Towards a leaderless and chaotic world?

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BBC's Badawi quizzes Norways FM, Joe Nye and former Putin advisor Karaganov listen

Last week, around two hundred current and former policy makers, academics, journalists, businesspeople and NGO representatives gathered at Chatham House for the 2nd London Conference, a yearly meeting to discuss global trends. Foreign Ministers from Norway, the United Kingdom, former leading foreign policy makers from the United States and India, and former leaders of government or state from Brazil, Australia, Denmark, Latvia, Sweden and elsewhere discussed a broad range of topics over the course of two days, ranging from the environment, global governance and the war in Ukraine.

While often criticized as mere networking events for globetrotting former policy makers in need of speaking fees, events like the London Conference or the Shangri-La Dialogue (which took place in Singapore a week earlier) do matter as they offer platforms to test and develop narratives about how to think about global order. By hosting events like the London Conference, Chatham House seeks to strengthen its "framing power" -- the capacity to frame the debate and redefine ideas and concepts. Just as important as the topics Chatham House includes or emphasizes in the discussions are the issues it omits, thus possibly capable of shaping the direction of discussions which may be developed further by participating journalists from all over the world.

Perhaps the most striking basic assumption, made explicit in the first session and the keynote conversation, was that, seen from Chatham House, the end of unipolarity will inevitably lead to a "leaderless" and dangerous world. "Can we expect a return to international competition between state ideologies and cultures or the rise of anarchy?" a discussion point for the opening debate asked. Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond was confronted with tough questions about his country's retreat, which, the interviewer suggested, could contribute to further global instability.

This points to a general expectation in the West that multipolarity will inevitably lead to instability. As The Economist recently predicted in a matter-of-fact tone, "unfortunately, pax Americana is giving way to a balance of power that is seething with rivalry and insecurity." The newspaper regarded the claim to be so natural that it saw no need to explain it any further, merely reporting that recently "a Chinese fighter-jet and an American surveillance plane passed within 20 feet, just avoiding a mid-air collision." That is hardly a convincing example of post-American chaos. In the same way, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's Secretary General from 2009 to 2014, affirmed at the London Conference that "when the United States retreats, terrorists and autocrats advance." Yet there is little evidence that there is any correlation between current instability in some parts of the world -- like the Middle East -- and a more cautious US role. Quite to the contrary, current trouble in the region can very much be seen as a consequence of an overactive US policy under President George W. Bush.

Indeed, discussions in London reflected an understanding of the creation of today’s order and predictions about the future that are limited because they seek to imagine a “Post-Western World” from a Western-centric perspective that embraces a normative division between Western universalism and Eastern particularism, and Western modernity and Eastern tradition. The major Western narrative remains that there is one vanguard modernity – an idealized type of Western modernity -- that will dominate the world – broadly articulated by Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History in 1992. Non-Western actors are still thought of as relatively passive rule-takers of international society -- either they resist or socialize into existing order -- yet they are rarely seen as legitimate or constructive rule makers and institution-builders. Indeed, a world led by countries unwilling to participate in the global rule-making process suggests a chaotic future.

Yet contributions of global public goods by emerging powers are generally overlooked, and several participants in London wondered whether China and others could become "responsible stakeholders". For example, in the last decade China has become the largest single military contributor to United Nations peacekeeping operations in the world. In 2015, about one fifth of all UN peacekeepers came from China. In the field of anti-piracy in the gulf, China has been contributing its naval forces to that for the last years. Contrary to the United States, China has not accumulated any debt with the UN over the past years. None of these contributions were commented on during the debates in London -- rather, China was frequently mentioned as a potential trouble-maker in the South China Sea.

Interestingly enough, it was Shashi Tharoor from India and China's Wu Jianmin who argued that post-Western order will not necessarily be more violent that today’s global order. Rather, they argued, a more genuine multipolar order offered countless new ways of cooperation. It is far too early to say whether there is any truth in such claims. Yet simply assuming that post-Western multipolarity will generate instability is bound to overlook the many potential advantages more broadly distributed power brings with it.

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Photo credit: Oliver Stuenkel