According to impartial studies, a sustainable international order rests on five pillars: a clear structure and hierarchy, a number of member states, international (non-state) organisations, recognised and undisputed leadership, and an identity and the goals it aspires to attain.
The latter initially came from the sovereign interests of member states, as their beliefs and behaviours are shaped by their perceptions of their national interests. It governed the international order until the emergence of the concept of “national security” with the US National Security Act in 1947 that led to the creation of the US National Security Council.
As this concept spread to other countries, the realisation and maintenance of national security became a goal of governments everywhere because it pertains not only to improving the quality of life of citizens but to the process of state-building. The realisation of national interests became a prime indicator of security and stability.
As a result, the international community in the post-World War II era sought to establish an international order that would open opportunities to all states to achieve their national interests and national security in the framework of international peace and stability. The establishment of the UN and its specialised agencies was intended to further this aim, and a bipolar world order prevailed until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
This then gave rise to a monopolar order in which the US occupied the main position until the 2008 financial crisis and the beginning of the shift to a multipolar order. However, this multipolar order is still in the process of formation today, and we have therefore been left with an “order” without an identity, goals, or recognised leadership, and in which not only the great powers but also the more successful medium-sized powers are locking horns with one another.
In fact, to call the international system we see around us today an “order” would be a misnomer. It is plagued with shortcomings and double standards that serve to entrench systemic global injustice. It has lost its way after forfeiting the lofty values that the UN was originally established to uphold, and economic interests, today the cornerstone of international relations, have become a prime factor in assessing the relative weight of nations, especially when combined with military capacities.
According to this scale, the US continues to reign with a GDP of $25 trillion. China comes second with a GDP of $18 trillion. Then follow Japan at $4 trillion, Germany at $4 trillion, and the UK at $3 trillion. With a combined GDP of $54 trillion, these five countries alone account for 53 per cent of the global GDP of $101 trillion. Global debt currently stands at $266 trillion.
At the opposite end of the scale, the ten poorest countries in the world today are in Africa and include Burundi, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Niger, Mozambique, Malawi, Chad and Madagascar. China is Africa’s largest trading partner with a volume of trade of $158.5 billion (15.7 per cent), followed by India and the US with a volume of $49.6 billion (4.9 per cent).
Meanwhile, the world’s rich countries, those in the G-20 group of nations, control 85 per cent of the world’s economy and 77 per cent of international trade. The G-7 group of countries account for about 60 per cent of net global wealth.
The global population now exceeds eight billion people. Of these, 1.3 billion suffer from extreme poverty, 3.4 billion suffer from other forms of poverty, and 83 per cent of the world’s poor are in Africa. 3.1 billion people do not have access to healthy food, more than 840 million people suffer from hunger, and more than 84 per cent of the hungry are in Asia and Africa. Just 2,755 billionaires control $13.1 trillion, and ten billionaires, nine of whom are American, own $1.5 trillion, or 11.5 per cent of global GDP.
The preambles to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights state that recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of human beings forms the basis of universal freedom, justice, and peace. But the sad fact is that the powers that have dominated international affairs to date care little for this provision that they themselves originally drafted and ratified. They promote the very antithesis of its substance, fuelling strife, warfare, hatred and discrimination against and among peoples such as the Afghanis, Iraqis, Syrians and, as always, the Palestinians.
Such flagrant double standards, which fly in the face of the principles those powers claim to uphold, have unmoored the international order from its bedrock of agreed-upon principles and rules and distorted the system to such an extent as to render it little less than a scandal. The more this hypocrisy persists, the more widespread the dissatisfactions with the system will become and the louder will become appeals to replace it with a new system in terms of structure, leadership, objectives, identity, and degree of consensus.
The question that follows from this is whether it is possible to transition peacefully from a notoriously unfair, fragile, and undisciplined system to one that is fairer, more equitable, more inclusive, and more representative of the relative weights of nations.
The answer is no because the hegemonic powers in the current order have military and economic interests that they fear will be threatened by others if they cede any control. This explains the current proxy war in Ukraine, the first explosion in the conflict over the rebuilding of the international order.
This war will not end until there is serious discussion of the moribund international order we see around us today and the development of a just and more robust one.
The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly