The Transformation of the International Order

German politicians have become wary of the fact that the international order is in danger, and German policy-­makers consider it their duty to protect this order. This demand was one of the results of the Global Review, which former Foreign Minister and now Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier commissioned in 2014. As a result, a department was created within the Foreign Office, dedicated to preserving and expanding the international order, with its primary sphere of action situated within the United Nations as well as in disarmament diplomacy.

There are many reasons to assume that the preservation and adaptation of the international order will become key tasks of German and European policy in the coming decade (so the years leading up to 2030).

The International Order of Today

But: what can a country such as the German Federal Republic do to save the international order? And are the measures currently pursued by the German government to protect and adapt the international order actually appropriate? These questions will be addressed in the following, in four distinct steps: first, a definition of international order will be presented, which follows the international theoretical discussions on this subject. Second, the development of the international order of today will be illustrated. In a third step, the essential challenges facing the international order will be addressed while the fourth part will ask whether Germany is on the right path in dealing with these challenges.

In addressing these questions, the author arrives at the conclusion that – aside from a few exceptions – neither the German government nor the political parties and the journalistic and scholarly debates accompanying them have a clear understanding of what constitutes the international order of today and the challenges it faces. Appropriate German policy is urgently needed; otherwise, in 2030, the current order will give way to an extensive anarchy, which will be extremely difficult for the Federal Republic to manage.

The Concept of a Rules-based International Order

Today, most people understand international order as a state in which international relations are structured through rules and regulations and in which international organisations take care of cross-border problems. The objective is to preserve peace and organise cooperation among states. This concept of international order is based on the theory of Political Institutionalism. Its representatives proceed from the assumption that international peace and cooperation can be guaranteed if states see it within their own interests for rules to be established and followed, and for organisations to be created in which the states set the rules and solve problems together to everyone’s benefit.

Neither the German government nor the political parties have a clear understanding of what constitutes the international order of today.

Representatives of the competing school of Political Realism certainly acknowledge the positive role of rules and institutions and also endorse a regulated international system. However, they emphasise that a lasting order cannot be created solely by setting rules and creating international organisations. Rather, it needed ­determined efforts by the most powerful nations either towards establishing a joint order or, one, which is being guaranteed by one of them. An international order can be limited to simple rules by which war is being avoided among the major powers. It might also encompass the creation of an international zone of free trade and institutions of cooperation. Representatives of the so-called English school of international relations theory present similar arguments.

Another school of thought in political science, that of Political Liberalism, assumes that a necessary condition for international order lies in respecting the rights of the individual (human rights and basic freedoms), free trade, and the prevalence of democratic government. Peace and international cooperation can only be permanently guaranteed among states with a republic constitution, an open economy and the readiness for lively social exchange beyond borders.

The Liberal World Order of Today

What is today described as the liberal international world order reflects the influence of all these aforementioned schools of thoughts and makes it clear that international politics cannot be solely explained through the spectrum of one theory. The foundations of this international order were laid by the US in the late stages of the Second World War. At the time, the US wanted to create a world order together with Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, based on a multilateral system of free trade, a functioning system of collective security of the United Nations, and a democratisation strategy. Without the Soviet threat, the Western European states would not have closed ranks. Initially, the original concept could not be implemented, facing complete rejection by the USSR, with France and Great Britain also expressing major misgivings. It took a lengthy negotiation process in the middle of the 1950s to reach a complex settlement which eventually constituted a Western international order, which still exists today. It was based on the efforts to prevent a new Great Depression, enable the reconstruction of Germany and the rest of Europe, maintain peace on the continent, and to lay the foundation for permanent inter-state cooperation. The central elements of this order were:

A free-trade economic order through the dismantling of tariffs and the creation of institutions that promoted international trade and economic development (World Bank and International Monetary Fund). The objective was the restoration of Europe’s and Asia’s national economies, which had been weakened by the war, as well as the development of an internationally intertwined market economy and the welfare gains expected to accompany it.

The maintenance and enforcement of the ban on the use of force, either through a functioning system of collective security or – if rendered impossible by Soviet obstruction – through the creation of a system of multilateral or bilateral systems of alliances (such as NATO), tasked with preventing wars of aggression through deterrence and balance of power policy.

