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06 September 2023

Is it time to rethink the international order?

Oliver Letwin

Ad hoc collaborations between governments should work to solve specific problems


The last time that world affairs were dominated by strategic rivalry between a dominant incumbent power and a challenger-power (with a fast-rising third player in the wings), we had World War I.

The last time that populist strong men were taking over in country after country, we had World War II.

For anyone living in the first half of the 21st century, these parallels from the first half of the 20th century are distinctly uncomfortable.

But it is not just the historical parallels that provide grounds for discomfort. An additional cause for concern is that the “international rules-based order” introduced after World War II – which survived the Cold War of the later 20th century, and which was meant to make a repetition of global hot war impossible – has, by common consent, come perilously close to breaking down. Its rules are increasingly disregarded by the great powers who are meant to uphold them; and its institutions seem increasingly incapable of delivering answers to many of the great issues of the age.

How should we respond to this alarming state of affairs?

Should we abandon the current structure of global institutions, and seek to build something entirely new?

Or should we attempt gradual reform of the “international order” to make it more capable of dealing with the realities of 21st century geo-politics and geo-economics.

No doubt, a case can be made either for such wholesale reconstruction or for such gradual reform. But there is good reason for scepticism about the efficacy of gradual reform – not least because it has been tried repeatedly in recent years without producing any very obvious advances. And there is also good reason for scepticism about the possibility of wholesale reconstruction – because the great powers (without whom it cannot occur) have shown no willingness to arrive at any consensus on what a new international system should look like.

So the question arises: are we stuck? Is there nothing we can do to forge more productive relationships between strategic rivals in order to diminish the likelihood of cold or hot war? Is there no way to begin to address more effectively the great challenges of the age that can be tackled only through cooperative relationships – the governance of AI and big data, the handling of climate change and the preservation of the ecosystem, the achievement of security in digital networks, energy, food and water?

Perhaps the sad truth is that we are stuck. Perhaps, in the absence either of effective gradual reform or of wholesale reconstruction of the international system, we are condemned to witnessing continued, unmediated strategic rivalry which (at best) fails to address the great issues or (at worst) descends through global cold war into global hot war.

But before we reach this pessimistic conclusion, we surely have a duty to try to imagine a way out.

My pamphlet, Special Purpose International Collaboration, is an attempt to fulfil this duty. In it, I propose that, rather than attempting substantial reform or replacement of the existing international rules and institutions, governments across the world should instead concentrate on forming ad hoc collaborations aimed at solving specific problems.

The first advantage of such special purpose collaborations is substantive. They stand some chance of being genuinely effective, rather than becoming mired in diplomatic dispute, because they do not require the collaborating governments to reach agreement on issues other than the specific issue which the collaboration is designed to address. The collaborating parties can put to one side wider rivalries, ignore fundamental ethical differences, and focus solely on meeting a particular common challenge – because participation in a particular special purpose international collaboration does not imply either any concessions to, or any abandonment of wider or deeper differences. It implies only a willingness to work together for the time being to address this particular common challenge.

The second advantage of these special purpose collaborations is procedural. They stand some chance of becoming habit-forming. If rival states work together to pursue some common purpose, however specific or mundane, they inevitably learn things about one another, come to understand more about one another’s motives, and hence become more capable of engaging in further cooperative action in the future. Their diplomats acquire the habit of working together constructively, and hence acquire the habit of constructive diplomacy. Their governments come to see one another not only as rivals and potential enemies but also as potential partners. The formation of these changed habits of mind may well prove to be at least as important as the substantive results emerging from collaboration.

Could it work? Could the conscious adoption of a strategy of special purpose collaboration bring both substantive gains and improved habits of mind? Who knows? But there is little to lose by trying – especially when the alternative currently on offer is to watch the world slide almost inevitably into new disasters and quite possibly into the repetition of old horrors.

Sir Oliver Letwin is a Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute, King’s College London, and chair of the Project for Peaceful Competition.

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