In the decades to come, the question of who sets the global rules, standards, and norms governing technology, trade, and economic development will be critical. Having lost their exclusive prerogative in this domain, some Western governments have begun to rethink the universality of the rule-based order.
BERLIN – Will the West maintain its commitment to the rule-based international order when it is not the West to dictate them? It is one of the most intriguing questions for the next two decades. If there is a principle capable of uniting voters, policy makers, politicians, and the media throughout the West, it is the one that holds that rules matter for almost everything else. Disrespect for common standards has long sparked intense anger and forceful responses.
Consider the UK, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s savage charisma enabled him to seize power and retain it, to truly redraw the country’s political map. Until recently, public approval managed to withstand flowery displays of incompetence, a growing number of deaths from the pandemic, and the economic downturn. But Johnson’s support is finally bleeding to death for a simple reason: Both he and his administration took their disregard for the rules too far. When it emerged that there was a Christmas party last year at 10 Downing Street (the prime minister’s residence) while the rest of the country was in quarantine, Johnson’s reputation suffered more than any of his other scandals and transgressions.
In the international arena, Western governments routinely condemn their peers when they break the rules. Russia, for example, was reprimanded for annexing Crimea, for its repeated cyberattacks in other countries and for the physical attacks on Russian dissidents abroad. China was also branded as one of the main offenders. US President Joe Biden may not agree with much of what his predecessor said or did, but he maintains surprising continuity in the Trump administration’s characterization of China as a global threat that steals intellectual property, he maintains. illegal subsidies, allows rampant corruption and is carrying out genocide.
However, in the coming decades the greatest threat to the world will not be China that breaks the rules, but China that defines them. China’s growing influence over international norms, standards and conventions is revolutionary. For centuries Western powers took it for granted that they are the ones who set the standards for the world and massively influence the policies of other countries through the Washington Consensus, the “Brussels effect” and other channels.
The Washington Consensus, a term coined in 1989 by economist John Williamson, now refers broadly to market-based economic policies and a limited state role. For decades, this Western liberal approach underpinned the work of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, as it was seen as a universal recipe for good governance and prosperity.
The “Brussels effect” is of more recent creation: it was popularized by the academic Anu Bradford to describe the global impact of the regulatory policies of the European Union. EU rules governing information privacy, product safety, genetically modified organisms, sexual rights and other issues tend to be adopted as a matter of course by multinational corporations and other countries wanting to access the gigantic market. only European.
Over the past decade, however, Washington’s free market consensus has been challenged by the “Beijing consensus,” based on managed globalization, industrial policies, and state capitalism, while the “Brussels effect” ran into a possible “Beijing”: Chinese standards for the export of technology through its “Digital Silk Road”.
Furthermore, many standard-setting bodies that once underpinned European and American dominance now have Chinese leaders. Among them are (or were) the International Telecommunication Union, the International Organization for Standardization and the International Electrotechnical Commission. China is ready to set the standards for rapidly developing technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics; and the technological infrastructure of Chinese companies – built according to Chinese standards – spread to many countries.
As Bradford asserts, the “Beijing effect”, although it works differently from the Brussels effect, “nonetheless has far-reaching consequences. And as China becomes an increasingly large trading partner of more countries, its global influence will continue to grow.
Whether or not the West’s commitment to the rules remains an urgent question then. What if that commitment was actually more related to the power it bestowed than the underlying principles it advocated? Would American Europeans respect a rules-based world order that followed “Xi Jinping’s thinking” rather than the ideas of Western Enlightenment thinkers? There are many in China, Russia and other countries who assume that we would not, and see that this shows that our commitment is simply a means to our ends.
To stay ahead, some Western governments began to rethink the rule-based order scheme. There is talk of leaving the universal and world institutions to move to a new agreement based on rules set within clubs that coincide in their way of thinking. The EU, for example, is currently holding a debate on its “strategic sovereignty” in which it recognizes that if it acts as a single bloc it could have enough influence to maintain the liberal, rules-based order for itself and for those willing to participate in it. he. The alternative is to submit to the illiberal challenges of Xi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, or a return to Trumpism in the United States.
A similar shift is seen across the Atlantic, where the Biden administration went from supporting world institutions to envisioning a new kind of rules-based order that includes the world’s democracies. The recent Democracy Summit organized by the White House could be understood as the archetype of the functioning of this new order.
It remains to be seen how the small powers would adjust to this change in situation. We can find a surprising indication in the Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy proposed by the Johnson administration in March 2021. It concludes that “defending the status quo will not be enough in the next decade” and posits a more proactive approach than simply “maintaining the post-Cold War rules-based international system.”
The struggles that will define the 21st century will be about who will have the power to set the rules. Currently, it could be anyone.
He is the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity Causes Conflict.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020