Sorry, America, the New World Order Is Dead

Putin isn't dragging the world back to the 19th century. Obama just needs to stop pretending it's 1991.

Russia is dragging the world back into the 19th century, at least according to Barack Obama's administration. "You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext," said Secretary of State John Kerry, following Moscow's annexation of Crimea. "What we see here are distinctly 19th- and 20th-century decisions made by President [Vladimir] Putin to address problems," added another senior administration official. "Sending in troops and, because you're bigger and stronger, taking a piece of the country -- that is not how international law and international norms are observed in the 21st century," President Obama declared a few weeks later.

As Moscow continues to threaten a broader invasion -- most recently demanding that Kiev withdraw its troops from eastern Ukraine -- America's indignant response reveals a great deal about how its leaders think about international norms. Unfortunately, it is the Americans, not the Russians, who are trapped in a time warp. They believe that the legal norms promoted by the United States during its brief period of global hegemony -- which started in 1991 and has eroded over the last decade -- are still in force. They aren't.

In the 1990s, it was possible to believe that a new international order had replaced the bipolar system of the Cold War. Memorably dubbed the "new world order" by President George H.W. Bush, it was characterized by the peaceful settlement of disputes through international courts, universal human rights, international criminal justice, and free trade and investment. Above all, the new liberal order emphasized international rule of law -- the idea that international law and legal institutions would be the major source of global organization.

It was not a coincidence that this order emerged after the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving the United States the sole superpower -- and American politicians, commentators, and intellectuals supremely enthusiastic about it. Today, this order is breaking down, the result of the decline of U.S. power and hence America's ability to enforce its values and interests abroad. While many American intellectuals believed that the order reflected the consent of foreign elites to a self-evidently superior system of international organization, it in fact represented their acquiescence in the face of superior power. Now that this superior power is gone, so are the norms that it promoted.

The first pillar of the post-Cold War liberal order was the international court. The idea that countries should use international tribunals rather than war to settle their disputes actually dates back to the 19th century, when the United States and Britain successfully used arbitration to resolve their differences. But after World War I, and then again after World War II, the victors established permanent international courts with jurisdiction over all disputes that could arise under international law. The most prominent such court has been the International Court of Justice (ICJ), a U.N. organ established in 1945. In the 1990s, more than 100 countries established a World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute settlement mechanism aimed at resolving disagreements over trade barriers. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which was given jurisdiction over maritime disputes, began operations in the same decade.

But though such forums have helped resolve trade disputes, it is clear now that the broader ambition of international tribunals -- to provide a peaceful avenue for resolving quarrels that might otherwise lead to war -- has failed. The ICJ has successfully handled some minor border disputes, but when the interests of powerful countries are at stake, it has been evaded at every turn. When the court ruled against the United States in a dispute with Nicaragua in 1986, for example, the United States simply disregarded the judgment and withdrew from the ICJ's jurisdiction. Today, the two most dangerous sources of conflict are Russia's and China's relations with their neighbors. Neither country has been willing to submit those conflicts to international courts. The reason is simple: International law favors the status quo allocation of territory and the sovereignty of states, while Russia and China seek to enhance their power by exerting influence over foreign countries or areas. Because the United States and other countries are not strong enough to compel Russia and China to embrace international tribunals -- and these countries have no independent interest in doing so -- the forums gather dust.

The second pillar of the post-Cold War order was recognition of human rights. Under international human rights law, all governments must respect the rights of their citizens. While the number, nature, and scope of those rights are contested -- and while many countries that signed onto human rights treaties argued that rights must be interpreted in light of their own religious, traditional, or practical commitments -- the new liberal order envisioned a world that abided by the basic terms of liberal democracy. The Soviet Union's collapse seemed to provide spectacular vindication for this view and to portend its universal acceptance.

Yet the human rights regime has failed as well. It has become increasingly clear that many countries simply disregard their human rights commitments. Russia, for example, has moved toward authoritarianism despite its ratification of universal human rights treaties and its accession to the relatively robust European Convention on Human Rights, which empowers people to bring cases against their governments. China has certainly not liberalized. Most developing countries lack the capacity to implement their human rights commitments, even when their governments and publics support them. Even Western countries violated the spirit of these treaties by taking harsh measures against al Qaeda in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The failure of the human rights regime has put the West in a difficult position. When violations become too obvious to ignore -- as was the case in the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s and in Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria in the 2000s -- the West faces a choice between ignoring them and thus violating its commitment to human rights, and launching a military intervention that violates its commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes. The only escape from this dilemma is the U.N. Security Council, which alone possesses the legal authority to launch wars against countries that do not comply with their human rights obligations.

