Today’s realities call for an updated operating system that is based on the concept of “sovereign obligation”
NEW YORK: For nearly four centuries, since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 ended the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, the concept of sovereignty—the right of countries to an independent existence and autonomy—has formed the core of the international order. And for good reason: as we have seen in century after century, including the current one, a world in which borders are forcibly violated is a world of instability and conflict.
But, in a globalized world, a global operating system premised solely on respect for sovereignty—call it World Order 1.0—has become increasingly inadequate. Little stays local anymore. Just about anyone and anything, from tourists, terrorists, and refugees to e-mails, diseases, dollars, and greenhouse gases, can reach almost anywhere. The result is that what goes on inside a country can no longer be the concern of that country alone. Today’s realities call for an updated operating system—World Order 2.0—based on “sovereign obligation,” the notion that sovereign states have not just rights but also obligations to others.
A new international order will also require an expanded set of norms and arrangements, beginning with an agreed-upon basis for statehood. Existing governments would agree to consider bids for statehood only in cases where there was a historical justification, a compelling rationale, and popular support, and where the proposed new entity is viable.
World Order 2.0 must also include prohibitions on carrying out or in any way supporting terrorism. More controversially, it must include strengthened norms proscribing the spread or use of weapons of mass destruction. As it stands, while the world tends to agree on constraining proliferation by limiting countries’ access to the relevant technology and material, the consensus often breaks down once proliferation has occurred. This should become a topic of discussion at bilateral and multilateral meetings, not because it would lead to a formal agreement, but because it would focus attention on applying stringent sanctions or undertaking military action, which could then reduce the odds of proliferation.
Another essential element of a new international order is cooperation on climate change, which may be the quintessential manifestation of globalization, because all countries are exposed to its effects, regardless of their contribution to it. The 2015 Paris climate agreement—in which governments agreed to limit their emissions and to provide resources to help poorer countries adapt—was a step in the right direction. Progress on this front must continue.
Cyberspace is the newest domain of international activity characterized by both cooperation and conflict. The goal in this area should be to create international arrangements that encourage benign uses of cyberspace and discourage malign uses. Governments would have to act consistently within this regime as part of their sovereign obligations—or face sanctions or retaliation.
Global health presents a different set of challenges. In a globalized world, an outbreak of infectious disease in one country could quickly evolve into a serious threat to health elsewhere, as has happened in recent years with SARS, Ebola, and Zika. Fortunately, the notion of sovereign obligation is already advanced in this sphere: countries are responsible for trying to detect infectious disease outbreaks, responding appropriately, and notifying others around the world.
When it comes to refugees, there is no substitute for effective local action aimed at preventing situations that generate large refugee flows in the first place. In principle, this is an argument for humanitarian intervention in selective situations. But translating this principle into practice will remain difficult, given divergent political agendas and the high costs of effective intervention. Even without a consensus, however, there is a strong case for increasing funding for refugees, ensuring their humane treatment, and setting fair quotas for their resettlement.
Trade agreements are, by definition, pacts of reciprocal sovereign obligations regarding tariff and nontariff barriers. When a party believes that obligations are not being met, it has recourse to arbitration through the World Trade Organization. But things are less clear when it comes to government subsidies or currency manipulation. The challenge, therefore, is to define appropriate sovereign obligations in these areas in future trade pacts, and to create mechanisms to hold governments accountable.
Establishing the concept of sovereign obligations as a pillar of the international order will take decades of consultations and negotiations—and even then, its acceptance and impact will be uneven. Progress will come only voluntarily, from countries themselves, rather than from any top-down edict. Realistically, it will be difficult to forge agreement on what specific sovereign obligations states have and how they should be enforced.
Complicating matters further, US President Donald Trump’s administration has espoused an “America first” doctrine that is largely inconsistent with what is being suggested here. If this remains the US approach, progress toward building the sort of order that today’s interconnected world demands will come about only if other major powers push it—or it will have to wait for Trump’s successor. Such an approach, however, would be second best, and it would leave the United States and the rest of the world worse off.
Now is the time to begin the necessary conversations. Globalization is here to stay. Moving toward a new international order that incorporates sovereign obligation is the best way to cope. World Order 2.0, predicated on sovereign obligation, is certainly an ambitious project—but one born of realism, not idealism.
The author is President of the Council on Foreign Relations