The organisation and institutionalisation of international multilateral cooperation. At the beginning, these were created primarily to distribute Marshall Plan funds and to coordinate the reconstruction of Western Europe as well as the integration of the Federal Republic of Germany into the newly constituting West (OEEC, European Coal and Steel Community, NATO, Western European Union, European Economic Community). Later, multilateralism became the default mode of cooperation within the Western world, especially through the European Economic Community as well as other international multilateral forums with a predominantly Western character.

The orientation towards a liberal model which emphasises individual freedoms and protection from exploitation as well as the protection of the environment, climate, and the natural basis of existence.

The Western International Order

This Western international order emerged during the simultaneously burgeoning East-West conflict and was also indirectly supported by it: without the Soviet threat, the Western European states would not have closed ranks and above all, would not have allowed the West German state to re-emerge so quickly. This order was made possible through the benevolent hegemony of the US, who functioned as both a guarantor of the international economic order as well as of the ban on the use of force. In addition, it was primarily the US that more or less forced Europeans to cooperate with one another (above all through the implementation of the Marshall Plan) towards the end of the 1940s and at the beginning of the 1950s. This provided a crucial impulse for the creation of European integration, which had already been considered a failure at the end of the 1940s. The success of the Western international order, however, was also the result of the internal pacification of Western European states through the creation of the social welfare state and increased state intervention in the economy (‘embedded capitalism’). Under these conditions, also democratic government systems were able to work successfully. By the same token, most Western states made through a transformation from the territorial state to the post-heroic state – that is, from a state that primarily dealt with exterior and interior security to one that primarily looked after the welfare of its citizens and the stability of the economy.

This international order proved successful from the beginning. The growth of international trade lead to a revival of western European national economies, and together with the social welfare state, contributed to a broad spread of wealth in the Western world. The ‘victory’ of the East-West conflict that emerged from the 1960s onwards can essentially be ascribed to the functioning of this international order.

The shift of industrial technologies to emerging countries and the vast transfer of financial resources to countries rich in raw materials have led to serious problems for the international order.

With the end of the East-West conflict, the Western international order under US military and economic supremacy became the core of a globally effective order that increasingly incorporated emerging and developing countries. It gave these countries the opportunity to strike a path towards catching up on economic development. The liberalisation of international trade and the massive reductions in costs for transport, traffic, and communication, as well as accompanying improvements in the political framework conditions led to an increasingly intertwined globalisation, marked by the division of labour and mutual dependency from the 1990s onwards.

To effectively implement the prohibition on the use of force, all member states of the UN Security Council formally concurred in 1992 to let the system of collective security come into effect. As globalisation resulted in global problems (environment, climate, protection of intellectual property, investment regulations, preservation of social standards, human rights), the network of multilateral cooperation expanded even involving non-state actors (global governance).

The Erosion of the International Order

The international order is subject to a process of erosion that affects its core areas: free trade, prohibition of force, multilateralism, and the orientation towards a liberal model. Two causes can be identified: Firstly, globalisation has contributed to a major shift in the economic, technological, political, and even military capabilities and has triggered a dynamic that is shaking the foundations of the liberal order. Secondly, even within the Western world, the awareness of the importance of this order, its central guidelines, and the necessity to defend it is dwindling.

Both of these causes can be observed in the development of the international economic order. This economic order did not only contribute to an increase in economic prosperity of industrialised countries but also helped developing and emerging countries to bolster their economic development and catch up on their industrialisation. This includes a wide range of countries, above all Singapore, the People’s Republic of China, South Korea, and Taiwan, but also Turkey, Malaysia, Brazil, India, Sri Lanka, and others. These countries have managed to achieve significant growth rates in the past thirty years thanks to a consistent strategy of industrialisation. As a consequence, around one billion people were pulled out of poverty, six hundred million in China alone, and some of these countries are now fully industrialised. Others have profited from global economic growth and rising export revenues due to their wealth of natural resources and other energy sources. Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are particularly worth mentioning here. However, the shift of industrial technologies to emerging countries and the vast transfer of financial resources to countries rich in raw materials have led to serious problems for the international order:

These include the migration of entire industries and the associated core competencies to emerging countries. This is partly due to marked mercantilist state capitalism in these countries (such as in the People’s Republic of China). Protectionist surges will lead to stagnation, and even decline in the total volume of international trade of goods and services.The downside to this development is the extensive deindustrialisation of Western countries, not all of which were able to compensate by shifting to the services sector or specialising in certain industries. Today, there is great uncertainty in large sections of the middle classes in industrialised countries, which is leading to a revival of nationalism and protectionism.

