Every historical period has given us different powers-that-be that shaped its main events according to their particular interests and worldview. These pivotal powers often derive their legitimacy from the ability to impose their will on others as well as from a certain set of principles and values that coincide with the belief systems of the prevailing majorities involved. Appeals to principles and values have always been necessary in order to mobilize public opinion in support of policies and actions that might otherwise seem objectionable and illegitimate.
Today the most important pivotal power in the world is the United States, all other pivotal powers define themselves and their spheres of influence either by allying with the U.S., or by opposing her, at least in certain regions and/or on certain issues. In doing this, each side invokes its own set of principles. The U.S. and its allies often fall on concepts like international law and norms, international treaties, and the universal declaration of human rights, among others. Rivals of the U.S.-led axis on the other hand, often invoke principles such as sovereignty and the right to self-defense. The commitment of both sides to their oft-invoked principles is of course sketchy, because the real driver behind their actions and policies is interest, not principle. This is as true today as it was when the first city-states emerged on the scene.
Manipulating principle or abandoning it all together for the sake of fulfilling certain immediate interests is the bane of our human existence, and is not unique to any one particular period or power. This observation is not meant to justify abandonment of principles or their manipulation to serve ulterior motives, the point is to move beyond ideological condemnation to an objective analysis of this phenomenon. The “hypocritical” “cynical” manipulation of principle for the sake of masking and serving interests is trait that distinguishes all powers irrespective of their size, because interest trumps all other considerations. Exceptions exist but they are few and far in between. Making this world a fairer place calls for condemning and combatting this behavior wherever it’s observed. Focusing on the worst offenders in this case misses the point. For the worst offenders are, by the very nature of things, the pivotal powers themselves, but focusing on them in this regard we ignore the fact that they are the pillars of the current Order in the positive sense as well: they are the ones responsible for the all scientific achievements and technological advances, and for running and maintaining the Order. It’s only natural that their interests would run far beyond their borders, and the sense of entitlement that moves them is not completely unearned. The problem here is when they allow it to blind them to humanitarian considerations and considerations of fairness. But the problem will not be fixed by excusing the selfsame tendency in aspiring powers. By excusing this behavior, we legitimate and consecrate it. By focusing only on the duplicitous behavior of the pivotal powers, we ignore the same behavior in aspiring powers, and their internal dynamics and rivalries that often encourage it. The choice is not between battling this behavior when exhibited by certain states but not others. It’s time we moved beyond this reductionism and established checks and balances on the behavior of all states in this regard. For the point is to ensure that the Global Order is fair to all.
For today we seem to have finally arrived at a certain moment in history where all our destinies as peoples living on the same planet have become so visibly and intricately intertwined that the narrow focus of serving national interests or the interests of certain groups, no matter how powerful they happen to be, at the expense of others, no longer constitutes a reasonable basis for our interactions, if it ever did, and for the fulfillment of our common interests on the longer run. There is a “necessary good” here that aches to be served and that goes beyond national boundaries of which we should all now be mindful. Existing international institutions such as the UN and the IMF seem ill-prepared for dealing with this reality.
People often look to the U.S. for leadership here because there is no alternative to her at this stage for effectively arbitrating their differences. It’s a choice born out of necessity, but it’s not what the U.S. is “designed” to do, nor it is something that she is often willing to do, irrespective of what some of her leaders claim on occasion. The U.S. is neither a neutral nor legally representative entity. Her occasional desire to try to rise to the challenge of global leadership is often undermined by her quest to serve her particular interests. What we need here is an international organization: perhaps a better conceived and structured UN that can effectively fill the gap of global leadership.
The question is: how do we get there?
One of the main problems that we are bound to encounter here is the need for balancing the interests of pivotal powers with those of developing and underdeveloped countries. But, the development gap is not the only issue that needs to be taken into account, the nature of the reigning political systems needs to be considered as well. The idea that certain states can hope to be treated fairly even as their leaders mistreat their own people has no place in the fight to create a more representative and fairer global order. Sovereignty emanates from the people and as such autocratic governments have no right to argue sovereignty. The GNP of the countries involved is also an important element here. Perhaps one way of dealing with all these factors is to adopt a weighted voting system designed by a group of economists and political scientists based on a formula that assigns a numerical value to votes cast by each state in a future UN. The formula needs to take into consideration the country’s GNP as well as certain indices such as the Freedom Index, measuring the degree of representativeness and accountability of the political systems, and the Development Index, measuring the levels of infrastructure development in each state. Factors like foreign debts and border problems can also be considered.
Agreeing on a formula will not be easy of course, and the figures will need to be evaluated on an annual if not quarterly basis. But should such system be adopted, it will provide smaller state with ways to compensate for the size of their economies by opening up their political systems, and by voting in blocks, regional and/or issue-based. The system will not solve all problems, of course, and pivotal powers will still be able to manipulate it. But the system will nonetheless be much fairer than the current one, as it will give all countries in the world the opportunity to have a reasonable say on every issue commensurate, if not always with their interests, then, at least, with their actual abilities to organize. In this system, there will be no vetoes, and the powers of the Security Council will be restricted to framing the debates on certain issues before a vote can take place in the General Assembly.
Coming up with this new system might require arranging an international conference similar in scope and nature to the Versailles and Yalta events that gave birth to the League of Nations and the United Nations respectively. But one or several of the pivotal powers needs to make the argument for this new institution and to take the lead in arranging the conference. The U.S. may no longer be the right candidate for this. The policies of the last two administrations in particular have combined to undermine both its credibility as well as its ability to arrange such a major undertaking. The initiative should be championed by a state or a group of states that through their policies continue to retain their international credibility with other pivotal powers as well as the developing and underdeveloped countries. One or more of the Scandinavia states might indeed be the ideal candidate for that.
Although the moment for launching such a major undertaking may not be ripe yet, the need is all too real, and the earlier the preparations can begin the better. The idea is to have this particular international conference serve as a means for preempting a major conflict rather than coming as a crowning event. It’s time we learned how to read the signs, current developments in a number of countries and regions around the world do not augur well for the future. Perhaps, for once, we don’t have to wait for disaster to happen then try to mitigate its consequences. Perhaps, we can prevent disaster, and find outlets and channels for differences to be judged and rivalries to unfold without exacting the kind of toll that wars tend to exact.