The end of the Cold War was also the end of global or world order as we used to know it: a bipolar standoff between two superpowers and their respective allies. The dissolution of the Soviet Union effectively terminated that order and gave way to—exactly what? It was certainly not clear at the time; surprisingly, it is not clear today, a quarter of a century later. A first task of this book, then, will be to briefly consider the existing contributions to the debate about global order. They all bring something to the table but none of them are complete because they either tend to focus on a certain aspect of the present order and to generalize misleadingly from what they have studied, or, when they do paint a larger picture, they tend to include so many aspects and dimensions that the picture becomes blurred.
So where are we exactly today as regards world order? A basic premise of this book is that existing contributions to the subject share a grave weakness: they either neglect or misread domestic developments, that is, changes within the sovereign states that make up the core units of the international system. Georg Sørensen’s argument is that any in-depth analysis of the current world order must involve an investigation of both international relations and major aspects of domestic developments. ‘International’ and ‘domestic’ are parts of a totality, a whole; to focus on only one element will not be enough.
As for domestic developments, Sørensen will make the claim that we live in a world where all states are increasingly fragile. The term ‘fragile states’ has been used to signify the weak, post-colonial states in the global South with frail economies, corrupt and ineffective political systems and a lack of national community. But both modernizing states such as the BRICS and so-called advanced state in Western Europe, North America and East Asia are increasingly characterized by fragility as well. Their political systems are less effective and sometimes corrupt; state capacity is also threatened because these states are less socially embedded and intense participation in economic globalization undercuts their room of manoeuver. National community is weakening also, under pressure from socio-economic inequality and patterns of migration. All this has consequences for world order because it affects the international roles that states and societies can play.
As for international developments, Georg Sørensen will make the claim that the traditional security dilemma of imminent war among sovereign states is much less pertinent in today’s order. There is a ‘democratic peace’ among consolidated democracies; mutual respect for territorial integrity (i.e. existing international boundaries) is much stronger; and the desire among autocracies for participating in economic globalization and international institutions is much clearer. In sum, traditional interstate war is in sharp decline. That reduces the relative importance of military power.
The combined effect of these developments for world order is good news and bad news, mostly the latter. The good news is that peace has made progress in the sense that conventional war among states is much less of an imminent threat than it used to be; at the same time, many millions of people have been taken out of abject poverty. The bad news is that large-scale violence continues unabated within the most fragile states. Social inequalities are increasing rapidly in many countries, breaking up long-standing social compacts. And at the very moment when world order is more liberal than it ever was, both the economic and the political dimension of liberal order are in crisis. The liberal market economy is increasingly unequal and its financial infrastructure remains fragile and crisis-prone. There is a comprehensive set of international institutions, but they are rather weak and in need of reform. Liberal values are nominally endorsed by most states but they are in internal conflict and make up no firm basis for a stable world order. Finally, world order is threatened from within because the social compacts, political infrastructures and national economic capacities of many states will decline. This will have negative consequences for the willingness to bring about effective global governance. The result may be a destructive dynamic which might take us towards a Hobbesian world in ways which Hobbes himself had never imagined.
Georg Sørensen, PhD, dr.scient.pol., is Professor of Political Science at Aarhus University. Most recent monograph: A Liberal World Order in Crisis. Choosing between imposition and restraint, Cornell University Press, 2011