The walls came tumbling down, giant corporations seemed to be marching across the world, and the internet was about to take off. ‘Interdependence’ was giving way to ‘globalization’, ‘human security’ sought to displace ‘security’, and the UN was poised to finally fulfill the vision set out by the statesmen who drafted the Charter. We spoke of governance without government. Twenty years on from the turn of the 1990s, what has become of this promise of a new world order?
It looked, despite setbacks and disappointments, that we were living in a world that was becoming more cosmopolitan. Our obligations to other humans seemed to reach beyond national boundaries, we started to actually be able to do something about the fact that we share one planet, and the realization was dawning that farmers in Africa really weren’t so far away from consumers in Europe. Two particular developments that promised a genuine transformation of our global ethics stay in my mind.
The first was the evolving notion of humanitarian intervention. We saw the world’s hyperpower send troops into a distant country in which it had no vital interest, even if its body bag threshold proved to be low. We saw the testing of our shared perception of legitimacy, as a coalition sought to force the end to ethnic cleansing. We saw, in other words, the articulation of a doctrine that qualified the idea of absolute state sovereignty in terms of the obligations of state authorities, especially for the protection of human rights, neatly summed up as the Responsibility to Protect.Were we finally committing to ‘saving strangers’?
The second was the commitment to end unnecessary human suffering and finally bring North and South together. The idea of human development recognised that economic growth itself did not translate into a better quality of life. The Millennium Development Goals promised to finally fulfil the pledges of old of the rich to assist the poor, and the Doha Development Round of trade negotiations, coming as it did after 9/11, espoused a determination to share the gains from global trade with the previously marginalized.
And now, 2010. Stalemate in climate change and trade negotiations, the nascent norm of intervention deeply sullied by occupation under false pretences, and the idea of sovereignty as vigorously defended now as it was two decades ago. Was it all just a fleeting moment? Or does the noise of global recession simply mask the very real change that indeed lies beneath?
We won’t have neatly fulfilled all the promises of global peace and prosperity, but neither has the ethical clock been reset to 1990. Like most things, an answer is somewhat in between. Pushback and delay has certainly occured, some seeking financial gains and prestige boosts without enhanced commitments. Sovereignty wasn’t nearly as malleable as optimists might have hoped for. The quasi-imperial exercise of power has generated a normative backlash and suspiciousness of great change.
And yet (with apologies for slipping in a bit of academic jargon), I think there’s good reason to think that “actors who enter into a social interaction rarely emerge the same”*. The language of our discussion of world affairs reflects what seems to be the inescapable reality that the terms of discussion have shifted. Darfur may seem to be a case of being caught in old-fashioned great power politics, but that ‘acts of genocide’ continue to be at the centre of that debate is surely remarkable. The MDGs are unlikely to be met, on the current rate of progress, but I think that government agencies and international financial institutions are firmly embedded into a discourse of concern for the global poor (you can dispute whether the implications of such discourse are the right ones, but that’s a distinct different point). If anything, what the backlash at the invasion of Iraq points to is an enduring aspiration for overcoming the global democratic deficit in the reach of international law and decisionmaking at the global level.
So the straightforward, if generic, conclusion is perhaps that a potentially cosmopolitan world comes in incremental fits and starts, and a nonlinear process is par for the course. As we seek to identify nascent changes in the behaviour of states and corporations, we’ll be confronted by resistance and pushback that muddy the waters. But I daresay there’s an inexorable shift happening. Two final points of optimism in this regard: ‘genocide’ classed as a matter of national security, and a levy on banks (whether a Tobin tax or otherwise) to help globalization ‘give back’. Maybe there’s hope for what lies beyond the interregnum.
This is the second part of a series of posts trying to highlight themes of the past two decades, for which I’ve adopted the broad description of ‘interregnum’. See the first post explaining this choice here.
*Alastair Iain Johnston, 2008, Social States, Princeton: Princeton University Press.