Particularly the relocation of crucial industrial capacities to China and other emerging and developing countries has led to a relativisation of ecological standards and social welfare systems. Attempts to solve this problem within the framework of global governance and in cooperation with states and non-governmental organisations have only achieved partial success.

Typical negative economic consequences of rentier states have occurred in countries which mainly achieved high revenues through the export of raw materials and fossil fuels (see the ‘Dutch disease’). This has often been accompanied by the development of mafia-­like vertical power structures and the concentration of revenues with the individuals in power. Some of these kleptocracies compensate for their internal legitimation problems via external aggression.

The shift of economic and technological resources to emerging countries is also accompanied by the relocation of military resources. This, in turn, shifts regional power balances and relatives American military dominance, which had previously ensured reasonably stable security orders in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and East Asia.

The International Economic Order in Transformation

These developments imply that the universal claim of the international economic order that more trade ultimately benefits all those involved is not valid everywhere. Trends and dynamics are emerging that have the potential to reverse the globalisation process. It is alarming that the US under President Trump have discarded their role as the guarantor of the international liberal economic order and taken a firm protectionist course in economic and foreign trade policy. Protectionist surges will lead to stagnation, and even decline in the total volume of international trade of goods and services as well as foreign investments. Furthermore, there is the risk that national strategies to secure the sales of goods, control international cash flows and the access to raw materials and energy sources, will gain in significance and do so in a partly neo-­imperialistic fashion. The latter particularly applies to China’s efforts in creating a separate infrastructure for the export of Chinese goods and import of raw materials and energy sources. It also aims to establish separate international finance institutions and a state-­controlled Internet.

The second pillar of the liberal international order is in danger as well. The ban on the use of force under international law should at its core impel all states to forego violence in their relations with other states. Above all, it aims to prevent major wars. However, the practical ban on the use of force requires a functioning system of collective security. Controversial issues have to be treated and solved diplomatically. Currently, the effectiveness of the various versions of banning the use of force within the liberal world order is declining drastically.The ‘international community’ – represented by special institutions and states with corresponding power resources – has to act as an intermediary between all states involved or, in the case of obvious peace-­breakers, intervene with the use of force itself. The system of collective security of the United Nations pursues this mission and primarily gives the five permanent members of the Security Council far-reaching competences. However, since its founding, this system has failed extensively. The relative success of the ban on the use of force over many decades – especially demonstrated by the prevention of major wars – can be ascribed to the US hegemony. The US managed to establish various ways of prohibiting the use of force within the liberal international order.

One way involved alliances and security guarantees for states facing a heavily armed military opponent who violates the ban on the use of force. This form of support can either be of a bilateral nature or implemented as part of a multilateral alliance. Furthermore, alliance systems had and have the function of preserving peace among their participants, provided that they develop a permanent cooperation that exists in times of peace as well.

In other cases, coalitions of states have often tried, either within or outside of the framework of the United Nations, to prevent the use of force in different ways. They have tried to mediate between conflicting parties, and if necessary, to contribute to ending conflicts through sanctions or even military interventions. In extreme cases, there must be the possibility to replace a government which permanently disturbs peace. Otherwise, the ban on the use of force threatens to erode very quickly if no one sees it as their duty to take action against disruptors of peace.

Effective regional or cross-regional security systems can also be based on banning the use of force and respecting territorial integrity of states. Security systems of this kind can cover disarmament and arms control regulations and other trust-building measures. They can also include mechanisms for consultation and cooperation. Such a security system to solidify the ban on the use of force was developed for the European area between the West and the Soviet Union/Russia in the 1990s.

The Effectiveness of the Ban on the Use of Force Is in Decline

Currently, the effectiveness of the various versions of banning the use of force within the liberal world order is declining drastically. There are various reasons:

For several years, Russia has been seeking out strategic antagonism against the West, despite extensive efforts of leading Western states to establish a partnership. Russia has either used or threatened to use force against neighbouring states (such as the Ukraine, but also Georgia). The causes for this can be found in Russian domestic policy. As a result, not only has the overall European security order been destroyed, but NATO must again take defence measures against Russia, in the form of a new policy of deterrence.