But the United Nations functioned effectively only during the early 1990s, when other members of the Security Council feared U.S. might. It was in 1991 that the Security Council authorized a military intervention in Iraq, following Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. But today the Security Council is as frozen as it was during the Cold War, and declining U.S. power has made it difficult for the West to defy Russia, China, and world opinion as NATO did in 1999, when it intervened in Kosovo, and as the United States and its allies did in 2003 by invading Iraq. A small bright spot was the Security Council's 2011 authorization of military force in Libya, a resolution from which Russia and China abstained. But that brief period of cooperation quickly descended into acrimony as Moscow and Beijing accused Western countries of exceeding their authority to protect the civilian population and instead using military force to overthrow the Libyan government. Now both adamantly oppose intervention in Syria.

The third pillar of the liberal order was international justice: the idea that people, especially national leaders, who commit or order atrocities such as torture or genocide, or who launch illegal wars, should be tried and punished before an international criminal tribunal. The Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War II were the first to embody these ideas, but they were not expanded upon or replicated until after the Cold War. In the 1990s, the United Nations set up two ad hoc tribunals to try people accused of committing atrocities during the Balkan wars and the Rwanda genocide. In 2002, an international treaty signed by 139 countries entered into force to create a permanent International Criminal Court (ICC).

But international criminal justice has also ground to a halt. The tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda are being wound down. Although the ICC has launched a number of investigations and held a few trials, it is increasingly clear that it will never be more than a marginal institution. Only weak African countries seem to have anything to fear from it, and their leaders resent the court's nearly exclusive focus on them. Inevitably, the ICC has come to be seen as a tool of imperialists. It will never try Russians, Chinese, or Americans, because their governments never ratified the treaty. Moreover, the ICC depends on powerful countries to support it, to send it business through U.N. referrals, and to arrest suspects. It cannot risk offending them.

The fourth pillar was free trade and investment. After World War II, Western countries entered a legal regime, then known as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, that required them to gradually lower tariffs. This regime was strengthened in the 1990s, when the WTO was established. Efforts were also made to bring international investment under legal control -- encouraging rich countries to invest in poor countries by preventing poor countries from expropriating those investments. In recent decades, hundreds of bilateral investment treaties have been signed, both protecting investments and providing for arbitration in case of dispute.

Trade is the one bright spot in the current international environment. No one is reverting to protectionism, as countries did prior to World War II. The WTO dispute settlement mechanism continues to function. But efforts to improve on past successes have nonetheless foundered. Investment law has also faced problems, as countries have begun to disregard adverse judgments from arbitration panels.

Back in the 1990s, at the height of optimism about international law, academics believed that they had to answer a puzzle. The four pillars of the new international legal system self-evidently embodied a liberal worldview that countries like China and Russia did not subscribe to and that indeed most countries outside the West had traditionally rejected. So what would compel these countries to obey international law? An enormous number of theories were produced, with their accompanying buzzwords: Countries complied with international law because their leaders had internalized the law. Or because they were bound by cooperative networks of judges and bureaucrats from different countries. Or because domestic and international NGOs put pressure on violators. Or because countries had become interdependent. Or simply because it was fair. At the heart of all these theories was the assumption that all countries complied with international law more or less equally.

The most obvious explanation for legal compliance was all but ignored. Countries obeyed international law in the post-Cold War period because the United States and, to a lesser extent, Europe forced them to do so. Part of the explanation, of course, was that with the Soviet Union's collapse, the liberal order gained significant prestige. But much of the explanation lies in the fact that countries feared that if they did not play by the rules set by the West, they would be deprived of aid, investment, technical cooperation, and opportunities to trade -- and, in extreme cases, might be threatened with sanctions and military force.

