Interregnum: Searching for a purpose

What we do, it seems to me, is largely a function of who we are. But two past decades perhaps reflect an inversion of this – that amidst uncertainty and trying to grasp who ‘we’ are, diplomats and statesmen forge ahead with actions that are trying to help establish and define a certain identity.

The growth of  international institutions, megaconferences and blue-ribbon commissions in these past two decades have sought to try and chart a path towards solutions to pressing problems – desertification, refugees, infectious disease, the trade in small arms and so forth. But perhaps their proliferation also reflects something deeper: a search for some kind of statement about what the world is for.

The institutions that litter international affairs have all faced their moments of trying to decide what their new vision, new purpose and reinvention is. European enlargement and expansion into eastern Europe forces it to confront ever more vividly the question of Turkish membership and what ‘Europe’ is; the reinvention of the Organization for African Unity into the African Union was supposed to be, in part, a new statement about the responsibility of African countries to each other in the age of a democratic ideal. The 1992 Earth Summit stood at the cusp of a new marriage between the environment and development; the 2005 World Summit sought to revitalize the United Nations and its place at the heart of international collective action.

But it seems to me to be a lot of somewhat tentative, deciding while you’re doing. I take my lead here from a conversation with a friend in Oxford (who might still want to make this his doctoral thesis, so due credit to him), in the basic idea that all this institution-building and conference-convening is a search for some sense of identity and purpose, rather than being the outgrowth of that image of what ‘we’ are and consequently, what we are ‘about’. His way into thinking about this is in looking at the alphabet soup of international organizations in Southeast Asia, each with a slightly different membership and a slightly different mandate – ASEAN, ASEAN+3, the ASEAN Regional Forum, APEC, the East Asian Summit, and the ASEAN Free Trade Area. Rather than these being an indicator of an existing community, and serving a functional need, instead, they indicate an aspiration to form and create a community. In doing so, questions about the fluidity of this community are raised and where the lines are drawn – is the United States part of this, with its continuing military presence in Northeast Asia? Is China, as the prospective regional hegemon?

I suppose this is the central conundrum about this twenty-year interregnum: that there isn’t some broad, overarching framework (i.e. the Cold War) that smoothens out some of these questions. In a way, all the talk about global ‘governance’ is, at a basic level, about trying to map out just how governments, corporations, and societies interact in managing global order at a basic level and trying to provide public goods. But thus far absent (or one that doesn’t yet seem apparent) is the sense of purpose involved in this game of governance.

A More Secure World, the 2004 report of one of the highest-profile of these blue-ribbon commissions, assembled at the instigation of then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, puts this purpose as forging a consensus about our shared responsibility to each other for a more peaceful, prosperous and proactive world. The Cold War lifted our blinkers about many of the threats and challenges that imperil a more secure world. But it’s still a world in which sovereignty still rules and doctrines about human rights or global justice have their fits and starts. The most powerful states are not immune from natural disasters or acts of terrorism, but they are neither described as fragile ones. We have an intensely messy picture, filled with filled with shades of grey. Is this state of affairs an equilibrium? Answers on the back of a postcard.

This is the fourth 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, the second post on global solidarity here, and the third on American power here. This was initially intended as a four-part collection of thoughts (which has taken longer than planned, apologies), but might become an occasional feature as things come to mind!

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