China increasingly understands itself as a strategic challenger to and opponent of the US and Japan in East Asia. By using military pressure, China attempts to obtain control over vast marine areas. Additionally, it is developing strategic nuclear weapons capacities.

Iran is trying ever more strongly to gain control of ­Syria, Iraq, and the Arab Peninsula through military intervention by the means of covert operations and ­militias. This results in proxy and civil wars, which, in turn, bring other powers (above all, Saudi Arabia) into the mix. Moreover, Iran’s declared goal is to annihilate Israel.

The system of collective security of the United Nations is becoming less and less functional in light of the increasing strategic antagonism between the states of the West on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other hand. It only functions properly in strategically irrelevant conflicts (for example, in Africa).

The readiness of Western state coalitions to engage in military intervention to end or prevent the use of force if the system of collective security of the UN fails has mostly vanished after a peak phase in the 1990s. In view of the erosion of the free trade system and the ban on the use of force, it is no surprise that even multilateralism is undergoing a crisis. The internal Western dispute about the handling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein lies at the core of this. Hussein was a prototype of the international disruptor of peace. However, the US were unsuccessful in convincing their partners of the necessity of a military intervention for a regime change. The anticipated positive results of the intervention in Iraq failed to materialise and the US found itself in a years-long war against Sunni and Shiite militias and terror groups. Consequently, the exercise of armed intervention as a method of preventing further violence has been taken off the table in the Western world.

The erosion of the ban on the use of force is now omnipresent. In Syria, a civil war between the Baath regime and the majority of the domestic population has been raging since 2011, assisted by Russia and Iran. The war has cost over four hundred thousand casualties to date. In Eastern Ukraine, a still-restricted war between Russia and Ukraine has been ongoing since 2014. The South China Sea and the East China Sea have been the subjects of heavy disputes over the control of maritime territory. China is systematically preparing to conquer Taiwan by force. Finally, a military line of conflict is developing between Russia and NATO in the Baltic Sea area.

Multilateralism in Crisis

In view of the erosion of the free trade system and the ban on the use of force, it is no surprise that even multilateralism is undergoing a crisis. This becomes particularly clear in President Donald Trump’s course towards purely unilateral policy. The vocal policy of ‘America first’ is harmful to multilateralism, which was for decades reliant on the real results provided by the US as the leading power. However, any analysis that places all of the blame for this development on the current president of the US falls short. There are other causes for today’s crisis of multilateralism:

Strategic mistakes in the 1990s have manoeuvred the European Union as a highly integrated and condensed form of multilateralism into an existential crisis. The introduction of the common currency without common economic policy led to the development of the eurozone as a kind of transfer union, with a political division between Northern and Southern Europe. The introduction of the Schengen Zone without simultaneously securing the southern and south-eastern borders of Europe caused a migration problem that divides Eastern and Western Europe. The German government’s handling of the eurozone crisis (from 2010) and the migration crisis (2015) also triggered the revival of old mistrust against alleged German unilateral action and hegemony. The rise of populist parties and Brexit are warning signs that must not be overlooked.

The current condition of NATO is critical. The US are no longer prepared to bear a disproportionately high share of the defence burdens while states such as Germany do not even provide the bare minimum necessary to maintain modestly sized armed forces ready for deployment. This dispute is not new but President Trump hammers down with particular harshness.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has only partly understood how to become a universal multilateral forum for regulating world trade. An agreement on essential issues of world trade liberalisation has not been reached. The expansion of the agenda comprising issues of social standards, human rights, and environmental protection, is mainly driven by Western states and not supported by many member states. In addition, the WTO has accepted too many states that do not fulfil its statutory requirements.

As western multilateralism is in decline, an accompanying deterioration of the influence of liberal ideas can be observed.

In climate policy, it has become evident that the approach favoured by Germany and other European states, with binding reduction quotes (Kyoto Protocol), is not feasible. Today’s multilateralism in climate policy is marked by the parallel existence of different national endeavours.

As western multilateralism is in decline and the relative importance of Western states in the global economy as well as Western military shrinks, an accompanying deterioration of the influence of liberal ideas can be observed. The most obvious example is the People’s Republic of China, where functioning (state) capitalism goes hand in hand with political control of information, communication, and private life. However, milder forms of non-liberal market economies can also be observed, primarily in Asia.