If this explanation wasn't clear in the 1990s, it is clear now. As the United States loses power, it has become obvious that no one else will guarantee the peaceful settlement of disputes, enforce human rights, or ensure that international criminals are tried and convicted. Indeed, the one exception among the collapsing pillars of the liberal order -- international trade -- proves the rule. The United States, Europe, Japan, and China are the four great trading blocs, and they cooperate with each other because they know that if anyone reverts to protectionism, others will retaliate. The system functions because it never depended solely on enforcement by the United States. The United States is just one of several countries that enforce the rules through the threat of mutual retaliation.

Put another way, the liberal order that was born with the Soviet Union's collapse rested on a fiction: that all nations were equal and submitted to the same rules because they reflected universal human values. In reality, of course, the rules were Western rules, and they were enforced largely by the United States, which was no one's equal. Today, the fiction has been exposed, and the world order looks increasingly like the one that reigned during the 19th century. In this order, a small group of "great powers" sets the rules for their relations with each other and interacts under conditions of rough equality. Smaller countries survive by establishing client relationships with the great powers. The great powers compete with each other over these client relationships, but otherwise try to maintain conditions of stability that allow for trade and other forms of cooperation. The major challenge for the great powers is to ensure that competition for clients does not erupt into full-scale war. In the late 19th century, the great powers were Russia, Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and the United States. Today, they are the United States, China, Russia, and Europe.

The implications of this new-old order are significant. The great powers will settle their disputes through diplomacy (one hopes) or war, not with courts. Human rights and international justice will prevail only in the Western sphere of influence, at least until people in China and Russia decide that these ideals are attractive to them. But we can expect trade and investment to continue to flourish, as they did at the end of the 19th century up until World War I.

From this standpoint, many of today's conflicts, which seem inexplicable from the perspective of the post-Cold War order, are not hard to understand. In its disputes with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and other neighbors over various islands in the Pacific, China refuses to submit to a tribunal because its goal is not to vindicate international law, but to extend its power over its neighborhood. The same is true for Russia with respect to Georgia and Ukraine. Syria used chemical weapons against its own citizens because its government saw an advantage in doing so. President Bashar al-Assad does not fear the International Criminal Court because he enjoys the protection of Russia. North Korea provokes South Korea and the West in order to gain concessions in diplomatic negotiations; it does not fear the U.N. Security Council or the International Court of Justice because it can rely on China's support. Governments throughout the Middle East -- Egypt, Turkey, Libya, Iraq -- are cracking down on dissent because they are more worried about local disorder than about their obligations under human rights treaties. And Western powers share the fear of disorder and so will not pressure them to improve human rights.

These are the facts -- it's time for theory to catch up.

Photo: Getty Images


A Clear-Eyed Look at Polio

Over the past 25 years, international eradication efforts have wiped out 99 percent of the cases of the deadly virus. So why is the last 1 percent now all of the story?

Things have been going really well for polio eradication -- in fact, so well that the world hit an all-time low in 2012: Cases were down more than 99 percent since 1988. Still, it seems like the bad news about polio outbreaks and the difficulties in providing vaccines dominates the headlines. On May 5, the World Health Organization declared an international health emergency to further contain the virus -- targeting Pakistan, Syria, and Cameroon as countries where the virus has spread.

But the thing is, fighting polio has never been easy.

Over the past 25 years, a global effort to eradicate polio has immunized more than 2.5 billion children, and cases worldwide declined from 350,000 cases in 1988 to just over 400 in 2013. This success was driven by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and governments around the world that have, since 1988, supported the goal of reaching all the world's children -- no matter where they live -- with the polio vaccine. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where I lead the global development team, has been a major funder of this initiative since 2009.

However, despite this incredible achievement, the obstacles faced on the last mile to success have now seemingly become 100 percent of the whole polio story.

By early 2011, polio was only coming from three countries where transmission of the disease had never been stopped: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. By the end of 2012, the world had the lowest number of polio cases ever. Governments and donors around the world stepped up to support a new eradication plan, pledging $4 billion over six years and cheering the goal of a polio-free world by the end of 2018. So, in 2013, when India was well on its way to officially eliminating polio, with no new cases since January 2011, optimism was high and momentum was strong.

But the ticker-tape parade wasn't scheduled just yet. Beginning in December 2012, a new and alarming set of challenges emerged: deplorable acts of violence against health workers delivering the polio vaccine, a Taliban-imposed ban on polio vaccination campaigns in Pakistan's Waziristan region, and escalating violence by Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria.

