Imperialism of the Fittest

Imperialism of the Fittest

Mini Teaser: The current system of sovereign territoriality has failed. A coalition of the truly sovereign must intervene to solve the world's problems.

by Author(s): Vladislav InozemtsevSergei Karaganov

The international order that had its beginnings with the Treaty of Westphalia (1648)--in short, a world comprised of sovereign territorial states--is coming to a close. Many states today are not truly sovereign--not in the accepted Westphalian definition of a government possessing a monopoly of force and in firm control of the territory under its titular jurisdiction. As many political scientists and policymakers have recently discovered, failing and failed states make up the bulk of the Third World, as well as a large part of the former Soviet bloc. Not only are these countries increasingly unable to develop independently, they can pose a serious threat to international stability. Failed and failing states provide havens for terrorists and organized crime networks, and they can destabilize their larger region when internal chaos and conflicts spill over their borders to affect neighboring states--as the experience of West Africa during the 1990s aptly demonstrates.

At the same time, the Westphalian order is being undermined from another direction. In some Western political circles, the traditional concept of "integral sovereignty" is gradually giving way to the notion of "limited sovereignty." For some, the individual sovereign state is no longer in a position to meet all of the economic and security challenges of the modern world, requiring the delegation of some powers and functions to supranational bodies like the European Union. For others, the sovereignty of any state is circumscribed by its ability to protect and enhance the human rights of the population under its care. The doctrine of "humanitarian intervention" implies the loss of internal and external legitimacy by those governments that choose to violate these rights. And the "democracy deficit" apparent in many countries--together with their inability to guarantee their own social and economic development--calls into question the ability of such nations to exercise their sovereign rights.

It seems inevitable, therefore, that the traditional understanding of sovereignty introduced by the Treaty of Westphalia will be modified if not replaced outright. This imperative will gain strength as the developed countries of the Core not only continue to voluntarily transfer some of their sovereign prerogatives to transnational authorities, but increasingly become less willing to recognize the full sovereignty of the failed and failing states in the Periphery. This process will determine what shape the international order will take in the next few decades.

Despite some irritants in the relationship between the major powers (and between the United States and its partners around the world), we are at a unique moment in history. The vastly reduced probability of a conflict between the great powers and the convergence of their positions on a majority of international issues creates the conditions for the formation of a "neo-imperial" alliance--a global concert of the truly sovereign--whose might cannot be counterbalanced by any coalition of peripheral states.

There are those who believe that the Westphalian system of international relations can be revived if failed and failing states can be repaired and modernized. After the end of the Cold War, the United States became the leading proponent of the notion that democracy is the panacea for all social and economic problems. The spread of democracy, in turn, would create a more stable and viable international order.

For those of us whose global outlook was formed in the 1960s and 1970s, it is very difficult to accept that the various development paradigms that promised fast economic growth and political stability for the newly independent states of the Third World--including the most recent, the so-called "Washington Consensus"--have failed. However, there are many who continue to insist that the backwardness of the least developed nations can be overcome through the infusion of ever more generous amounts of foreign aid or still greater involvement of international bureaucracies like the United Nations.

But the track record of these measures is not good. The humanitarian and development aid that has been provided by Western countries has tended to corrupt the population and governments of the failing and failed states. Contrary to popular opinion, financial aid packages do not encourage the modernization of the target economies. Instead, they give rise to parasitic attitudes and overt corruption. Furthermore, granting these beleaguered countries a more favorable trade regime often has a similar effect, since raw materials make up the bulk of their exports. It should not be forgotten that no raw material economy has been successful in restructuring itself through the good fortune of high resource prices on the global markets.

Moreover, in those regions where there have been no precedents for successful development, such as Africa and the Greater Middle East, a culture of insurmountable backwardness is manifest in the stagnation, and even degradation, of human capital. Indeed, most of these countries have eschewed economic development to remain exporters of raw materials and have retained semi-feudal political systems defined by patronage and corruption. (Of course, the ruling elites are more than happy to point to other reasons for their countries' problems, but never to their own incompetence or greed.)

The example of the East Asian "tigers" shows that it is possible for a country to escape from the trap of economic degradation and integrate into the community of Western and Asian developed nations. But this requires a willingness on the part of governments and elites to take the steps necessary for change. All of the existing proposals for reform--especially the much-vaunted "Partnership for Progress and a Common Future with the Region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa" unveiled by the G-8 in 2004--are voluntary in nature.

There are those who believe that the United Nations can more aggressively tackle these problems and so lay the groundwork for a rejuvenated international system. But the UN, even after the end of the Cold War, has been powerless to create an effective system of collective security capable not only of peacekeeping but of peace-enforcement, preventing conflicts and fighting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Certainly, the UN has incorporated a number of effective international agencies such as the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency, but many UN bodies have become over-bureaucratized or ineffectual talking-shops (such as the UN General Assembly Special Session on Narcotic Drugs). The United Nations remains a unique instrument for promoting dialogue among nations, but it is not capable of effectively solving problems when and where they arise--as the tsunami disaster in South Asia demonstrated. The United Nations is no closer today than it was in 1945 to being in a position to set the global agenda.

