Is The Global Order Changing?

We are not experiencing the rise of a challenger to the current hegemony, but an interregnum in which the current arbiter of liberalism, the US, is in relative decline.



[dropcap]H[/dropcap]umanitarianism, and humanitarian intervention, flourished under the liberal world order in the 1990s that had been dominated by the United States (US) and the West. Upon the foundation of liberal values the world witnessed an unprecedented rise in humanitarian activity and actions justified on humanitarian grounds. Some, such as David Rieff, suggest that humanitarianism has gone too far and needs to return to its purist form, providing only ‘A Bed for the Night’. While Rieff argues that a return to the purist notion may be necessary to help save humanitarianism, a shift away from the post-Cold War era may in fact usher in an era of purist humanitarianism. As it has grown out of ‘Western’ values and has become enshrined in ‘Western’ doctrines of international relations a shift in the world order away from the order dominated by the West could have serious implications for humanitarianism.

Taking Sørensen’s[i] more general definition of world order (‘a governing arrangement among states, meeting the current demand for order in major areas of concern’) we can observe changes in such arrangements. A stable world order, according to Sørensen, rests on a composition of material capabilities, ideas and institutions.

World orders are complex and intricate, not merely one-dimensional. Sørensen breaks down four areas of concern, suggesting that all overlap, these are:

(a) the realist concern of the politico-military balance of power;

(b) the liberal concern of the make-up of international institutions and the emergence of global governance;

(c) the constructivist concern of the realm of ideas and ideology, with a focus on the existence or otherwise of common values on a global scale; and

(d) the IPE concern of the economic realm of production, finance and distribution.

In regards to (a) it is clear that the US still retains the mantle of global leadership in regards to security – it retains the largest military budget (larger than the next fourteen powers combined), and has cemented itself within the world’s longest standing security community – NATO. Ikenberry alludes to the notion laid out by Kennedy that where a hegemonic power is in decline and is being challenged there is a greater risk of violence. Given the lack of credible military threat posed by China it is unlikely that, at least in military terms, we will see a drastic alteration in the world order. There is much literature on this element of US Decline.

There has, however, been an alteration in priorities for the global security agenda, as the mass-casualty terrorism of 11th September 2001 (9/11) changed the perception of security threats. While the immediate response from the US was strong multilateralism, this deteriorated as US policies became much more unilateral, culminating in the National Security Strategy (NSS) of September 2002, which declared a need for pre-emptive action. The agenda has, therefore, shifted away from dealing with the hangover from the Cold War (FRY, Somalia), towards these ‘new’ security threats. Sørensen suggests that (at least when he was writing) there are three major areas of security concern in the international system: domestic conflict in weak states, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa; unstable regional security complexes, such as South Asia; and the threat from mass-casualty terrorism. This indicates a clear break from the post-Cold War era, in which mass-casualty terrorism did not play so highly on the agenda, and the focus was much more on the former Soviet bloc countries.

Similarly, with regards to international institutions (b) there is much to suggest that the current, liberal, institutional framework will remain, if slightly altered. China, Russia and other emerging powers have placed great stock in the UN, for example, as a means to ensure that their sovereignty (territorial integrity in particular) is not violated. These powers have been enforcing traditional notions of sovereignty through the current liberal framework, which has implications for humanitarianism – resulting in a less receptive environment for intervention. While these implications exist, Ikenberry and others point out that the rise of China has been on liberal terms, through these institutions. This could result in a perpetuation of liberal values and, should Constructivism (c) hold true, these institutions could help generate a norm of appropriateness amongst non-liberal members that reflect the norms of humanitarianism. US, or indeed liberal, hegemony will remain unchallenged as the US retains leadership through international institutions, which grant it structural reach unrivalled by any other power.[ii] Further to this, due to its foreign policy outlook and potential conflict with domestic ideology it is unlikely that China will be able to credibly challenge US preponderance within these institutions, making it unlikely to challenge America’s global dominance.[iii] Other Asian powers are also unlikely to take the mantle of leadership for they either lack the political will or resources.[iv]

Finally, in regards to economic concerns (d), it is clear that the global shift east has already occurred. Quah[v] illustrates the extent to which the global economic centre of gravity has shifted away from the transatlantic axis (where it was located in 1980s) towards the east coast of Africa, and it is projected to reach the India/China border by 2049. Given the huge role of the ‘West’ in funding humanitarian intervention throughout the 1990s, directly – through NATO actions and ODA – or indirectly – through the UN, NGOs, etc. – this shift in economic potency may have implications for humanitarianism at large, but particularly intervention. This could result in a reversion to the purist notion held dear by ICRC.

From the above it becomes clear that the world order we are presented with in the 2010s contrasts with the world order of the 1990s in which we witnessed a growth of humanitarian action. It is, however, the case that what we are experiencing is not the decisive rise of a challenger to the current hegemony, liberalism, but an interregnum in which the current arbiter of liberalism, the US, is in relative decline. This could result in more instances in which we observe an almost Cold War-like stalemate indicated by the recent stand-off between Russia & China and the ‘West’ in Syria. This, ultimately may result in the return to the type of humanitarianism Rieff is so fond of.


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[i] All references to Sørensen shall be in regards to: Sørensen, Georg. (2006) ‘What Kind of World Order? The International System in the New Millennium’ Cooperation and Conflict Vol. 41

[ii] Gowan, Peter. (2004), ‘Empire as Superstructure’, Security Dialogue 35, p.259;  James, Harold. (2011), ‘International order after the financial crisis’, International Affairs 87: 3, p.533; Peter Saull. (2004), ‘On the ‘New’ American ‘Empire”, Security Dialogue 35, p.252; Wade, Robert Hunter. (2004), ‘Bringing the Economics Back in’, Security Dilemma 35, p.245-249

[iii] Acharya, Amitav. (2011) ‘Can Asia Lead?’ International Affairs 87: 4, p.859

[iv] Ibid. p.868-9

[v] Quah, Danny (2011) The global economy’s shifting centre of gravity. Global policy, 2 (1). pp. 3-9. ISSN 1758-5899


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