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The United Nations and the Emerging World Order: Challenges and Prospects
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By Harsh Vasani

Before we discuss how the “global order” or “world order” is changing, it is important to have a deeper understanding of the concept of global order and how it came into existence. The system of world order -- an arrangement to maintain stability and peace over the world using arrangements like balance of power, alliances, collective security, diplomacy, etc., -- emerged after the Treaty of Westphalia, where sovereign equality of states first came into prominence. According to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Self-Determination the term “world order” is used sometimes analytically, and sometimes prescriptively. “Both usages serve important purposes in grasping the realities of political life on a global level. Analytically, world order refers to the arrangement of power and authority that provides the framework for the conduct of diplomacy and world politics on a global scale. Prescriptively, world order refers to a preferred arrangement of power and authority that is associated with the realization of such values as peace, economic growth and equity, human rights, and environmental quality and sustainability.”[1]

The Treaty of Westphalia, a watershed moment, negotiated in 1648 at the end of the Thirty Years War that plagued Europe, is also seen as the beginning of the “modern world.” This new “modern world” order, was premised on the sovereign, territorial state acting as the primary political unit and political actor in the world. This order, which was derived from the experiences of Europe, was also Eurocentric in nature and saw the international society on the basis of the relationships between the main European states and viewing the relationship with non-Western political communities as based on hierarchy, with the superior Western states governing the subaltern non-Western states. It is important to note that the states that were the main political actors in the international society during this early period were monarchies -- which was to change after the American and French Revolutions.[2]

One of the driving factors in shaping the world order over the last three and a half centuries has been war. War served as a means to adjudication between states as there were no reliable, peaceful means to achieve adjustments or reconciliation that were needed time and again when there was a change in the balance of power or when new states, and new threats started developing. It was only much later that international law emerged as a mean to peacefully settle disputes and treaties over maritime security, communications, transportations, rules of war, humanitarian laws etc., were cleared and ratified by the states.[3]

Gradually, mechanisms to control the world order, still largely Eurocentric, started to emerge. The Concert of Europe, also called the Congress of Vienna, that developed after the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century was an attempt to maintain a balance of power, and intended to preserve peace and prevent one state from growing to dominate the others. The Concert stipulated that the boundaries established in 1815 could not be altered without the consent of its eight signatories. It was the World War I that saw a drastic change in the world order and witnessed the primacy of the United States. The then US President Woodrow Wilson believed that there should be a new mechanism for states to deal with each other and a need to address the anarchy in the international system by means of a global organization overlooking the governments of nation-states. He envisioned the establishment of an international organization that could be tasked with the maintenance of a peaceful world order. The League of Nations was a result of this and was looked upon as an institution that would make war obsolete. The League, however, was a colossal failure and could stop the European powers from going to another world war.

The current global order, which emerged after the end of the Second World War, has evolved since the time under the sight of the United Nations. The UN charter outlawed the use of force except in cases of strict self-defense. It also granted the five permanent members of the Security Council a veto power that effectively exempted them from accountability to these restrictive UN guidelines and embedded them with the responsibility of maintaining global peace and security. The catastrophic effects of war were learnt when the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and made the world realize the unacceptable cost of war in today’s day and age. It is this context, that the responsibility of maintaining a peaceful global order, resting with the United Nations, becomes more crucial and the need to study the UN’s role and its limitations in carrying out these functions become more relevant than ever.

Current Global Order       

Just when the period of the Cold War was coming to an end, Francis Fukuyama, in his essay The End of History, which later went on to become a book the following year, declared that the end of the cold war had a larger connotation than most scholars at that time were unable to decipher. He wrote that, “What we may be witnessing in not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the endpoint of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”[4] His view of the “universalization of Western liberal democracy”, which though came to intense criticism, can be seen as a moment of a fundamental shift in the world order where the United States, seen as a beacon of free market and liberal democracy, achieved a decisive triumph over its rival, i.e., Communism. The disintegration of the Soviet Union just a couple of years later gave his theory more credence. We can see that the period since then has been of a unipolar world (something which is an oxymoron since usage of the term “pole” signifies that there two poles) led by the United States, a Pax Americana of sorts.