So, we must face the grim reality: There is no magic bullet, whether in the form of aid packages or a rejuvenated United Nations, that will rapidly bridge the chasm between the developed Core and the failing Periphery. The nature of the threats we face in the 21st century--terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, disease, environmental degradation--means that should a particular region become a hotspot for destructive conflicts, this will inevitably have a negative effect on other countries and regions, including the more developed ones. Thus, it is vital to assess the possible ways that the world's political architecture may develop and to determine which scenario is the most acceptable (or the least catastrophic).

There are three principal approaches to envisioning the emerging global order. The first relies on customary categories of "centers of power" or "poles" within the international system. For some, there is only one effective pole--that of the United States. The unipolar approach calls for an international order that is administered, de facto, by the United States. In its more extreme formulation, it is a blueprint for the establishment of an American empire.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that it is based on dubious prerequisites, not to mention a degree of self-delusion. The United States is indeed the world's sole remaining superpower, but its relative might is much inferior to the American powerhouse of the late 1940s or early 1950s, to say nothing of the 1920s. On paper, U.S. military might is unprecedented, but its limits are more than apparent when Washington makes any attempt to establish stability in hostile regions. Despite its power, the United States on its own has been unable to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction or to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict--two of the world's most pressing challenges.

The opponents of American hegemony argue for a multipolar world, but this alternative to Washington's unipolar position is just as unrealistic and outdated, as the contemporary world cannot be reduced to a combination of mutually counter-balancing centers of force. Multipolarity cannot address the new problems facing the world, combating terrorism being a primary example of this inability. Indeed, multipolarity presupposes rivalry rather than cooperation in international relations.

This is why, for example, the Russian leadership has been avoiding the use of the term, preferring to describe its foreign policy as "multivectoral" and devoid of any definite political (especially anti-American) tint. This new approach reveals a pragmatic policy of constant maneuvering, which is inevitable in a fast-changing world where standing alliances and orientations are impossible and, moreover, undesirable. Yet, a "multivectoral" policy is not so much a concept for meeting the challenges of the new world order as it is a method for not having to make a choice.

The second approach relies on a paradigm of global governance--transferring national institutions to the international level. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is one such example. However, this grandiose vision has been losing popularity as the number of failed and failing states continues to increase, the role of the UN steadily diminishes, and proponents of the Washington Consensus fail to build a system of effective supranational governance for international economic processes. Moreover, the idea continues to face resistance as nations around the world remain loath to surrender any of their prerogatives to international institutions beyond their control.

The only real exception has been the development and enlargement of the European Union. Despite the irritation that the EU bureaucracy very often creates, not to mention its disproportionate level of influence and overall economic and social potential, the European Union has been the only successful "pilot project" for an eventual world government to date. Whether this model will be emulated in other parts of the world--in the Western Hemisphere, Eurasia or East Asia--remains to be seen.

The success of the European experiment, however, has resulted in another, more troubling development, one that resembles a truncated variation of world government, but that actually advocates fencing off the developed Core from the failed Periphery. Discouraged by considerations of political correctness, few have dared to formulate this concept publicly. Nevertheless, certain elements of this approach have been surfacing in the policies of the developed countries. Nations are beginning to withdraw their support from the impoverished and degraded regions of Africa while ignoring the dangers posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Even Europe, which remains the largest source of humanitarian aid, has been concentrating more and more on its own problems and the problems of the immediate Periphery countries, while reducing its international political activity. This attitude is even more manifest in the developed countries' policy of escapism in the Greater Middle East. Problems that have been accumulating there for decades are being ignored in much the same way that the bloody wars in Africa have been ignored.

The result is that core states only support those countries that have proven their ability to develop (leading to their eventual integration), and interfere in the affairs of the peripheral regions only when developments there threaten to bring about humanitarian catastrophes or severe global consequences. A policy based on such an approach looks tempting, but it can hardly be the basis for effective world governance. As follows from past experience, the less-developed countries are unable to extract themselves from economic stagnation under their own recognizance; thus, they produce problems that inevitably affect the global order--from terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to the destruction of local ecological systems and the emergence of large-scale epidemics.

The Global Concert of Nations

This leads us to the third option, what we have labeled "neo-imperialism." It takes the position that if a country is unable to function--say, to secure the basic rights of its citizens--other states have the right to impose "governance" via direct intervention. Examples of such actions include nato's military involvement in former Yugoslavia; Russia's actions in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transdniestria, a self-proclaimed republic in Moldova; and the use of force by some European countries in their former colonies in Africa. Global developments over the last few decades show that core countries will have to resort to this type of intervention more and more, despite its unattractiveness and the mixed attitudes concerning the final results of such a strategy. The problem has been that the implementation of this doctrine is impeded by the lack of a mechanism for its legitimization. Neo-imperialism has been undertaken sporadically and sometimes unilaterally, and this has contributed to rivalry and mutual suspicions among the major powers of the world.

