Order, orders, ordering

By Stephanie Hofmann
Professor, International Relations/Political Science
Co-Director, Executive Master in International Negotiation and Policymaking
Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies

Is there a global order today that organizes interactions among security, economic, cultural, and legal actors? Is this order transitioning with China’s proactive policies on the regional and global levels? Where is “Europe” in all of this?

These were some of the questions we were tackling during a two day workshop/conference at Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania. The mix of policy shapers and makers, think tankers and academics from the U.S., China, Latin America, and Europe made for a provocative, informative and diverse discussion (the first day was behind closed doors under “Perry House Rules” while the speakers of the second day conference can be found here.)

The discussions showed that depending on (i) whether you look at the world from the perspective of the U.S., Europe, China of Latin America, and (ii) what ideological camp you belong to matters in the assessment of whether: (a) multilateralism for multilateralism’s sake is desirable, (b) we see one or several orders, (c) whether the degree of fragmentation actually challenges contemporary U.S. hegemony or not, and (d) how long-lasting and transformative these challenges might be.

…[China] increasingly sits uneasy with U.S. founded institutions and plays “by the rules” selectively.

In particular China’s role in today’s world received much attention. While the question of why the U.S. discussions revolve so much more around China than in Europe remained unresolved, participants observed that China spends much more on internal than on external security at this stage. When looking into China’s foreign and security policy, many agreed that while China might not have formulated a political alternative to the post-1945 U.S.-led liberal conception of order yet, it increasingly sits uneasy with U.S. founded institutions and plays “by the rules” selectively. China might have benefited from these institutions to a certain degree – but they were mostly beneficial to Western states.

But not only China asks for reforms and changes to international rules and organizations while creating its own institutional alternatives; so does the current U.S. administration. In particular the current U.S. administration not only wants to reform and change its multilateral “deals” such as NAFTA or NATO but also pursues a more inward looking, “America first” policy. In other words, liberal ordering principles, to the extent that they exist, are being challenged both from within and without.

These different dynamics portray a world in flux where allegiances and loyalties are shifting and national and international actors have to reorient themselves in the pursuit of national and international goals. Order is by and for certain countries and structural power transitions as well as inward looking governments encourage and dismay today’s regional and global actors in reformulating their preferences and visions of order.

“When America sneezes, Europe catches a cold.”

Former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt

When, at the end of the two days, Joe Biden said what unites Americans is an American idea of the U.S. constitution and that we should look beyond America first, one almost felt as if today’s uncertainties will only be temporary, that everything will be “alright” again – eventually. As a firm believer in the transatlantic relationship, Biden recounted a story of his encounter as senator with then German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, where Schmidt told him, “When America sneezes, Europe catches a cold.” While the transatlantic bond might endure a cold or even a persistent flu, this quote also served as a reminder that the transatlantic relationship is asymmetrical. Given today’s uncertainties, for Europe this might be the opportunity to not only talk about strategic autonomy  but also to act accordingly.

Either way, the U.S. government – if still considered the most powerful global actor – is only one actor among many. And other actors might come to see the rhetoric and policies of the current U.S. administration as an opportunity to push harder for alternative ordering visions of the world. Institutional alternatives already exist such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative. Today they sit uneasy with institutions such as the IMF or the World Bank. Come tomorrow they might challenge them more openly as ordering devices in international relations.

Stephanie Hofmann is principal investigator for the Swiss National Studies Foundation supported research project To Save and Defend: Global Normative Ambiguity and Regional Order and consortium member of the VolkswagenStiftung supported research project Fighting together, moving apart? European common defense and shared security in an age of Brexit and Trump.

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