Challenging Changing International Order

Jyrki Käkönen analyses critically FIIA policy paper on changing global order.

The Finnish Institute for International Affaires (FIIA) released in March a report, “The Changing Global Order and its implications for the EU” by Katja Creutz, Tuomas Iso-Markku, Kristi Raik and Teija Tiilikainen (FIIA Report March 2019/59). As the title indicates, the report explores changes in the international order and the impact of changes on the EU as well as on Finland and their foreign and security policies.

The report is a part of a wider project “Finland and the Tightening Competition in Global Politics” financed by the Finnish Government. In this respect the report is closely connected to decision making in Finnish foreign policy. However, it also functions as a window to the worldview represented by the Finnish Institute for International Affairs.

The analysis and argumentation in the report are solidly based on the traditional Western centric mainstream international relations theories. Scholars like John Ikenberry, Robert Nye and Henry Kissinger are strongly present in the references of the report. In the references it is hard to find any scholar coming from outside the Western centric IRT mainstream. Understandably, this is a factor that strongly defines the perspectives as well as the conclusions in the report.

The authors of the report unproblematically present as the main contradiction the clash between the USA led so called liberal international order and the potential new order based on the rise of China. The core issue seems to be that the leading role of the West and normative order based on Western values are challenged by the emerging powers and first of all by China. The order China will represent is presented totally as something that stands against liberal democratic values represented by the West. In the report it does not matter that the West has not always acted according to the values it represents now.

Basic assumptions of the report make it understandable that the authors are worried about the erosion of the current norms and rule based international order. However, at the same time the authors agree that order first of all represents the leading power’s, i.e., the USA’s understanding about just order. In other words, the order benefits the interests of the leading power.

In the report it seems to be self-evident that the international order reflects existing power structures. And in the current situation China, together with some other emerging states, is the power that challenges the power structures. The report also argues that the relative decline of the West has given a chance for the emerging states to use the situation for their benefit. In addition to this, the withdrawal of the USA from the order it has build can create space for a China led unliberal international order.

In the theoretical context used in the report the above argumentation it is not at all surprising. More surprising in the academic sense is that the authors do not pay any attention to, why the president Donald Trump’s administration wants to withdraw from the order it has created. One reason could be that it does no longer serve the US interests. The system has also been beneficial for China and India, for example.

The withdrawing of the USA from norm-based institutions of global governance gives an option for it to rely more on traditional power politics in which it is much ahead any potential challenger as well as its own allies. For the USA it is advantageous to present China as a threat to the existing international order. The China threat can be used as a mean to pressure the allies to support the US policy to maintain its hegemonic position as well the international order created by it.

While the authors of the report are worried about the increasing military strength of China and its keen interest to participate in global governance more effectively the authors support uncritically the US interests in world politics. Therefore, report recommends Finland to reinforce security cooperation with Sweden and search more intensive security cooperation with the NATO.

Among the report’s threat images, it is also presented the declining relevance of the state power in managing various internal problems, like social inequality. Simultaneously, states are losing the monopoly of violence to different non-state criminal and terrorist organizations. In addition, states have not been capable to find solutions to various global problems. They have not been able to stop the climate change or to solve consequences caused by the climate change, like migration due to deterioration of the environment. In addition to all these unsolved problems, according to the report new institutions by emerging powers, like BRICS, increase problems in global governance as well as cause instability to the whole international system.

The report suggests that the major task for the EU in the current situation is to defend its values and interests. However, in a changing international order that will become more and more complicated partly because Brexit as well as strengthening right wing populism will degrade the EU. The authors even make a dramatic conclusion that the EU might stand alone in defending the value-based order, the order based on the Western values. This is expressed in the way that nothing good can come from the non-Western world.

The report is blind to the fact that the world does not really look the same for every actor. Every actor in the current international order do not see the order build by the West as a just and the only possible order. In the course of history Europe has imposed its own version of freedom to the entire world by force and simultaneously advanced its own interests.

In an interesting way the report let the reader to understand that the world is not anymore transforming into a mirror image of Europe and the West is not anymore capable alone to dictate the rules of world politics. This again makes the political environment less favorable for the EU. Ongoing changes have brought power politics and especially military power back and it makes it difficult for the EU to function successively as a civilian power. In the EU context this supports the idea to develop the military dimension of the EU.

According to the authors it seems to be obvious that the world politics will be concentrated on the USA – China axis. This will move political gravity from trans-Atlantic axis and Europe to Pacific Ocean and Asia. This again will increase space for Russian actions in its neighborhood and in the whole Europe. Therefore, Finland must be prepared to react to more complicated challenges in its own neighborhood. The declining Western dominance is presented in the report as a biggest thing to be worried about in the Finnish politics.

In the report the Finnish situation is tightly connected to the future of the EU. Therefore, Finland must improve the internal cohesion of the EU and to ensure that the EU commits itself to multilateral and norm based international order. Further on, the report indicates that the survival of the EU depends on trans-Atlantic EU-USA partnership. The authors totally neglect an alternative option, that the EU would advance politics independent from the USA and redefine its interests in the changing international order.

It is impossible to avoid a conclusion that according to the authors Finland and the EU have to support the US attempts to maintain the existing international order as well as the US hegemony in that order as a factor to guarantee the sustainability of the order. However, this hardly corresponds the expectations of the majority of the humankind in the situation where the consequences of climate change hit hardest the societies and people of the developing world.

The report clearly stands for the norm based international order build in the aftermath of World War II. But simultaneously it ignores the fact that emerging powers and their institutions like BRICS are not against norm based international order. They aim for a pluralistic international order instead of one for where globalization means homogenization.

The issue is about alternative orders. Therefore, it is worth of rising the question, whether Finland and the EU should participate in constructing a new norm and rule based international order instead of defending an unjust order although it has been beneficial for both. While the issue for the EU and Finland could be the construction of a new international order the question about potential partners get a new perspective. In the changing international order, it might be wise to find partners beyond the Western world.

Text: Jyrki Käkönen

Illustration: Karstein Volle