Thursday, 10 July 2014 05:05



The forces likely to be of primary importance in shaping the future global order will play out over the long term but they are already visible. They can be seen in the fault-lines that now divide the international community. These fault-lines reflect clashes of powerful interests in international relations. They are places where key ideas or values contend and where debates and controversies are manifest. They revolve around five challenging issues: globalization; American primacy; ideology; environmental sustainability; and the future of the nation-state. These issues contain within them a complex mosaic of stresses, forces and pressures that are already leading to widespread international change.

The geopolitical contours of change defy easy or simple characterization, but some of the trends are unsettling. For the foreseeable future we are likely to be living in a 24/7 world in tumult and turmoil, one where the transforming power of globalization is undiminished but attracting growing opposition, where America’s primacy persists, but is eroding, where ideologies and fanaticism divide communities, where the way we live, work and play puts the planet’s physical environment under stress and, finally, where states struggle to protect their sovereignty as they also invent new structures of global governance.

The forces now reshaping the global order are having a significant impact on the character of at least three of international society’s most venerable institutions: war, international law and international organization. Each is an elemental part of the Western liberal order and each is changing, offering prospects that are both reassuring and troubling. The international community’s attachment to war (and the use of military force) shows little sign of diminishing and its lethality is increasing. The nature of war, however, is changing, with signs that the use of military force in interstate conflicts is declining but likely to become more pronounced in intrastate conflicts. At the same time, the incidence of traditional forms of combat may decline as the incidence of asymmetrical warfare, particularly international terrorism, rises.

The salience of international law has risen as the liberal order has expanded but in an anarchical international system it has always struggled for authority and is now going through one of its periodic crises of confidence. This is especially evident in its capacity to influence the way states use force in international affairs. Ironically, however, driven by the relentless forces of globalization, the domain of international law is expanding as new fields of law open up, new institutions such as the International Criminal Court emerge, and as more states adhere to some of its most fundamental principles.

By way of contrast, the future of international organization is less certain as it confronts a troubling deficit of legitimacy, weakening both organization and multilateralism as tools of foreign policy and undermining the institutionalism that is also a key element of Western liberalism. Again, somewhat ironically, this has come at a time when many of the issues on the international agenda demand cooperative multilateral action (countering international terrorism, for example) if they are to be managed successfully. Institutional reform is needed both within the United Nations and beyond. For the moment, however, the advocates of remediation seem unable to summon either the will or means necessary to give international organization a more credible role in the unfolding order.

The changes now sweeping through the international system will eventually refashion the geopolitical landscape and perhaps key elements of the Western liberal order. In the meantime, they are already having a marked impact on the international strategic environment, generating both complexity and ambiguity. This is already visible on states’ foreign policy agendas. The seven key policy issues that the international community is already confronting or is likely to be forced to confront over the coming decades: international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, energy security, climate change, population movements, transnational crime and new pandemics.

Some of these issues reflect dangers and risks well outside traditional or orthodox demands of defence policy. Unlike the military threats of the Cold War era, many reflect more ambiguous dangers to national interests — less threats than vulnerabilities, but no less serious for being so. For many states, traditional threats to security remain as acute as ever, but mindful of their new vulnerabilities, governments are being forced to re-conceptualize their security and adapt their policies to find new and more sophisticated ways to address the dangers they pose.

Some of the new thinking on, for example, human security, challenges traditional ideas of defense because it disaggregates the state, directing attention to the protection of individuals, institutions and infrastructure as well as the defence of borders with the often amorphous ‘state sovereignty’ that lies behind it. But whether the issues are familiar and contemporary in nature (nuclear proliferation, for example) or a future challenge (a pandemic), in the new global environment governments are being forced to develop more sophisticated instruments of policy to manage them effectively. Historically, security has rarely ever been just a matter of accumulated military power: in a world of greater strategic complexity this is less so than ever.