Opinion

Four ways the West can rebuild a crumbling international order

As NATO gets a strategic overhaul, Western allies must rebuild an international order that protects and promotes prosperity and security in the 21st century.

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After eight months of reflection, the senior Group of Experts appointed by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and led by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, issues its report today.

On this basis, the secretary general will prepare a new Strategic Concept for Allies to approve at a summit in Lisbon this November. But if this in-depth NATO process has revealed anything, it is that the challenges our societies must tackle today are far greater than what NATO itself can handle.

The Albright-led group has done excellent work on a new NATO concept. But we need more than that: We need to rebuild an international order that protects and promotes democratic values in the 21st century world, updating the order that emerged after World War II.

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NATO was founded in 1949 as part of a broad slate of institutions designed to bring order to the post-war world. The leaders of Europe and America exhibited extraordinary vision, creating the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Universal Declaration on Human Rights, International Court of Justice, European Coal and Steel Community (which grew into the European Union), and more. NATO was the security arm of a larger international order that protected and expanded the space for democratic values and security in the post-war world.

But in 2010, that world is largely gone – replaced by a more geographically, politically, and economically diverse world. And the international order that nurtured it is now fragmenting. This calls for a new approach to all of our assumptions and institutions, not just NATO.

What are our challenges?

21st-century challenges

First, globalization has brought the world into one space. What happens in a poor country in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East now can have a direct global impact in ways that were impossible a decade ago. We face more challenges from failed or failing states and extremists groups than from traditional powers.

Second, new powers are emerging well outside the transatlantic family.

First it was Japan and the Asian tiger economies, but now it is also China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and others. Though many are democracies, China – the biggest new economic power – is not.

Even among democracies, many have divergent national and regional interests in dealing with an international order that was created by others. Globalization with rising powers should not become a reversion to 19th century mercantilism and balance of power politics.

Third, market capitalism is again facing ideological challenges. The financial crisis, recession, Euro-crisis, and massive debt in the transatlantic economies have all created a lack of confidence, diminished discretionary resources, and engendered a broader perception of a failing capitalist system.

By contrast, the more authoritarian model of China is seen by others around the world to be delivering rapid growth and large surpluses.

Likewise, Islamist extremists point to the unfairness of a world organized around a Christian West, and to secularism as a source of moral decay. These arguments are then used to justify the imposition of a harsh, antidemocratic system in place of open societies and market democracy.

Fourth, the drive by states like North Korea and Iran to acquire nuclear weapons – part of a growing problem of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – has replaced US and Russian nuclear arsenals as the preeminent mass destruction threat in the world today. Combined with the effects of globalization and ideological extremism, the prospects are chilling.

Fifth, energy supplies and energy-generated wealth have become the new tools of exercising regional and global power. Suppliers have the upper hand; net consuming nations are dependent.

Many major exporters are not fully democratic, and in the worst cases even contribute financially to sustaining these other global challenges. Democratic states must invest in diversifying sources, routes, and types of energy simply to retain their day-to-day freedom.

And sixth, our institutions are failing. The United Nations has been struggling for years. But today, we see a renationalization of politics and weak leadership within the EU, declining public faith in global financial institutions, and a lack of a commonly understood role for NATO.

Where we had counted on institutions such as these for global security and prosperity in the past, today they seem inadequate – unrepresentative, hesitant, ineffective, wasteful and yet under-resourced.

Western allies must come together

All this should trouble publics and leaders in our own democratic, values-based societies. The world that provided our current prosperity and security is rapidly shifting underneath us. We should invest now in the steps needed to strengthen the foundations of a values-based international order for the future.

Unfortunately, the opposite is happening. The global economic crisis has left democratic governments weak, cash-strapped, and focused mostly on political survival.

Anti-incumbent movements – whether the “tea party” in the US, the Purple People in Italy, or the voters in North-Rhine Westphalia, who just robbed Chancellor Angela Merkel of a majority in Germany’s upper house of parliament – are gaining strength.

Rather than pulling together, states within Europe, and the wider transatlantic community, are showing greater divisions. Europe remains deeply divided over Russia, and a wary partner of the United States in Afghanistan.

While the Euro-zone countries ultimately came forward with a $1 trillion stop-gap in their debt crisis, that decision was preceded by weeks of internal finger-pointing and emphasis on national interests within the EU. Whether this package is ultimately successful depends on tough fiscal measures yet to be taken in several EU states.

This is where we need good leaders more than ever. Here are four steps they can take to try to get our nations, and our world, back on the right course.

How to get back on the right track

First, leaders themselves must look above the day-to-day struggles to see these larger trends, and then talk to one another about them. Although each of our nations is going through a crisis of some kind, the fact is that they are all related to these bigger trends.

Leaders need to work together to build a common approach that unites our countries. President Obama’s phone calls to Germany’s Chancellor Merkel and President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain about the Euro-crisis were important steps, reflecting a recognition that we are all in this together. The next step is to brainstorm together on strategies for the years to come.

We cannot leave these challenges to bureaucracies, and we cannot tackle these larger trends if we are acting in dozens of piecemeal approaches. Despite the proliferation of summit meetings – from NATO to EU to US-EU to G8/G20 and more – these venues are now so structured that real, purposeful discussion among leaders is nearly impossible.

In the 1940s and 1950s, democratic leaders made time to talk – in detail and at length, not merely at set-piece summits – and in doing so were able to commit to common action. We need that again.

Second, we need to set the right vision. It is not simply to implement the Lisbon Treaty, or reform NATO, or write a new document. We need to do in our generation what a predecessor generation did for us: lay the foundations for an international order that will nurture democratic, market economic development, and global security for decades to come.

Third, with the right vision, we need a strategy.

Here, I would argue that the best strategy is “Allies first.” Certainly, we must deal with the authoritarians, proliferators, human rights abusers, and other troubling regimes in the world. But we should do so as a united community of nations sharing common democratic values.

This means working with Allies first to hammer out common actions, which then strengthen our hand in dealing with the challenges of the world effectively. The election of a new British government, and early visits by Foreign Secretary William Hague and Prime Minister David Cameron, are perfect opportunities for the United States and UK to start fresh in our bilateral relations, and to begin building such a strategy together.

And fourth, it will mean talking candidly to publics and earning their support. This may be the hardest part of all. It is easier to cater to public opinion, to focus on small problems rather than large ones, and to cut resources today, rather than invest for tomorrow. But the bigger challenges we face are so severe that we cannot continue to ignore them.

Leaders need to explain to voters the tough choices we face and be willing to take sometimes unpopular decisions in order to stave off even worse that may yet come.

These steps are only a beginning. But to reach an end, we have to begin.

Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to NATO, is senior fellow and managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He’s also a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council of the United States. A version of this essay originally appeared in Italy’s La Stampa newspaper.

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