Rewriting rules

Two sources of the challenge to the global order

By Kanwal Sibal
  • Published 25.06.18

The discourse in the foreign policy community that the existing global order is being challenged not only assumes that an orderly world exists, but there is also selectiveness in identifying the sources that threaten it. The United Nations charter lays down the framework of a global order, but the charter is seriously flawed. Equality before law is a fundamental principle for any order to rest on, but by creating a class of permanent members with veto rights the charter vitiates this principle. Any order should exclude unlawful use of force by states, but we have seen many instances of powerful countries using force to bring about regime change in third countries without UN approval. Double standards in dealing with issues such as those of terrorism or human rights should also not exist in any global order, but in reality the friends of the powerful are spared and those considered unfriendly are targeted. Even if the present order is an improvement on the conditions of the historical past, it remains one where the powerful continue to control the global system.

The challenge to the existing order is seen as primarily coming from China, but the United States of America, too, is undermining it even though it is the country most responsible for conceptualizing it in 1945 and shaping it thereafter. The US president, Donald Trump, is shaking the assumptions of the international community about US foreign policy. He has unnerved US allies by adopting a transactional approach even on security issues, rebuking them, for instance, for not adequately paying the US for defending them. He has targeted the European Union for its trade policies, especially those of Germany, apart from undermining it by supporting Brexit. He has either withdrawn from agreements that the US has negotiated or seeks to modify them to its advantage, be it the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the North American Free Trade Agreement. He has walked out of the Paris climate change agreement, dismissing the concerns of the rest of the world on such a sensitive subject as this. He is undermining the World Trade Organization as the principal regulator of global trade by preferring to use national instruments to extract concessions from its trade partners. By increasing tariffs on several products that affect China, the EU, Korea, India and others, he has raised the spectre of trade wars.

Trump has disowned the nuclear deal with Iran pushed primarily by his domestic problems, US Congressional opinion and the strong influence of Israel on US foreign policy. He has shown scant regard for an agreement negotiated by the P5+1 and sanctified by the UN security council. By announcing the restoration of the earlier draconian sanctions on Iran he has opened up a breach with the Europeans who see no reason to renounce the deal and object to the extra-territorial application of US laws to European companies. For Europe, the issues of sovereignty and independence of decision-making are in question more sharply than in the past in view of Trump's unilateralism. By shifting the US embassy to Jerusalem in defiance of UN resolutions, Trump has added to the tensions in an already volatile region.

Trump has bombed Syria two times illegally on the contested issue of use of chemical weapons by the Assad government, and this in spite of his earlier statements against US involvement in conflicts abroad. To counter Iran's regional role, Trump is backing Saudi Arabia's military intervention in Yemen, ignoring its humanitarian consequences. Rather than moving towards some form of normalization of relations with Russia, he has done the opposite. It is remarkable how much this is being driven by Trump's domestic vulnerabilities. On the murky affair of the Skripal poisoning case, he took the lead in deciding on punitive action against Russia, expelling a large number of Russian diplomats and closing down the Russian consulate in Seattle. He has buckled under Congressional pressure and taken action under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act to impose wide-ranging sanctions against Russian government officials, parliamentarians, oligarchs and flagship Russian companies in the fields of energy, banking, arms exports and so on. This has serious implications for India, because the principal agency through which India's defence trade with Russia is conducted has been targeted. India has been put in a position of either ignoring these sanctions or seeking a waiver, which means, in one case, risking financial retribution, and in the other, compromising our sovereignty. Even on the economic front Trump has dragged us to the WTO on our export subsidy schemes, besides targeting us on price controls over medical instruments. His obsession with the level of our duties on Harley-Davidson motorcycles shows how unmanageable his priorities can be. Trump's America First approach reflects his anti-globalization and protectionist thinking, with consequences for the global economic system.

China's rise presents the second challenge to the global order as it exists. China's geopolitical ambitions have grown pari passu with its spectacular economic rise. It has become the world's second largest economy and the largest exporting country, with accumulated reserves of almost three trillion dollars and massive capacities in certain sectors for which it seeks external markets. The Belt and Road Initiative is the vehicle for channelling its political and economic ambitions to dominate Asia and eventually, as is recognized by the US's 2018 National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, replace the US as the world's pre-eminent power. Xi Jinping 's China Dream aims at making his country economically developed with modernized armed forces capable of winning wars within defined timelines. If China is to be at the centre of international relations by 2050, as Xi visualizes, the existing international order has to be reconstructed to its advantage. China is now projecting its own model of economic development under authoritarian control as most suited to the requirements of developing countries. Xi has repeatedly rejected the Western model of democracy and liberal economics. China's perceived success is shaking the confidence of the West in its own model that is currently under stress from within. China's discourse on issues of sovereignty has become intransigent. Its actions in the South China Sea, seen as a violation of a rules-based order and international law, have laid to rest the notion of its peaceful rise. This has serious implications for India.

India seeks institutional reforms to reflect the shifts in global power since 1945, with greater representation of developing countries in global institutions as well as the principle to accord them special and differential treatment on trade and environmental matters to ensure equity. India has been subject to nuclear and dual technologies sanctions for decades under the present global system. Its claim to permanent membership of the UN security council challenges the current power hierarchy. Yet, unlike China, India is not seen as defying a rules-based world order. Our dilemma is how to manage to be with China on some issues of shared interest, such as reforming international political and financial institutions, rejecting regime change policies and interference in the internal affairs of countries, double standards on human rights issues and so on, with which it challenges the US, while being on the US side in thwarting China's bid to rewrite global rules as part of its ambitions.

The author is former foreignsecretary of India;