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The new cosmopolitanism

About the author
Frank Vibert is senior visiting fellow at LSE Global Governance. He is the founder director of the European Policy Forum, and was senior advisor at the World Bank and senior fellow at the United Nations University WIDER Institute, Helsinki. His latest book is Democracy and Dissent; The Challenge of International Rule Making (Edward Elgar, 2011). His previous books include Europe Simple, Europe Strong: The Future of European Governance (Polity, 2001), and The Rise of the Unelected: Democracy and the New Separation of Powers (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

We live in the transition between the end of one order and the beginning of another. It is a time when morbid symptoms of the past and crude but vigorous prefigurations of the future vie with each other.

In his five-part essay America versus Globalisation, Tom Nairn suggests that US policy towards Iraq is one expression of an attempt to militarise America’s post-1989 economic predominance. He finds some hope in the revivifying of the nation state. Frank Vibert also salutes the continuity of nations in our global age, but from an entirely different point of view.

In a subtle and commanding overview, Vibert offers a contrasting interpretation of American power and its use in Iraq. Far from being a regressive move that closes down the new world of pluralism and civic alliances, the intervention by the Anglo-Saxon countries and their coalition of the willing is pushing forward a far better agenda than that bequeathed by the cold war. The free market and democracy should not be cloistered in a single regime. But nor should they be seen as merely the equal of any other variant of government.

A new order – a new cosmopolitanism – is emerging amidst the confusion created by the dying institutions and systems bequeathed by the cold war order of 1945–1989. New coalitions of the willing and able have already stretched to near-breaking point the more formal structures of the United Nations, Nato and the European Union. We are not witnessing a particular emergency in each institution that will be resolved by a process of adaptation. The combination of crises points to a wider transformation in the entire political order of which each is a part.

The secular foundations of the new framework will challenge the medievalists who want a ‘Christian Europe’ or sharia-based political systems. Its commitment to democracy and the market will also challenge the old regimes based on inherited authority and state capitalism, whether in the Middle East or East Asia or Africa. And a new interventionism will challenge the hermit states such as Burma or North Korea.

But this is no ‘clash of civilisations’ – only the pain of the new. Nor is it a new order imposed by ‘the west’. Amidst the confusion and the loss of the old, the underlying message is one of rejuvenation. The historical examples are not ‘western’ but ‘eastern’. They are from Meiji Japan – to adapt to outside changes or to face internal collapse; from the cities of the Old Silk Road – to be open to science and trade or to fade away; and from the Hindu pantheon – to be inclusive, or to lose the path to people’s hearts.

The new cosmopolitanism depends heavily on the United States and like-minded countries. The unilateralism of the United States is a well-rehearsed danger to the new system. But so too is a failure to recognise that the old international system has lost both salience and legitimacy.

The new order

There are four key features of the new cosmopolitan order.

First, geographical location no longer matters politically. For Immanuel Kant writing at the end of the 18th century geographical proximity was all-important in international relations. This is no longer the case. What matters now are the policy terms in which states view the world beyond their own boundaries. Closeness in policy outlook is more important in determining friends or foes than closeness of borders.

Geographical alliances based on fear of neighbours are being replaced by coalitions based on a like-minded approach to global policy. Thus, it is possible for the immediate neighbours lying between Germany and Russia to support the United States over Iraq, even though Germany is opposed and Russia has broadly supported Germany and France.

Second, static and rigid forms of international relationships are being replaced by flexible and informal ones. Alliances are moving away from exclusive, treaty-based clubs with fixed membership rules, to flexible coalitions of the willing and able. The formalities of international law are being replaced by the informality of coordinated national laws.

The elaborate choreography of diplomacy between states is being supplemented by negotiations between private actors and by private diplomacy. The impact of official international organisations such as the Bretton Woods institutions on the global financial system is becoming less important than decisions taken by the private sector, for example in the International Accounting Standards Board.