However, recent developments in the international arena have questioned the primacy of the US in the global order, with scholars announcing that the “American age” or the age of America as the sole superpower is now coming to an end. There have been some tumultuous challenges to the United States, both at home and abroad. The 9/11 attacks showed that the military supremacy of the US does not make it unsusceptible to terrorist attacks. The invasion of Iraq as part of the global war on terror made a dent on the United States’ moral high-ground. The 2008 economic crisis was another big blow to the US not just economically, but also it diminished its position as the world leader in free market economics. As Fareed Zakaria, writing about the financial crisis and how it questioned the US’s ability to handle financial institutions, says in his book The Post-American World, “Global power is, above all, dominance over ideas, agendas and models. The revelation that much of the financial innovation that occurred in the last decade created little more than a house of cards erodes American power. Selling American ideas to the rest of the world will require more effort from here on out. Developing countries will pick and choose the economic policies that best suit them, and with growing confidence.”[5] Indeed, the authority with which the US could set economic agendas took a stern beating after the economic crisis of 2008.

Equally troubling is the military build-up in China and the anxiety it is causing in China’s neighborhood. China’s recent maneuvers in South China Sea have caused great worries among its neighbors. Not only Japan, but even South Korea and India are anxious about China’s growing military might. In an editorial by the state-run Global Times titled “Don't take peaceful approach for granted”, it warned the Philippines and Vietnam that if the “problems and ‘pains’ these countries bring exceed the risk China has to endure to change its policies and strategies, then a ‘counter-attack’ is likely.” The editorial added that, “If these countries don't want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sounds of cannons. We need to be ready for that, as it may be the only way for the disputes in the sea to be resolved.”[6] It should then not come as a surprise that most of China’s neighbors are not very enthusiastic about its rise. A recent survey by the Pew Research Centre covering 44 countries, 11 of them in Asia, showed that most of China’s neighbors are worried about hostilities might break out between their country and China. In Japan, which is in a tussle with China over the Senkaku islands, which the Chinese call the Diaoyus and claim as theirs, 85% of the Japanese are worried about the possibility of a conflict with China. In Philippines, which is engaged with China over a number of disputes, 93% of the respondents were “concerned” about the possibility of a conflict.[7] Christopher Layne says that since the end of the Cold War, “America's military superiority has functioned as an entry barrier designed to prevent emerging powers from challenging the United States where its interests are paramount.” He goes on to add that, however, US’s ability to maintain this barrier faces resistance at both ends. “First, the deepening financial crisis [in the US] will compel retrenchment, and the United States will be increasingly less able to invest in its military. Second, as ascending powers such as China become wealthier, their military expenditures will expand… With interests throughout Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the Caucasus--not to mention the role of guarding the world's sea-lanes and protecting U.S. citizens from Islamist terrorists--a strategically overextended United States inevitably will need to retrench.”[8] The threat to the dominance of the US military is probably not too far. According to SIPRI, a research institute, the annual defense spending of China rose from over $30 billion in 2000 to almost $120 billion in 2010. SIPRI usually adds about 50% to the official figure that China gives for its defense spending, because even basic military items such as research and development are kept off budget. As The Economist explained, “Including those items would imply total military spending in 2012, based on the latest announcement from Beijing, will be around $160 billion. America still spends four-and-a-half times as much on defense, but on present trends China's defense spending could overtake America's after 2035.”[9]

It can be said that the shift in the world order, moving from West to Asia, or more precisely China, cannot be seen as benign. Scholars have been comparing the rise of China to the rise of US in the 20th century. Just like the United States did in the western hemisphere, China also aims to establish itself as the sole-dominant power in its hemisphere, something which does not bode well for other states in the region and especially for other rising powers in Asia aspiring to have their own place under the sun. The time is ripe for scholars to understand how best this shift in global order can be peacefully accommodated.

Why Is A Change In The Global Order Worrying?

Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, writes that the “defining question about global order for this generation is whether China and the United States can escape the Thucydides’s Trap. The Greek historian’s metaphor reminds us of the attendant dangers when a rising power rivals a ruling power—as Athens challenged Sparta in ancient Greece, or as Germany did Britain a century ago.”[10] Based on an analysis of the historical record conducted by Graham and his team at Harvard, they discovered that in 12 of 16 cases over the past 500 years of a rival power challenging a ruling power, the result was war. And even when the parties avoided war, as happened four times of the 16 cases, it required “huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part not just of the challenger but also the challenged.”[11] Graham adds that, “based on the current trajectory, war between the United States and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely [emphasis added] than recognized at the moment… A risk associated with Thucydides’s Trap is that business as usual—not just an unexpected, extraordinary event—can trigger large-scale conflict. When a rising power is threatening to displace a ruling power, standard crises that would otherwise be contained, like the assassination of an archduke in 1914, can initiate a cascade of reactions that, in turn, produce outcomes none of the parties would otherwise have chosen.”

