The Limits of Governability

Existing multilateral institutions are becoming increasingly unable to deal with the stepped-up violence of nonstate actors and other security threats. While global governability is showing its limits, this does not mean there is a need to overhaul the rules of the world order, notes Tokyo Foundation President Masahiro Akiyama. The global order should continue to be based on established international laws and the nation-state system, and steps should be taken to prevent another Cold War.

The following are comments made at the Eleventh Annual Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club, held on October 22–24, 2014, in Sochi, Russia, on the theme of “The World Order: New Rules or a Game without Rules.”

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We face many security challenges around the world today, such as the activities of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Ukraine crisis, political instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the discouraging aftermath of the Arab Spring, territorial conflicts in the South China Sea, the unresolved nuclear arms threat from North Korea, and violence in many parts of Africa.

If we think of security in a broader sense, moreover, there are also such threats as global warming, AIDS/HIV, Ebola fever, and bird flu.

An aerial view of Sochi © Andrey Babushkin/RIA Novosti (CC BY-SA 3.0)
An aerial view of Sochi © Andrey Babushkin/RIA Novosti (CC BY-SA 3.0)

As a backdrop to these developments, there are the recently stepped-up violence of nonstate actors—particularly religious fundamentalist groups—territorial conflicts involving military force, a potential new “Cold War” between Russia and the West, the difficulty of ethnic and religious reconciliation, a dysfunctional democracy in some countries, and transnational threats that cannot be addressed by individual states and that could undermine the Westphalian world order.

Some argue that these threats have emerged all at once and cannot be managed by existing world institutions. American political scientist Ian Bremmer is very pessimistic about the present situation, which has not been managed well by the leading global power and its allies, and reference is often made to the need for a new global order. My impression is that the Valdai Discussion Club, too, tends to side with this view. I agree that global governability is showing its limits, particularly in the field of international security. There is no denying that the power of the United States—the world’s sole superpower—has declined, with the result that it has not been able to deter many security crises around in the world. The United Nations, G8, G20, and other multilateral institutions have not functioned effectively either.

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Introducing a new global order, however, is much easier said than done. The very task of coming up with a viable concept for a new order is quite daunting.

That said, the United States appears to be making a return as a global cop after pulling back its military engagement in many international crises. The United Nations has bolstered its functions compared to the past, and Western engagement has recovered, although in the shape of ad-hoc cooperation. Russia and China are also very concerned about terrorist activities.

Each security crisis mentioned at the outset has its own unique features and process of development. Instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan would be overcome over time. Ethnic and religious enmity can be resolved if the nation-state framework remains strong and intact. Causes for concern, on the other hand, are the activities of transnational terrorist groups and weaknesses in democracy. The United States and the United Nations will continue to be engaged, and Pakistan should be prevented from breaking away through its close ties with China.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea present difficulties from the viewpoint of international law. The effective control of islands, reefs, and rocks in the sea is a basic premise for territorial claims, but past conditions cannot always be clearly ascertained. China’s recent assertiveness in the South China Sea is a major concern for the international community. It is not impossible, though, for coastal states to find ways of resolving their disputes in a peaceful manner. I expect China to seek a resolution through negotiation based on its aspirations to become a responsible global power. The US rebalancing policy and the international community’s interest in this issue and its insistence on maintaining the rule of law will be very helpful.

Violence in many areas in Africa would subside if the activities of extremist Islamic terrorist groups can be successfully contained. This will require the strong cooperation of the international community, particularly of West bloc nations. Far more serious humanitarian threats for Africa at the moment are AIDS/HIV and Ebola.

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The Ukrainian crisis and the rise of the Islamic State are serious threats that could undermine the world order that is premised on the concept of the nation-state. There are no viable alternatives to the existing order at present, so the task at hand would seem to be to find effective measures to maintain this order.

The crisis in Ukraine is a special case. While it appears on the surface to be a breach of territorial sovereignty by the military forces of a foreign country, there is a need to consider the historical factors behind the formation of Ukraine, the strong ethnic and religious split within the country, and its unique ties to Russia. I suspect that the Ukraine agenda has been mishandled by Western nations, particularly those in Europe, over the past several years while the country was being poorly administered by ineffective governments. US President Barack Obama may have unnecessarily turned Russia into a political enemy, moreover, with the result that Russia and China are now more closely aligned, giving rise to a possible new Cold War.

At the same time, Russia could have opted not to intervene militarily, for it has lost a lot of credibility in the international community by doing so. Changing the status quo by force is simply unacceptable. The current crisis in east Ukraine should be resolved premised on the concept of nation-states and the rule of law. A Ukraine-Russia summit could provide the impetus to end the crisis, for the two leaders are most familiar with the special status of Ukraine and its geopolitical significance.

An even bigger problem at the moment is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. ISIS has made tremendous advances owing to independent financial resources and weapon stockpiles, acquired while the United States had lowered its profile in the region and owing to the failure of post–Saddam Hussein administrations to control all of Iraq. The rise of ISIS has demonstrated that religious reconciliation is very difficult and that the democracy introduced in Iraq has not functioned well. The Islamic State is a violent, fundamentalist group that ignores the rules of the nation-state.

While the decision by the United States and its Western allies to deter further advances by ISIS with military force may have been slow, it is better late than never, and the important thing is that they have now made a commitment to fight the group. When the rule of law and the nation-state system are attacked by armed insurgents, there is no choice but to use military power to meet the challenge. Many such threats require the united response of the international community, particularly under US leadership. Russia and China, too, should consider offering their support as responsible global powers, as was the case following 9/11.

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We are now confronted with the limits of global governability in the security field, but this does not mean there is a need to overhaul the rules of the global order. The order should continue to be based on established international laws and the nation-state system. I do not think Russia and China would disagree.

We must be ready to use force if necessary when the order comes under attack from armed groups. The problem is that nonstate actors have dramatically increased their influence while the United States—although still a superpower—is in decline and no other country has stepped up to replace it. Any weaknesses can be met, though, through a unified response by not only Wetern countries but also Russia and China, which also have an interest in containing fundamentalist and terrorist groups.

Greater attention should be given to enhancing the functions of existing international institutions, particularly the United Nations Security Council. The Security Council is a natural arena for international cooperation, since the United States, Russia, and China are all members. The three big powers should start to discuss this agenda as the council has not always worked effectively.

At the same time, we must take steps to prevent another Cold War. A new rift in East-West relations would only weaken the governability of global security.

Masahiro Akiyama

  • President (2012–2016)