Saving the liberal world order: what middle powers might be able to do …

I said, yesterday, that Canada should be doing what it can, hopefully even playing a leading role in restraining Cold War 2.0, which is both unnecessary and, in my opinion, ill-conceived.

qHlQEL7q_400x400Professor Roland Paris, of the University of Ottawa, a political scientist and former foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has written a thoughtful article for  Chatham House (the Royal Institute for International Affairs). (His full paper is available at the link; it’s worth a thorough read.) His main points are:

  • With major powers such as China, Russia, and now also the US, chipping away at the foundations of the liberal international order, it falls to middle powers to sustain and reform some of its key elements. While middle powers may not single-handedly be able to prevent the disintegration of the liberal international order, they can at least slow its erosion;
  • To achieve this, middle powers need to define their priorities, assemble issue-specific coalitions with clear goals, and coordinate their efforts effectively. Existing ‘plurilateral’ initiatives offer a model for issue-specific coalitions. Some may consist solely of states, while others might also include non-governmental actors such as corporations, private foundations and advocacy networks;
  • Middle powers could prioritize modernizing the international migration regime; establishing new rules for international cybersecurity; or upholding norms against state assassinations, kidnappings and ‘hostage diplomacy’. They can also play a vital role in helping to salvage the multilateral trade system and combat climate change;
  • This coordinated effort would not require the creation of a new international institution or formal body. Regular, informal consultations among a core group of countries would enable them to clarify shared priorities and hold each other accountable for previous commitments; and
  • It is more urgent than ever that middle powers turn their expressions of concern into concerted action on a scale that matches the seriousness of the current crisis facing the liberal international order.

There is one further point, made in the main paper that bears repeating:  “The campaign should not  … [I would have said must not] … become a vehicle for anti-Americanism or ‘soft balancing’ against the US – The Trump administration opposes some multilateral institutions but supports others. Even when the White House demurs, powerful actors in the US political system and in its civil society can be important allies. Over the long term, sustaining and adapting the rules-based system will require renewed leadership from the US, not least because it remains the world’s foremost economic and military power. A middle-powers campaign that indulges anti-Americanism would work against this goal. Indeed, it would be a non-starter for countries such as Canada and Japan, which prioritize good relations with the US.” See, also, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s sage comments which I posted a few days ago in which he said that a new Cold War would have to be vastly different because many of America’s friends in Asia, including Australia, Japan, the Philippines and South Korea, count China as their largest trading partner. he might have said, that the campaign must not become a vehicle for “soft balancing” against either America or China.

I agree, broadly and generally, with all six points. They all aim to restrain the new Cold War 2.0 which President Trump seems so keen to wage against China and which I believe is unlikely to achieve any of his aims, at least in so far as I can understand them.

brandThe key action, it seems to me, is to protect the World Trade Organization (WTO) from attacks from both America and China. The world, America and China especially, has profited immensely from the rules that the GATT and the WTO have put in place since 1947. But now President Donald Trump thinks it is disadvantaging America, while China claims that the WTO is upholding American and European advantages against developing countries. Of course, the WTO needs reform,  all international organizations are in need of nearly continuous reformation, but it needs reforms that promote global free(er) trade rather than the selfish interests of the great powers. China is no longer a developing country and America and Europe are not treated unfairly.

The global migration crisis is also a HUGE issue. I suspect that Professor Paris and I might im-31982disagree on the best solutions (the plural matters). He may think that the UN’s Global Compact for Migration is part of the solution; I do not. I have read that it is either a) a harmless collection of “do good” aspirations that have no teeth or b) a new “law” that will require signatories to amend their own laws. If either is true then Canada should not sign for reasons I have explained before. The better solution is to take concerted action to change the circumstances that force people to flee in fear of their lives ~ those are legitimate refugees ~ or, more often, now, because they have no hope for a better life in their own countries.

There are, as Professor Paris says, a whole host of issues around which small and medium powers might find common cause. In some cases, working together and established bonds of trust is likely, more important than actually solving any of those problems. There is, I believe, a pressing need to re-establish the tradition of small and medium powers working together, outside of the United Nations, to address matters of concern. Thus a group hoping to address the migration crisis should include states, like Canada, Denmark, Japan and New Zealand, that support the UN’s Global Compact for Migration and those, like Australia, the Czech Republic, Israel, Poland and Switzerland, that oppose it and, perhaps, from some of the “source” countries ~ except for the fact those “source” countries, like Afghanistan, Mali and Syria, are likely unable to be of much help in any serious deliberations.

Professor Paris says, and I agree, fully, that “This coordinated effort would not require the creation of a new international institution or formal body.” He adds that “Regular, informal consultations among a core group of countries would enable them to clarify shared priorities and hold each other accountable for previous commitments,” and while I agree with both “regular” and “informalI suspect that the idea that there needs to be “a core group of countries” defeats the first, very good idea of not creating a new organization. I have no idea about how he imagines that an informal (ad hoc) group might “hold each other accountable for previous commitments.” That notion of (somehow) holding others accountable would lead, I fear, towards “The campaign  … [becoming] …  a vehicle for anti-Americanism or ‘soft balancing’ against the US” and/or China which is exactly what both professor Paris and I would like to guard against.

I think Roland Paris’ good idea needs to be less organized and more ad hoc. It would require periodic discussions amongst leaders, including, but certainly not limited to people* like …


… some of whom would want to join a group dealing with a specific issue, others of whom would not. It will require skilled and active diplomacy to keep lines of communication open and to engage leaders when the time is ripe.

Would Canada be a likely member of such a group? Of course, as would e.g. Australia and Jordan and South Korea and several others. Canada still matters, even though Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has fallen off Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world for 2019, despite having been a bit of a regular on that (somewhat dubious) list in previous years.

I believe that Professor Paris has the germ of a really very good idea. The small and medium powers, including the illiberal ones,  might be able to help save the liberal world order and also help to restrain the main belligerents in Cold War 2.0. It will require a lot of good diplomacy and a lot of individual leadership … something that I hope Canada will have again after the October election.


* Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands (a fairly well-known conservative), Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand (an equally well-known progressive), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, Shinzō Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway and Antti  Rinne, Prime Minister of Finland … just as examples.

By Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.


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