are concerned because in an interconnected world it is unclear where the next surprise or threat to international security will come from.

Without justice, peace will be short-lived, and the gains of development will be enjoyed only by some of the world’s people, and often only by those in whose hands power has long been concentrated.

Why Is It Happening?

The prevailing situation has emerged not because of some mere confluence of unfortunate events, but rather as a result of structural challenges to the international order. The first cause of turbulence is the structural change taking place in the distribution of power in the global system. While still indisputably the most powerful state in the international system, the relative power of the United States has demonstrably declined. The United States’s share of global GDP has fallen from around 50 percent in the immediate aftermath of World War II to half that figure today.4 Emerging powers, particularly the BRICS countries, account for a growing proportion of global wealth, which is leading to increased foreign policy ambitions. Their influence is being felt in terms of their regional aspirations as well as in their approach to the current global order.

While some states are able to exert power through the existing system, for example the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) who have the right to veto any resolution, other rising powers such as Brazil, India, and South Africa are straining to have their voices heard in existing institutions. The lack of fundamental reform of the Security Council, for example, has had a deleterious effect on its legitimacy. That the organ of the UN tasked with upholding international peace and security represents the political realities of 1945 presents serious problems.5


In recent decades there has been an unprecedented interconnectedness of societies, economies, and ideas. Rapid economic globalization has helped to forge new linkages, bringing prosperity to many, not least the 600 million Chinese who were lifted out of poverty in the thirty years from 1981.6 But globalization has also had dislocating effects for citizens and states. And with this dislocation has come a crisis of legitimacy at the national level, with international ramifications. Unable to offer compelling responses to economic changes wrought by globalization, especially as these affect people’s livelihoods, the nation-state itself is declining in legitimacy. The crisis of the nation-state and its gradual replacement by a multi-actor world is not necessarily a bad thing. Innovative mechanisms of global governance are being forged that adapt to a growing multi-actor world, with new partnerships emerging between traditional governance actors and businesses and civil society, some of which have proved dynamic in tackling global problems from malaria to climate change.

Interdependence is more and more evident in every facet of international relations, from the scale of financial transactions (legitimate and illicit) being undertaken every day to the imperative of collective action in response to global warming. And though scholars and policymakers have often suggested, as per the liberal school in international relations, that interdependence goes hand in hand with peace, history teaches us otherwise. Interdependence does not necessarily underpin stability and it can equally spread disorder. This was the lesson of the revolutions of 1848, which did not need social media to spread across Europe within a matter of weeks. It was the lesson of the crash of 1929, which spread noxious ideologies as quickly as economic chaos. And it has certainly been the lesson of this latest period of so-called “hyper-connectivity” where ideas, capital, and people flow readily across borders, but so do arms, diseases, and pollutants. As never before, the challenges we confront are what former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called “problems without passports."7

Interdependence is more and more evident in every facet of international relations, from the scale of financial transactions (legitimate and illicit) being undertaken every day to the imperative of collective action in response to global warming.

Global Order and Global Justice

If our fragile international order is failing to respond effectively in turbulent times, how can a more effective system be advanced? Despite the underlying reality of shifts in the balance of global power, which have doubtless driven change, the fundamental deficiency in world order is one of justice. The lack of justice is seen in imbalances in international institutions; and it is seen in states that do not respond to the justifiable yearnings of their people, or fail to treat them equitably. In Haiti, for example, armed gangs have recently taken control of much of the capital Port-au-Prince, triggering a serious security crisis. A broad strategy for peace in Haiti requires a responsible political class and leaders who can articulate the will of the communities they represent.

Order and justice are linked together and are fundamentally two sides of the same coin. Indeed, international order is not possible without justice. But it is equally true that, without order, justice will never be achieved. In short, there can be no global order without global justice and no global justice without global order.

While only anarchists question the need for some kind of order to protect people against the chaos of conflict, this must not be the order promised throughout history by autocrats. Dictatorships, past and present, have exploited disorder to consolidate their power, and used the fear of disorder to justify their rule. But when authority is exercised solely to preserve order—invoked for its own sake, and not as a means to an end—it is almost invariably exercised in an arbitrary way and can even take the form of totalitarian terror.

The scholarship and practice of the past few decades have helped us to understand that secure states do not necessarily equate to secure peoples. The notion of human security, which suggests that poverty and inequity are the enemies of secure communities just as much as inter-state violence, has made it harder for governments to justify internal repression by invoking the need to guard against external threats.8 If a just international order begins with states, then it cannot end there; rather a truly just order must be founded on self-determination not only for states, but more importantly for their citizens. Order alone is too often the aspiration of the tyrant. However, order should principally be a means to facilitate justice. And a just order recognizes the imperative of human dignity, directing the resources of authority toward its pursuit.

Conditions of a Just International Order

There are three conditions of a just international order, of a recipe for the salutary exercise of global justice in a turbulent world. First, for global justice to operate symbiotically with global order, there must be peace, based on respect for the liberties and aspirations of all the world’s peoples. Designs for world order that are not so based, whether dreamt up by ideologues or hammered out at the conference tables of cynical statesmen, will lack both legitimacy and longevity. With that essential caveat accepted, it nevertheless remains central to the pursuit of a just international order that peace must obtain. This means the absence of violence, or the threat of violence; in conflict, nothing else is possible: no development, no rule of law, no hope of realizing the potential inherent in every human being.

But there must be more than peace. Second, then, there must be the opportunity for the just representation of individual and collective interests. At the local and domestic level, this can mean participation in civic affairs through representative democracy, though no single model should be held up as the standard which all countries ought to replicate. At the international level, representation means the ability of all states to participate in international decision-making processes, for their voices to be heard, and for disputes to be managed predictably and equitably, under the guidance of the rule of law.

And finally, a just international order requires the creation of genuine opportunities for the development of states, communities, and individuals, bringing with it the prospect of equitable and sustainable development. Societies exhibiting this kind of positive peace, in which the rule of law ensures access to resources and checks the risk of corruption, are those most likely to flourish and to maintain peace with their neighbors as well as within their borders. These three conditions: peace, representation, and opportunity are informed by the principles of equality, whether of sovereign states or of individuals, and of liberty. These pillars of a just international order turn old notions of order on their head by demonstrating that order flows from freedom, rather than requiring its curtailment.

The turbulence our world faces today is real, and it is unusual. But if we live in an age of turbulence, our reaction should not be to abandon attempts to preserve order in the international system. Our response should, instead, be founded on the understanding that order is necessary to prevent chaos, and that an order informed by global justice is one most likely to be deemed legitimate, and therefore most likely to endure.

—Abiodun Williams

Dr. Abiodun Williams is Professor of the Practice of International Politics at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and The Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. He was Director of Strategic Planning for UN Secretaries-General Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon.

  • 1 For example, see Michael W. Doyle, Cold Peace: Avoiding the New Cold War (New York: Liveright, 2023).
  • 2 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).
  • 3 European Security Strategy: A Secure Europe in a Better World, Brussels, December 12, 2003.
  • 4 "A short history of America’s economy since World War II," Medium, https://medium.com/the-worlds-...
  • 5 See Tim Murithi, “Order of Oppression: Africa’s Quest for a New International System,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 102, no. 3 (May/June 2023), pp. 24-30.
  • 6 "Results Profile: China Poverty Reduction," https://www.worldbank.org/en/n...
  • 7 Kofi A. Annan, “What is the International Community? Problems without Passports,” Foreign Policy, no. 132 (September/October 2002), pp. 30-31.
  • 8 For an overview, see S. Neil MacFarlane and Yuen Foong Khong, Human Security and the UN: A Critical History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).