The solution is in a collective approach. This concept, call it "collective neo-imperialism", presupposes a new concert of nations, aimed at achieving goals similar to the ones mentioned above but realized on a larger scale: that is, global leadership exercised by the world's leading powers that can counter the growing chaos on the international stage through direct actions and push their policies through using international organizations. This model seems to represent the most appropriate concept given the present conditions, but it is also the hardest to implement. What is attractive about this hypothetical coalition of powerful states is that it proposes a high level of cooperation among the leading countries in addressing the most difficult problems of the times. These states control a major part of the world's economy, are the major suppliers of high technologies, and would enjoy an overwhelming military superiority over any possible coalition of smaller countries. A strategy that is based on the collective action of the leading nations--and we have already seen glimpses of what this could accomplish in some of the meetings of the G-8 and the UN Security Council--would be an impressive breakthrough in international relations.

The first step toward collective neo-imperialism requires the developed countries of the Core to form a "more perfect union" that will enable them to work in concert to effectively influence the Periphery. At the present time, there is no well-defined nucleus around which such consolidation could begin. But the permanent members of the UN Security Council (the original five with perhaps some additional candidates) or the G-8 (possibly enlarged to include other rising powers such as China and India) could serve as the springboard for this new global concert.

Initially, these countries would have to conclude several agreements among themselves that would determine their common position on various issues, such as social problems and security issues. It would be important for this coalition to declare its resolve to combat the dangerous tendencies now apparent around the world. Furthermore, the members of this coalition would have to be willing to shoulder the burdens and costs of neo-imperialism--and it is not entirely clear whether a number of the world's developed states, particularly in Europe, are eager to begin such an undertaking.

The second and arguably most difficult step to accomplish would be a substantial overhaul of the current United Nations system, so that it could serve as an effective instrument to execute the policies laid down by the new global concert. This would include the creation of adequate security agencies and joint armed forces (that would act under UN aegis but would be controlled by representatives of the great powers). A revamped United Nations Charter would need to be a practical, realistic guide, not a set of idealistic principles. As such, it would be necessary to consider returning to some of the original drafts, which, significantly, did not provide for the national right to self-determination. There would need to be very clear criteria laid down for admission to the body (for example, being recognized as a sovereign state), as well as clear procedures for expelling a country from the United Nations or suspending its membership. This revised charter would clearly enunciate the principles by which the international order is to be organized. In the event of flagrant violations (for example, the patronage of terrorist organizations, mass violations of human rights, genocide, religious persecution or an obvious inability of governments to control the situation in their own countries), forceful measures could be initiated. These changes would make the system of international relations more defined and less prone to influence from failed and failing states. Furthermore, those countries not included in the coalition will have no doubts about the limits of their powers with regard to their native population, neighbors and international norms.

It is also time that we abandon the fiction that many of the failed and failing states of the world are truly sovereign and reinstitute the concept of "trust territories" and "mandates"--not the thinly disguised justifications for colonialism of the early 20th century, but as mechanisms for the developed countries of the Core to assist in the political, economic and technological modernization of these societies.

The creation of a stable and governable international system is the necessary precondition to solving the global problems now facing the world: preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and reducing the risk of their use; combating terrorism; creating favorable conditions for economic and social modernization (including democratization) in all parts of the globe; and expanding the zone of stability that is now limited to the core countries. The reform of global institutions must begin with the establishment of new international structures that can coordinate interaction between the core countries to achieve these goals. And here, it is vital to give preference to those that seek to lay the foundation of a really predictable world--if not governed, then governable; if not managed, then manageable.

If a global concert emerges, it will produce a world order far different from the one familiar to 20th-century policymakers. In its efforts to rehabilitate the failing Periphery and so eliminate threats to global peace and security, the global concert would, of necessity, have to establish enforceable norms of conduct on the international stage, limit the degree of governments' freedom with regard to their own citizens, and verify the observance of these norms and rules. The Westphalian system would become a thing of the past as human rights would take priority over the rights of states.

Whether this comes about depends on the abilities of the developed countries to coordinate their policies and subordinate their current goals to the task of building a predictable and safe world. We cannot say for sure how resolute the governments of these countries will be in choosing this path. But we do hope that clear, long-term vision will prevail over superficial and short-term interests.

Vladislav Inozemstev is chairman of the advisory board for the journal Russia in Global Affairs. Sergei Karaganov is chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and chairman of the editorial board of Russia in Global Affairs. This article draws on ideas that appeared (in Russian) in a recent issue of Russia in Global Affairs.

Essay Types: Essay