Third, the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of other states is being abandoned. It is no longer sufficient to say that each state is ‘sovereign’ and has a ‘right’ to conduct its own internal affairs as it pleases. Instead there is growing acceptance of democracy and a market economy as the organising principles of a modern state.

This is accompanied by a belief that states which organise themselves in this way are less likely to disturb the international order. States not accepting these principles internally will increasingly, in one way or another, find themselves penalised in their external relationships. ‘Penalties’ in this context can run the gamut from exclusion in an international rule-keeping organisation, to sanctions, through to actual intervention to achieve regime change.

Fourth, the new order is ineluctably secular. The saddest and most damaging legacy of the 20th century is those surviving instances that linked nationalism with religion – whether in South Asia or the Middle East. As John Locke argued long ago, the political world is not equipped to discern religious truth.

The growth of states

All new orders will have their origins in past ones. Over the last 50 years or so the international settlement symbolised by the UN saw the number of states in the world almost quadruple from around 50 in the immediate post-war world to just short of 200 today. This is a surprising fact when every day we hear talk about globalisation and ‘the end of the nation state’.

Two factors seem largely responsible for this growth in the number of states: the ending of 19th century empires (whether British, Russian or French), which gave independence to a large number of formerly colonised territories; and the emergence of international rules and methods of rule-keeping.

The latter encouraged the growth in the number of states because when there are internationally observed rules, small states can flourish as well as large ones. Even a small state can fully participate, if it wants to, in international trade and capital flows and, if it is skilful, become prosperous.

At the same time international rules against aggression help prevent large states from acting as predators and swallowing up the small. Out of the almost 200 states in existence today, about half have populations of under five million, and only ten have a population of more than 100 million.

If this explanation for the increase in the number of states is correct then the number will grow still further. At least one ancient empire based on coercion remains in existence (the Chinese); in Africa, the dismantling of the old borders of empire is probably not yet fully resolved; other large states such as Indonesia and India have acute regional problems and are fighting local wars in their outer provinces.

Some commentators suggest that a plethora of weaker, smaller nations means that old empires are being replaced by new empires. According to this line of argument the new imperialists are the European Union and the United States. In fact, they too will have to confront the passing away of their traditional form of influence in hierarchical alliances.

The challenge is most clear with respect to the European Union. A constitutional convention is trying to reconfigure the old model originally devised for six member states and to apply it to twenty-five. Based on its work so far, the Convention is already misjudging the situation by looking for more centralised rather than more flexible solutions.

Once governments and public opinion in member states look at the outcome of the Convention they are likely to think again. Far from being a ‘new imperialist’, the European Union faces an uncertain future precisely because it is having difficulty in changing from an old architecture of exclusivity, formality and undemocratic internal structures to a new, more open architecture based on the recognition of allowable differences between democratic member states.

Nato too is likely to become a more flexible alliance.

United Nations

The most difficult questions concern the UN. Kant was possibly the first to argue in his famous essay Toward Perpetual Peace written in 1795, that international peace was more likely between free states than between authoritarian ones.

But he also argued in favour of a growing league of free nations rather than a world government that tried to impose an order upon them. Indeed, he wrote, “As regards the external relations of states, it cannot be demanded of a state that it gives up its constitution even though this is a despotic one.”

There is a case for an organisation that includes all countries in the world regardless of how objectionable and despotic they are. But that same organisation is unlikely to be a credible rule enforcer and will continue to weaken as a source of legitimacy for international actions.

Today, a post-Kantian order is emerging – a possibly prolonged period where rule development and rule enforcement is carried out by coalitions only semi-attached to, or semi-detached from, the UN system. The 1948 United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights remains as a symbol of a past period, a charter of universalist aspirations attached to a strictly non-universal collectivity of states.

Now a new order is emerging that goes beyond Kant’s league of free states precisely because it is willing to intervene against despotism. The new order is also cosmopolitan because it relies on a framework of international rules of behaviour and their enforcement.

