Remarks of Hon. Han Sung-Joo: “ASEAN at 50: The Way Forward”

The New World Order in the 21st Century

Keynote Speech of Hon. Han Sung-Joo

I am honored and grateful to be asked to speak on the subject of the New World Order on the occasion of ASEAN at Fifty. But, frankly, I am at a loss as to whether I should speak on the subject of new “order” or new “disorder.” It is as if we have passed the age of the post-World War II order, but have not yet found another structure to fill its place.

The post-World War II era was one of bipolarity mixed with pockets of multilateralism, both with regional organizations such as ASEAN and the European Union and global ones such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization creating a rules-based order as its foundation. It was one of balance of power such as between the United States and the Soviet Union, and of terror between nations that had weapons of mass destruction that kept a sustained period of uneasy peace if not cold war. It was also a period in which a “Third World” existed and thrived, by virtue of the vacuum left by the super- powers and the need created by the leaders and nations that did not wish to belong to any camps. And it was also a period in which values associated with democracy, open society, and free trade were allowed to develop in countries around the world under the larger umbrella of liberalism. To be sure, there were wars and conflicts but which were kept relatively limited in space and time.

During this period, we could say that internationalism formed in two different types, one that is treaty-based such as the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the other consensus-based such as ASEAN and the European Union. In the latter type of consensus-based internationalism, countries have united in different coalitions to advance common interests and further certain security and/or economic agendas.

There have been many positive outcomes from the rise of internationalism buttressed by multilateral cooperation. Many experts once thought that these liberal or internationalist trends represented a march toward progress (i.e.Thomas Friedman’s book “The World is Flat, 3.0”). It was also believed that these processes would help redistribute resources, close the gap between the haves and the have-nots across the globe, and ensure international peace and stability.

In the transitional period after the end of the Cold War, we experienced the rise of what appeared to be unipolarity by the United States, emergence of new power and economic centers, return of geo-politics, the rise of non-state actors, and erosion of a global working order. We also witnessed the loss of Cold War discipline, with both good and bad effects. We increasingly saw diminishing emphasis on internationalism and witnessed the erosion of some of the most fundamental institutions of the post-World War II order.

Today we are seeing even more disruptions and changes to our way of life. And internationalism, whether treaty-based or consensus-based, is under threat. A recent book by an intelligent author characterized this as “a world in disarray.” Many of the unprecedented changes are associated with the international order and globalization—free trade, advanced technology, and instantaneous digital communication methods, these are developments that were facilitated and supported by the stability of the post-World War II liberal world order.

But, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and in the midst of growing nationalist movements around the world, we can see more clearly that there are large groups of people who feel negatively affected by the global changes. The backlash against globalization and “elite politics” has some arguing that the liberal order, together with internationalism and multilateralism, are facing a challenge.

I do not believe that the liberal order and our support of internationalism will collapse easily but it is evident that it is facing significant challenges. If we do not deal with these challenges then I fear there will be a return to a more illiberal world order, one that is less stable and less peaceful. That is why our discussion today about a “new world order” is so important.

How do we save internationalism and multilateralism? Looking back, multilateral institutions in the post-World War  II period owe their creation  and growth to three factors: 1) The recognition, by the dominant power and the lesser powers alike, of their shared interest in achieving common goals through multilateralism; 2) A degree of idealism for such objectives as peace and human well-being that multilateral institutions could contribute to; and 3) the acknowledgment of the existence of common public goods such as financial stability, environmental protection, or freedom of the seas.

In the post-World War II period, despite the bi-polar nature of the world’s power structure, multilateralism and its growth were possible because a bargain was made between the dominant power, the United States, and other countries, which included both the middle powers and the smaller powers. In such a bargain, the dominant state reduces its enforcement costs and the weaker states gain opportunities to work and help influence the leading state.

In the United States today, the Trump Administration seems to be skeptical of the utility of multilateralism and is withdrawing from its leadership position at the forefront of the international order. It pulled the United States out of TPP, wants to revise NAFTA, plans to reduce financial contribution to the United Nations, and seems to be equivocal about NATO. In Europe, starting with Brexit, ultra-conservative and nationalist political forces seem to be in the ascendency. In last month’s presidential election, France came close to electing a candidate who can be properly described as anti-Europe. Reporting on the recent G20 summit held in Hamburg Germany, CNN had the following to say under the heading, “Trump puts the U.S. in a Club of One.”         CNN reported: It wasn’t quite the G19 summit, but President Donald Trump’s approach to foreign affairs is severely straining global cohesion on key issues like climate change and  free trade,   exchanging   an   aggressive,   traditional  American  leadership   role for isolation in a club of one. In Southeast Asia, the United States appears to be quietly easing out of its critical leadership and supporting role from the region.

