September 26, 2020

Where do we go from here? – revisiting words of Steve Clemons

By Anna Kassai.

On 1 July 2020, the first real-time conference in Europe past the early-spring lockdown took place at the Diplomatic Academy Vienna. This highly anticipated event, entitled From the Victory Day to Corona Disarray 75 years of Europe’s Collective Security and Human Rights System Legacy of antifascism for the common pan-European future, was organized by the International Institute for the Middle East and Balkan Studies, Media Platform Modern Diplomacy, Scientific Journal European Perspectives, and Action Platform Culture for Peace. (the entire conference proceedings are available: https://www.facebook.com/DiplomaticAcademyVienna )

After the end of World War II, the United Nations was founded in 1945 to maintain international peace and security, build relationships among nations, promote social progress, better living standards, and human rights. The Nurnberg and Tokyo trials (1945-1948) prosecuted war crimes and contributed to the development of international criminal law as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). These laid down the foundation for the liberal international system that is based on the shared interest in maintaining rule of law, the cooperation to resolve security issues, and to maintain an open, stable system, in which institutions reinforce cooperation and collective problem-solving. 

The first panel reflected on the legacy of World War II, collective security, Human Rights, and the importance of mutual trust within alliances. Discussions emphasized the testing times that we are living in, which unwittingly remind us of the set of challenges that the international system must overcome. Challenges that will commend other solutions, while testing the integrity of the current international system. During the first panel, discussions touched upon a crucial and complex issue, which came under the spotlight due to the severe worldwide effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of international institutions as well as the transatlantic relations. 

As the health crisis started to unfold rapidly, an unprecedented macroeconomic shock was triggered. To slow the spread of the virus, national governments-imposed sanctions, lockdowns, curfews, closed educational institutions, and non-essential businesses. National borders were shut down in a matter of hours, governments started to look for unilateral solutions to solve their lack of medical and food supply, and suddenly it seemed like the globalized world and the relevance of the international organizations are fading away, as the interest to act in concert would not exist anymore. 

National crisis management aimed at containing the spread of the virus and minimize the economic damages, at the same time sent an immediate warning that the collective problem-solving mechanisms are not functioning properly. It also demonstrated how interdependent the economic, social systems are and this magnitude of crisis cannot be dealt with unilaterally within national borders. As Mr. Steve Clemons, Editor-at-large, HILL pointed out in his intervention, the course that a nation should take is more in question than it has ever been before. ‘When you look at the Transatlantic experiment, it looked like it succeeded enormously until it stopped succeeding and working.’ 

As the C-19 crisis demonstrates, the scale of transnational threats cannot be dealt with on a national level. Combatting interstate terrorism, cybercrimes, climate change, the slow pace of clean energy transition, migration, global pandemics require transnational solutions. Meanwhile, countries are putting more emphasis on strengthening their positions as a nation in the international discourse and seeking a different role by redefining themselves and embracing other core values and institutions. 

Attempts to look for alternatives and transform the existing institutional structure put in place after World War II have surged in the last decade, especially after 9/11, the financial crisis in 2008, but with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world arrived at another tipping point. As Mr. Clemons phrased it: ‘A point of diminishing return that these institutions need to be rethought, reconsidered, and recalibrated, that the power players that now guide much of the world need to be reassorted. There is no doubt that countries like Brazil, India, etc. are not included in those power centers, and yet they have enormous stakes in the way global affairs occur.’

A global power transition has been taking place for years, the question is how the shift from unipolarity will accommodate rising powers, who will be able to take the lead and fill the power vacuum that the United States leaves behind. As opposed to the rules of the liberal value-based world order, a new set of rules is being written by rising powers. Some of the political leaders turned back to ideologies like nationalism and populism, as a potential alternative to liberalism. Conflicts in recent years reinforced this tendency, like disputes between Hong Kong and mainland China, the Ukraine crisis, and Turkey`s autocratic behavior. In addition to this, the United Kingdom left the European Union and Hungary changed its raison d’état by redefining itself as an illiberal democracy. 

Even the United States is less committed to the post-war world order. Demonstrating that by leaving institutions that it helped to build, such as the World Health Organization, the Paris Climate Accord, questioning the legitimacy of NATO and certain UN institutions. Mr. Clemons stated that the United States has become a serious competitor with its allies to a certain degree and the notion of shared interest has diminished. He emphasized the different stand that the United States took in the C-19 event as oppose to its position in World War II: ‘The United States has chosen not to be the kind of leader that it has been in the past. It did not step forward in the C-19 crisis to help become a broker of strength and benefits and help support nations around the world. We may have done something here and there, but nothing on the scale.’

The set of challenges put the resistance of decade long alliances to a test. At the same time, they create the opportunity to find comprehensive solutions and more efficient problem-solving mechanisms for the future, by revitalizing and reforming institutions that are the cornerstones of long-standing regional orders, cooperation, and collective problem-solving. To stand resilient against global challenges like C-19, the transatlantic relationship must come back to its core values and redefine itself. Therefore, as a first step, it must be acknowledged what led to this harsh world without much leadership. 

The strength lies within like-minded alliances and sharing the same core values as well as in the ability to come together despite the differences and finding a common ground again. That is what happened 75 years ago, after the end of World War II, when the United Nations was founded. Let us remember that. 

Vienna, 12 July 2020 

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