What German Policy Can and Should Do

How does the German government view the future of the international order? The 2016 German government’s White Paper on German Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr illustrates the position of the Great Coalition of the CDU, CSU, and SPD. “The international order, which was established after World War II and whose organisations and institutions still provide a framework for international politics, is undergoing profound changes.” ‘Multipolarity’ and ‘diffusion of power’ are identified as factors that essentially contribute to this regulatory ‘upheaval’. Emerging countries in particularly want a louder voice in the organisation of the international order. This has resulted in the development of regionally different ordering systems which led to an overall ‘fragmentation of competing ordering systems’. This fragmentation can only be counteracted if the multipolarity is reflected appropriately in the United Nations. For the German government, the protection of the international order means reinforcing multilateralism and adjusting it to the wishes of ‘emerging countries’, primarily considering China and other rising powers. The United Nations and other global forums are envisioned as appropriate platforms.

The trends illustrated here make one thing clear. We are not only dealing with a situation of upheaval in which unnamed ‘emerging powers’ are striving for more say in shaping the international order and in which, in a worst-case scenario, regional orders would emerge that contradict each other. We are not confronted with the ‘fragmentation of competing ordering systems’, but rather with the real possibility that the liberal international order is collapsing.So we are not confronted with the ‘fragmentation of competing ordering systems’, but rather with the real possibility that the liberal international order is collapsing. This possibility is real. Russia, China, and Iran fundamentally question the liberal security order and associated liberal cosmopolitan view. The possibility of a collapse is further enforced by the US under President Trump. The US can no longer be seen as the operator and guarantor of the liberal trade order – at least for as long as the US experience severe disadvantages from it. The US are making the preservation of their role as a guarantor of the ban on the use of force conditional upon greater defence spending from states profiting from the US security guarantee (such as Germany), relative to their economic power. The possibility of collapse is also real because the role of the European Union as a gravitational centre of modern liberal multilateralism is vanishing due to its own shortcomings and as a result of failures in the 1990s.

Retention and Strengthening of ‘Small Multilateralism’

What does all this mean for German policy in the coming decade? Simply mourning the decline of multilateralism and laying blame on the current American President does not cut it. The decline of the liberal international order is much more multi-layered and complex. Responsible policy in this current situation entails damage containment, while taking countermeasures to salvage as much of this international order as possible. It would be fatal if German policy reacted to the decline of the international order by solely invoking the advantages of multilateralism in view of the upcoming global problems (especially climate change).

Naturally, Germany should be a vehement representative of global multilateralism. But the central tasks first lie in the retention and strengthening of ‘small multilateralism’: more than anything else, the revival of multilateralism in Europe is what matters today. Addressing the structural problems plaguing the eurozone is equally as important as tackling the migration problems which arose through insufficient border management. Additionally, a path must be found for the EU and Great Britain to work closely together after Brexit. On a transatlantic level, it is important to signalise to the US that Germany means business, by increasing defence expenditure to two per cent of GDP and assuming responsibility for securing the ban on the use of force.

The International Order

How We Must Act

  • Today’s international order is endangered in all four of its core areas: free trade, ban on the use of force, multilateralism, and the orientation around a liberal guiding principle.
  • The cause of this threat is the worldwide shift of economic, technological, political, and also military weights.
  • In the Western world, awareness for the fact that this order can only be preserved if it is actively defended is lacking.
  • It is not enough for German policy to lament the decline of multilateralism and to point fingers at the current American President as the perpetrator.
  • Responsible policy means damage control and taking countermeasures to salvage as much as possible of the international order.
  • If Germany wishes to remain a champion of multilateralism, the central tasks lie in the retention and reinforcement of western multilateralism, not the United Nations.
  • In order to strengthen Europe, the structural problems of the eurozone must be addressed with the same urgency as the migration problems.
  • It is important to signalise to the US that Germany means business, by increasing defence expenditure to two per cent of GDP and assuming responsibility for securing the ban on the use of force.

Prof. Dr. Joachim Krause (67) is Chairman of the Foundation for Science and Democracy and Academic Director of the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University (ISPK). He is also the Founder and Managing Editor of Sirius – Zeitschrift für strategische Analysen (De Gruyter). From 2001 to 2016, he was Professor of International Relations at Kiel University. He has written and published a large number of articles and books on international security, German and European foreign policy, and matters of political theory.