The United Nations is an intergovernmental organization with universal representation. Its missions include maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and achieving international cooperation. Since its founding, the UN has been a part of the postwar international order and also a principal instrument for maintaining that order. It has played a useful role in fulfilling its responsibilities.
Over the years, the UN’s effectiveness has been hampered by a number of problems: the Cold War, the reluctance of member states (especially major powers) to delegate power to it, the inability of the UN Security Council to reform itself to adapt to changes in international power distribution and, most recently, divisions between the permanent members of the UN Security Council, especially China and the United States.
As one of the founders of the UN, China has been a strong supporter of the UN since the restoration of its legitimate membership in 1971. It has repeatedly called for respect for UN authority. It has been paying a large membership fee to the UN, second only to the United States It has been the second-largest financial contributor to UN peacekeeping operations. And it has dispatched more peacekeeping troops than any other permanent member of the UN Security Council.
The current world order consists of the UN, other international organizations and international laws and norms. Much of it has been shaped through extensive consultations between member states, and the U.S. has played a leading role in the process.
Ever since the current world order took shape, there have been two interpretations as to what the UN means to the international community. One interpretation is advocated by the West: It prioritizes ideological values such as individual liberty, human rights and democracy. The other interpretation is favored by most other countries. This view prioritizes secular values such as territorial integrity, sovereignty, economic development and collective security. It is important to note that both sets of values can be found in the UN Charter and in international law.
During the Cold War, the world was split into two camps: the communist or socialist camp and the capitalist camp led by the West, which called its camp the “free world.” One consequence of the adoption of the policy of openness and reforms in China and the collapse of the Soviet Union was the emergence of a new unified world order.
At the height of its power after the Cold War, the West sought to impose its interpretation of the world order on the international community. For a time, it argued that the international order was out of date and it was time to move on. Accordingly, it came up with the slogan that human rights come before sovereign rights. This provided the rationale for NATO’s armed intervention in the Kosovo crisis.
During the Trump administration, the U.S. pursued a policy of “America first” and launched a series of assaults on the world order by challenging many existing international arrangements. It withdrew from quite a few international organizations and agreements. including the United Nations Human Rights Council, UNESCO and the TPP. It tried to undermine the work of the WTO and the WHO. It launched trade wars against other countries, especially China. It even attacked its allies for taking advantage of the U.S.. As a result, the appeal of the liberal international order drastically declined. Vicious China-U.S. interactions accelerated the process.
Since coming to the White House, the Biden administration has tried to reverse Trump’s policy. It has taken measures to recommit itself to the defense of the existing international order. However, for various reasons it has continued Trump’s policy on China, and the China-U.S. rivalry has grown more intense.
One consequence is that the rivalry threatens to undermine not only the liberal international order but also the secular international order, which is based upon such values as national sovereignty, territorial integrity, development, international commerce and collective security. In the absence of China-U.S. cooperation, some countries see opportunities to challenge the secular world order.
Russia’s efforts to address its grievance over Ukraine has dealt a further blow to the secular international order in at least two ways. First, it aimed to split a piece of territory from a country by instigating a plebiscite, as in Crimea. Second, it reenforced a practice of using force to address grievances with another country, as in its war against Ukraine. Russia of course is not alone on the latter practice. The U.S. did this against Iraq during the second Gulf War, and Israel has done it repeatedly against its neighbors.
Why should we care about maintaining the secular international order? Despite all its flaws, the current world order is still the best that humankind has ever created. Through established institutions, states champion universally accepted values and principles such as sovereignty, non-aggression, non-intervention in another country’s internal affairs, human rights, rule of law, free trade and the principle of both common and differentiated responsibilities. In general, states observe international laws and norms.
The international order has offered platforms for states to air their frustrations with world affairs, including international arrangements and practices. It has also provided opportunities to states to discuss ways and means to address pressing global issues.
In part because of all this, another world war has been avoided and unprecedented prosperity has been achieved. This explains the fact that few countries have completely rejected the world order, regardless of whatever grudges they may have against it.
Most countries in the world thus have a stake in the existing order. Wealthy countries can expect their wealth to be protected, and poor countries can expect aid when they are in dire straits. Both strong and weak countries can expect international laws and norms to protect their interests, one way or another. The problems most countries have with the existing world order are more about perceived injustices in the distribution of benefits rather than absolute losses. These countries may be unhappy with a particular piece of an existing international arrangement, but they have no intention of overthrowing the world order as a whole in favor of the 19th century arrangement of might makes right.
Therefore, despite the U.S. withdrawal from some international institutions, most countries have chosen to remain, whether that means staying in institutions like UNESCO and the Universal Postal Union or observing the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement. Even rising powers such as China and India — which feel that the world order has not given their voices and interests adequate attention and respect — only call for reforms rather than the wholesale replacement of the existing world order.
What about the future of the world order? To begin with, the decline of the West has made it increasingly difficult for the West to impose its liberal interpretation of the world order. The share of the world’s gross domestic product generated by Group of Seven (G7) countries — the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom — dropped from 68 percent in 1992 to 30.15 percent in 2018 and is projected to go down to 27.26 percent in 2023. Although the decline in military capabilities is less drastic, NATO defense spending had also shrunk from two-thirds of the global total to little more than half in 2017.
In the second place, the values of the future world order are likely to become more inclusive and redefined. More inclusive means that values such as peace, development, national sovereignty and mutual benefits — which have been in the UN Charter — are likely to receive more attention. Redefining refers to a more comprehensive and nuanced interpretation that is likely to be adopted when talking about such values as a free market, human rights and democracy. As China and India rise, their views on how to define these values are likely to carry more weight.
In the third place, decision-making in the future world order is more likely to involve the non-Western countries such as BRICS and reflect their views and interests.
Finally, whether the secular international order is sustainable depends on whether the major powers —especially China and the U.S. — can find a way to contain the spillover of their differences and work together to address the challenges to the world order. This requires the major powers to stand up to domestic political pressures from their respective countries and exercise foresight, courage and wisdom in doing the right thing.
In short, the future world order is likely to see both continuity and change. Like it or not, despite its flaws, the existing international order is better than any alternative. It is time for world leaders to wake up to this fact and work together to defend and improve it.
The author is a professor at Peking University and director of the Institute for Global Cooperation and Understanding. The foregoing is a speech he delivered at the Sixth World Peace Conference. It has been lightly edited for clarity.