But it is not universalist. It is not predicated on the existence of a global public opinion. As important, it is not about seeking or imposing substantive universal values such as telling all countries to respect family values and how to interpret them. It is cosmopolitan because it is about seeking and, if provoked, imposing, frameworks for political and economic decision-taking in the world and in states.

But beyond this it does not prescribe choices within those frameworks. Instead the leitmotif is mutual recognition and learning from ‘best practice’. Substantive policy goals are set not by reference to a universal ideal but through benchmarking what is actually happening and through peer review.

The framework of the new cosmopolitan order is not value-free. A commitment to rules of behaviour, to democracy and to markets is not ‘neutral’ in this sense. But the values are, above all else, values about procedures. They are about how to express preferences and principles, about how to allow for differences in interpretation of important values and about how to settle disputes or conflicting preferences and principles.

The challenges of the new era

The pains that are being experienced in this new situation are not just coming from old forms that have to adapt, the pains are also arising from the birth of the new. In particular, there are three sources of outstanding difficulty and challenge for the new order.

The first arises from the distance of people from the new coalitions of power. The ability of people to influence what is happening at the global level is indirect at best. Despite coordinated national demonstrations against war in Iraq, and the best efforts of the editor of openDemocracy in his article, true global public opinion is still in its infancy.

Non-governmental organisations claim to speak for ‘civil society’, but their claims lack supporting evidence. Thus, public opinion mainly operates indirectly through the governments of states – at a time when the traditional conventions of representative democracy are themselves showing their age and people generally want more direct methods of expressing their views.

The second area of difficulty arises from the asymmetrical forces of enforcement. If force is needed for the imposition of international rules there is only one nation in the world that can be regarded as a heavy hitter – the United States. Even coalitions mobilising around the United States find themselves in the role of auxiliaries – a useful but far from essential adjunct to the main actor.

The third challenge arises from the need for legitimating structures. In the last half of the 20th century it was the UN, despite its venality, bureaucracy and many imperfections, which provided legitimation for the growth of international rules and rule enforcement. Now, that source of legitimation is under severe strain and may not survive in its current form.

It is not the new cosmopolitan order that has actively sought to undermine the legitimating structures of the UN. The new order has arisen as a consequence of the weakness of the UN. Its weakness is partly historical – the frailty of the UN as a rule enforcer. But the UN has also failed in a different and equally damaging sense.

Following Kant’s strictures it has sought to remain neutral as between authoritarian regimes and democracies – and between non-market economies and market economies. This kind of neutrality has involved a rejection of both substantive and procedural values. The UN anchored its legitimacy entirely on a world of states only to find that a new cosmopolitanism anchored around procedural values has been taking root. As a result the neutrality of the UN has served to undermine its own legitimating authority – its standing and role.

Reconfiguring or reconstruction?

The period of reconfiguration or reconstruction is now overshadowed by the imminence of war with Iraq and, possibly, North Korea. Both situations would be much easier to deal with if the new cosmopolitanism had been longer in place and the period of reconfiguration of international and regional structures already accomplished.

The lesson is that, even if conflict is avoided, the work to fortify the new cosmopolitanism must be vastly accelerated. Those who demonstrate against the new cosmopolitanism must ask themselves whether the world should be indifferent to the political and market frameworks in which people are enabled to make their lifetime choices.

Those who insist on endless UN resolutions must also ask themselves whether final legitimation can rest with an organisation that is neutral between democracy and authoritarianism. The new cosmopolitanism involves taking a principled stand in favour of systems of government that have a bias towards peaceful relations and a readiness to intervene if necessary against those that are a perpetual threat. These principles provide their own legitimacy.

The new cosmopolitanism is more than a league of free states and less than a universalist world order. For the old order, the challenges to the new cosmopolitanism are threefold: it relies on indirect communication with public opinion; its powers of rule enforcement are unevenly distributed thanks to US predominance; and the erosion of existing international legitimating structures is likely to carry over on to any new international system.

Can such challenges be met by relatively modest reconfiguration of structures already in place? Or is a drastic reconstruction necessary and desirable?


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