We need a new world order of obligation to other nations

A country’s right to autonomy can no longer define international relations, because what happens there affects everyone else, says Richard N Haass.
We need a new world order of obligation to other nations

For four centuries, since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 ended the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, the concept of sovereignty — the right of countries to autonomy — has formed the core of the international order.

And for good reason: As we have seen in century after century, a world in which borders are forcibly violated is a world of instability and conflict.

But, in a globalised world, an “operating system” premised solely on respect for sovereignty — call it World Order 1.0 — is inadequate. Little stays local anymore. Just about anyone and anything, from tourists, terrorists, and refugees, to emails, diseases and greenhouse gases, can reach anywhere. What goes on inside a country is no longer the concern of that country alone.

Today’s realities call for an updated operating system —World Order 2.0 — based on “sovereign obligation”, the notion that sovereign states have not just rights, but also obligations to others.

A new international order will require an expanded set of norms and arrangements, beginning with an agreed-upon basis for statehood. Existing governments would agree to consider bids for statehood only in cases where there was an historical justification, a compelling rationale, and popular support, and where the proposed new entity was viable.

World Order 2.0 must also include prohibitions on terrorism. More controversially, it must include strengthened norms proscribing the use of weapons of mass destruction.

While the world agrees on constraining proliferation by limiting countries’ access to the relevant technology and material, the consensus often breaks down once proliferation has occurred.

This should become a topic of discussion at bilateral and multilateral meetings, because it would focus attention on applying sanctions or undertaking military action, which could reduce the odds of proliferation.

Another essential element of a new international order is co-operation on climate change, which may be the quintessential manifestation of globalisation, because all countries are exposed to its effects, regardless of their contribution to it.

The 2015 Paris climate agreement — in which governments agreed to limit their emissions and to provide resources to help poorer countries adapt — was a step in the right direction.

Cyberspace is the newest domain of international activity. The goal should be to create international arrangements that encourage benign uses of cyberspace and discourage malign ones. Governments would have to act consistently within this regime, as part of their sovereign obligations, or face sanctions or retaliation.

Health presents a different set of challenges. In a globalised world, an outbreak of infectious disease in one country could quickly evolve into a serious threat elsewhere, as has happened in recent years with Sars, ebola, and zika.

Fortunately, the notion of sovereign obligation is already advanced in this sphere: Countries are responsible for trying to detect infectious-disease outbreaks, for responding appropriately, and for notifying others around the world.

When it comes to refugees, there is no substitute for local action to prevent situations that generate large refugee flows. In principle, this is an argument for humanitarian intervention in selective situations.

But translating this principle into practice will remain difficult, given divergent political agendas and the high costs of effective intervention. Even without a consensus, however, there is a strong case for increasing funding for refugees, ensuring their humane treatment, and setting fair quotas for their resettlement.

Trade agreements are pacts of reciprocal sovereign obligations regarding tariff and non-tariff barriers. When a party believes that obligations are not being met, it has recourse to arbitration through the World Trade Organization.

But things are less clear when it comes to government subsidies or currency manipulation. The challenge is to define appropriate sovereign obligations in these areas in future trade pacts, and to hold governments accountable.

Establishing sovereign obligations as pillars of the international order will take decades of negotiations — and, even then, its acceptance will be uneven. Progress will come voluntarily, from countries themselves, rather than from any top-down edict. It will be difficult to forge agreement on the specific sovereign obligations of states and how they should be enforced.

Complicating matters further, US president Donald Trump’s administration has espoused an ‘America first’ doctrine that is largely inconsistent with what is being suggested here.

If this remains the US approach, progress towards building the sort of order that today’s interconnected world demands will come about only if other major powers push it, or it will have to wait for Trump’s successor. Such an approach, however, would be second-best, and it would leave the United States and the rest of the world worse-off.

Now is the time to begin the conversations. Globalisation is here to stay. Moving toward a new international order, that incorporates sovereign obligation, is the best way to cope. World Order 2.0, predicated on sovereign obligation, is ambitious, but born of realism, not idealism.

Richard N Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the new book, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order, from which this article is adapted. Copyright: Project Syndicate

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