As it happens, I think the most urgent issue we have to address today is not just how to update and change the current rules but how to deal with the challenge multilateralism is facing today — the challenge that comes from unilateralistic impulses, nativistic nationalism, and anti-globalism.

How do we account for the rise of anti-globalization and sentiments that are skeptical of multilateralism? First, in the aftermath of the changes in recent decades, misplaced blame, either deliberate or genuine, has been directed at multilateralism and globalism for allegedly causing many of the malaises at home such as unemployment, income gap, and self-perceived status changes. Second, such status slippage makes many people experience a sense of identity crisis, which in turn makes them find enemies and scapegoats among certain ethnic, racial, or religious groups. In each case, there are leaders who take political advantage of such identity disorientation, fear, and anger. They use these sentiments to turn international relations into a zero-sum game rather than non- zero sum game. As a result, the search for shared ideals and public goods becomes difficult if not impossible. Institutional barriers to change also make things worse because the organizations that we built under the old internationalist order simply cannot respond quickly enough to the new demands and challenges that have arisen over the last two decades.

Today, the world has a serious “global gap,” according to Richard Haass, which causes our world to be in disarray. It is the gap between what is desirable and what is possible, and between the tasks and abilities of the entity called the world. It is also about the imbalance between nations, such as can be found in something like what is known as Thucydides Trap or what Joseph Nye calls “Kindleberger Trap. Thucydides Trap is about the inevitable conflict between the established power and the rising power. “Kindleberger Trap” is about the inability or unwillingness of the rising power to take the responsibility of global order.

These trends seem to indicate that we are at an important turning point. If we do not proactively work to sustain multilateralism and our most important values such as democracy, liberty and justice, then multilateral institutions eventually may be relegated to the dustbin of history. To prevent the decline, if not the demise of internationalism and multilateralism it seems necessary not just to reform our institutions but also to update the post-WW II rules for multilateral cooperation. How do we do this? It seems that, of the rules that are being contested, three areas or items stand out. They are: 1) the question of sovereignty and non-intervention; 2) integration of rising powers into world order; and 3) safeguarding access to the open global commons such as the maritime, air space, outer space and cyberspace domains. Our leaders should be encouraged to work on the reform of these rules and institutions in order to adapt to the challenges of today and of the future.

We should encourage world leaders not to move away from multilateralism, but to find creative and comprehensive solutions to economic, social, and political problems through cooperation in multilateral contexts.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I do not wish to conclude my remarks on a new world order with a pessimistic note. I recently read a BBC article, written by Rochel Nuwer, with the title “How civilization could collapse?” Although it has “Western civilization” in the title, the article actually talks about world civilization as a whole.

According to the article, there are four ways in which world civilization can collapse, in as early as half a century. One way is by ecological strain and economic stratification. The second way comes when elites push society toward instability and eventual collapse by hoarding huge quantities of wealth and resources, and leaving little or none for the commoners. The third way of collapse is when the world cannot rise to the occasion of solving the climate problem during this century, simply because it is more expensive in the short term to solve the problem than it is to just keep acting as usual. Finally, the article states that we can enter into a danger zone through the increasing occurrence of “nonlinearities,” or sudden, unexpected changes in the world’s order. Let me add a fifth way in which world civilization can decline. It can be the result of the retreat from and abdication of the leading role by some of the key members of the world community such as the United States. Instead of asserting leadership to bring the world together for common causes and common goods, they pursue unilateral and selfish short-term interests that result in greater competition and a disastrous zero-sum world.

However, let’s not lose heart. Human and world civilization is not a lost cause. Using reason and science to guide decisions, paired with leadership and good will, human society can and should progress to higher and higher levels of well-being and development. Am I overly optimistic? Let us hope not.

How can ASEAN, a most successful endeavor at regional multilateralism, at the age of 50 contribute to establishing a new world order that will promote peace, enhance human welfare, integrate people, regions and the world? I think ASEAN should continue to be a leader in helping to maintain and develop our rules-based international system through consensus-building and cooperation on complex issues. In particular, the unique geopolitical location of ASEAN countries makes the institution ripe for furthering work on global commons issues such as those in the maritime, air space, and cyberspace domains. I believe that in the course of its 50-year history, ASEAN has demonstrated its worth and contribution by example and accomplishments. It has proven to be inclusive, tolerant, and exemplary in bringing peoples and nations together for the common goal of peace, prosperity and progress. It has successfully displayed leadership and, yes essentiality in bringing the people, the sub-region, the pan-region, and the world together. I believe it can continue this good work and help us to build a new world order that is based on a more complex and inclusive internationalism. Only when we work together can we battle the illiberal and destabilizing trends that are threatening the fabric of our societies and the peaceful global order. Thank you. Congratulations on ASEAN at Fifty!


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