There is no one left to enforce the global rules

MyWorld copyMy Comments: And you thought I was being negative last week?!? Well, not a lot right now to encourage a positive outlook on things. Yes, my clients are making money, thank you. And yes, my case of the flu has receded, the daily deluge has stopped (maybe), and the mornings are cooler. WOW!

But the world we live in, at least the world some of us live in, continues to frustrate. I suppose it always has to some degree, but right now I’d like SOME things to work in our favor. These comments from the Financial Times reflect on the recent gathering of economic powers in Russia.

By Philip Stephens | September 5, 2013

Someone else can keep the peace. The west has had its fill of squaring up to tyrants. It is time for others to pick up the baton. So runs the shrug-of-the-shoulders response to the fires raging in the Middle East and the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. The snag, as can be seen from the paralysis in the UN Security Council, is that there is no “someone else”.

This week leaders of the Group of 20 leading nations are meeting in St Petersburg. Russia has proved a fitting venue for the gathering. The summit offers sight of a future for international relations in which competition prevails over co-operation and narrow national interests trump respect for rules. The host, President Vladimir Putin, counts such disarray a success. He sees the absence of global consensus as a cloak over inexorable Russian decline.

The purpose of the G20 was to broaden and strengthen the international system by reflecting the redistribution of power from west to east. Instead it holds up a mirror to the fractures and fissures in the emerging order. The rising nations cast themselves as guardians of state sovereignty against western imperialism. They may have history on their side: the established powers have anyway wearied of efforts to enforce international rules.

A vote in the Westminster parliament has seen Britain wash its hands of Bashar al-Assad’s crimes against the Syrian people. Were the looming decision in the US Congress to go against President Barack Obama’s call for intervention, the sole superpower would do the same. France, for all its Gallic self-regard, cannot go it alone.

The facts of globalisation have not changed. A glance at the present economic troubles faced by countries as distant as India and Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa, retells the story of inescapable interdependence.

The US Federal Reserve is reining back the extraordinary injection of liquidity into the US and world economies after the global crash. Cheap American credit fuelled growth in the emerging nations. Now they feel the pain of its withdrawal. These nations pretty much shrugged off the 2008 financial crash. It would be cruel irony indeed to be laid low by a recovery in the US.

Interdependence reaches beyond the realm of economics. Most of the principal threats to the west and the rest alike do not respect national borders. Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, climate change, state failure, cyber attacks, jihadi terrorism, uncontrolled migration and suchlike challenge the security of each and all in the G20.

So, too, in spite of Mr Putin’s barefaced denials, does Mr Assad’s decision to trample on the norms that prohibit the use of chemical weapons. What is missing at the G20 summit, however, is general recognition of a commonweal important enough to counter the hankering after narrower concepts of self-interest.

The Syrian crisis throws into relief the collision of two principles underpinning the mission of the UN. The first is the founding statute that prohibits interference in the sovereign affairs of UN members without explicit authorisation of the Security Council. The second, more recent pillar of global governance declares that sovereignty carries responsibilities as well as rights. The price of non-interference is respect for the security of the citizen.

Enunciated by the UN in 2005, the doctrine of a responsibility to protect marked the high-water mark of hopes that the new global landscape would be shaped by an extension of international rules and norms. A multipolar world represented by inclusive organisations such as the G20 would widen and deepen the traditions of multilateralism embedded in the post-1945 order.

The tides have since turned. The rising states have proved unwilling to sacrifice sovereignty to collective action. The west is far from blameless in this respect. Seen from Beijing, Delhi or Brasília, global governance has looked too much like an effort by the established powers to hold on to their privileged position. When Brazil and Turkey tried to mediate in the dispute about Iran’s nuclear programme they were told by Washington to get lost.

The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have muddled western interests with the principle of multilateral rules. China, ever fearful of insurrection at home, has taken a robustly Westphalian view of the sanctity of state sovereignty. Mr Putin fancies himself as convener of those who want to contest US power.

On the other side of the G20 table, the Europeans who not so long ago imagined their own union would serve as a model for the international system have surrendered global ambition to the effort to keep the EU show on the road. Putting aside French exceptionalism, the decision by the Westminster parliament aligns Britain with most of its neighbours.

The Middle East is on Europe’s doorstep, so it has more to lose than most from the spreading conflicts. You would not think it from the present rush to inaction. Europe is best described as a continent hiding under the bedcovers.

The central irony of the present debate, however, is that the nation calling for intervention is also the one best equipped to prosper in a world without rules. Uniquely favourable geography, abundant natural resources, economic resilience and unrivalled military power offer the US the option of disengagement. Sure, it would suffer from a breakdown of the global order, but the US is as close as it gets to a self-sufficient superpower. Today’s champions of undiluted sovereignty would be the big losers.