Since then, more than 50 polio vaccinators and security personnel in Pakistan and northern Nigeria have been murdered; in Pakistan, 400,000 children living in North and South Waziristan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have been denied access to the polio vaccine. Pakistan has seen the erosion of two years of dramatic progress against polio, and the resulting spike in cases has led to the introduction of wild poliovirus in Syria, Iraq, and other countries in the Middle East. Adding to the challenges was an outbreak of 200 polio cases in previously polio-free countries in the Horn of Africa and a separate spread of the disease to Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.

Altogether, these tragic events amounted to serious challenges -- but they weren't a defeat. Over the past few months, the media has managed to ignore the other part of this story: Polio eradication efforts have always been beset by numerous challenges, among them the need to vaccinate millions of children living in conflict zones, geographically remote areas, and communities that lack basic health-care infrastructure. Due to successful efforts to address these challenges on every continent, only two reservoirs of the poliovirus remain today. This means that all wild poliovirus strains that exist in the world today originated either from the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan or from northeast Nigeria.

Despite the tragedies in recent months in the final polio reservoirs, local authorities in these last reservoirs are showing renewed determination to ensure greater protection for vaccination workers and to reach more children with vaccines.

Since January of this year, provincial governments, in close coordination with the federal government of Pakistan, have provided hundreds of thousands of children with the polio vaccine coupled with other health services, including lifesaving vaccines, clean water, and soap. These health services were delivered for the first time in and around Peshawar, Pakistan, through the "Justice for Health" program, rolled out by the local government's ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. With thousands of police deployed to protect the vaccination teams, the effort has proceeded without incident. Other provincial governments also working with the federal government have launched similar campaigns in Karachi, and local polio vaccination teams are setting up at key transit points along the border of North and South Waziristan. Global and local Islamic leaders and scholars have issued fatwas to endorse the value of vaccination and to urge parents to protect their children from polio. Under the leadership of the grand imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, Islamic scholars recently joined the eradication effort with a pro-polio vaccination "Jeddah Declaration" and six-month action plan to address challenges in the remaining polio-endemic parts of the Islamic world.

The progress has been especially dramatic in Nigeria. In 2012, it was the only polio-endemic country with an increase in cases. Significant progress was made in 2013, and so far this year, only two cases of wild poliovirus have been reported. The latest anti-polio campaigns in northern Nigeria have reached historic rates of vaccination coverage. Vaccinators have gained access to thousands of settlements where children had never before been reached, and vaccination teams are increasingly welcomed as they combine the polio vaccine with other routine childhood immunizations.

Afghanistan has nearly eliminated polio, with four cases reported so far this year. Of the four, only one case is endemic to Afghanistan -- the other three cases were the result of the virus originating in and being transmitted from Pakistan.

The confirmation of a polio case in a previously polio-free country is always discouraging, but not unanticipated. In the last year, the response to outbreaks has been far-reaching. In Syria, for example, where the civil conflict has created tremendous humanitarian challenges, response teams are working with local nongovernmental organizations to vaccinate even the hardest-to-reach children, and the number of new polio cases appears to have declined, with no new cases since January of this year. Governments of neighboring countries have also quickly mobilized, and more than 20 million children and adults in Syria and neighboring countries have been vaccinated. In Somalia, vaccination teams are concentrating on locations with highly mobile populations, and new cases have steadily diminished. The Horn of Africa has only seen one case of polio to date in 2014. And, in response to outbreaks in Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, mass vaccination campaigns and surveillance efforts are under way in those countries and in neighboring Gabon and Congo (Brazzaville).

A month ago, I attended a ceremony celebrating India's success in stopping polio and the polio-free certification of 11 countries in Southeast Asia, home to 1.8 billion people. This achievement cannot be overstated, given that India was long regarded as the hardest place on Earth to end polio due to the country's population density, high rates of migration, poor sanitation, high birthrates, and low rates of childhood immunization.

At a global level, of the two types of wild poliovirus left in the world, we've only seen one type in the past 16 months, signaling the shrinking genetic diversity of a disease that has thrived for millennia.

As the global polio eradication program has proved time and again, the world can overcome new obstacles as they arise. Setbacks are inevitable in the ambitious effort to rid the world of any infectious human disease -- a feat that has been achieved only once before, with smallpox. But these challenges should all be viewed in context: In spite of the newest obstacles, a world free of polio is still on the horizon.