Historical examples also show the dangers of power transitions. The most dramatic, perhaps, being the case of late-nineteenth-century Germany. In 1870, the United Kingdom had a three-to-one advantage in economic power over Germany and a significant military advantage as well. By 1903, Germany had pulled ahead in terms of both economic and military power. “As Germany unified and grew, so, too, did its dissatisfactions and demands, and as it grew more powerful, it increasingly appeared as a threat to other great powers in Europe, and security competition began. In the strategic realignments that followed, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom, formerly enemies, banded together to confront an emerging Germany. The result was a European war. Many observers see this dynamic emerging in U.S.-Chinese relations.”[12] Even John Mearsheimer predicts that "If China continues its impressive economic growth over the next few decades the United States and China are likely to engage in an intense security competition with considerable potential for war."

The view that a war between China and the United States is very likely is countered by scholars like G. John Ikenberry who writes that, “The rise of China does not have to trigger a wrenching hegemonic transition. The U.S.-Chinese power transition can be very different from those of the past because China faces an international order that is fundamentally different from those that past rising states confronted. China does not just face the United States; it faces a Western-centered system that is open, integrated, and rule-based, with wide and deep political foundations. The nuclear revolution, meanwhile, has made war among great powers unlikely -- eliminating the major tool that rising powers have used to overturn international systems defended by declining hegemonic states. Today's Western order, in short, is hard to overturn and easy to join.” To be sure, the challenge to a peaceful global order does not emanate only from China. Recent events in the Middle East, in the rise of organizations like ISIS, have the ability to bring the world on the brink of a conflict. A rising and increasingly aggressive Russia has shown that it too has the capacity to cause worries among the United States and its allies and if this continues, we may witness the beginning of a cold war 2.0. The rise of other powers like India, Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria will also have ramifications on the international system and if these countries continue to grow the way they are, it is likely that the world will see a transformation from a unipolar order to a multipolar order. Whether this will be a scenario be able to maintain peace and stability is a question, but more importantly, we need to study what the role of the United Nations should be in maintaining a global order and what are its limitations.


One of the primary reasons that there is great anxiety about any shift in the world order is the presence of anarchy in international relations. To address this issue, the victorious powers of the Second World War established the United Nations. However, it can be said with confidence that the United Nations has not been as successful as it was expected to. With a shift in the world order underway and the many other challenges ahead of the international society (listed above), there are rising expectations from the United Nations among scholars who have not yet written off the UN system as unrealistic and incongruent with the behavior of nations. Realists may scoff at the idea of UN trying to maintain a global order and they may well be right in their thinking, but it is important to look at United Nations as an institution that can quell states’ desire to go to war as means of adjudication. The United Nations needs to uphold the power of institutions like the Security Council, United Nations General Assembly, WTO, and empower International Law so that states can mould themselves into the changing order more easily and with less friction. As Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth said, “The existing architecture is a relic of the preoccupations and power relationships of the middle of the last century -- out of sync with today's world of rising powers and new challenges, from terrorism and nuclear proliferation to financial instability and global warming.”[13] It becomes more important then to revise and reform the international institutions then that work on climate change, international trade, arbitration, security and nuclear non-proliferation. It is important to remember what John Ikenberry said, the rising China today “does not just face the United States, it faces a Western-centered system that is open, integrated, and rule-based, with wide and deep political foundations… Today's Western order, in short, is hard to overturn and easy to join.” It is important to make this international system more rule-based, to strengthen its foundations and make it capable to integrate a rival power without any animosity. Without a doubt there are challenges ahead of the UN, states do not want to acquiesce their powers and are reluctant to trust other states intentions, there is the problem of unilateral action by states that undermines the authority of the UN, there is reluctance to fulfill obligations by states, etc., but these need to addressed by the community of states together in order to ensure that the UN is able to handle great power transitions successfully.

Harsh Vasani is a Postgraduate Research Scholar in the Dept of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University. 



[1] “World Order”, Princeton Encyclopedia of Self-Determination, accessed as on: 4 November, 2015, see: http://pesd.princeton.edu/?q=node/272

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Francis Fukuyama, The end of history?, (The national interest: 1989) pp. 3-18.

[5] Fareed Zakaria, The post-American world, (WW Norton & Company: 2008)

[6] “Don't take peaceful approach for granted”, The Global Times, 25 October 2011.

[7] “Jittery Neighbours”, The Economist (Singapore), 19 July 2014.

[8] n.8

[9] "The dragon's new teeth”, The Economist, 7 April 2012.


[10] Graham Allison, “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?”, The Atlantic, 24 September 2015.

[11] Ibid

[12] G John Ikenberry, "The Rise of China and the Future of the West." Foreign Affairs, 2008 v. 87.1.

[13] Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, “Reshaping the World Order”, Foreign Affairs, accessed as on 9 November 2015



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