US President Joe Biden attends a working lunch with other G7 leaders to discuss shaping the global economy, at the Yoga Pavilion, Schloss Elmau in Kuren, Germany, on June 26. Photo: Reuters
Andrew Sheng
Andrew Sheng

Whose world? What order? Time has passed for the West to call the shots

  • Nato has assumed the role of final arbiter of the ‘rules-based order’ but in today’s multipolar world, BRICS and other nations in the Global South may have other ideas: what if they want their own Monroe Doctrine?

Every day, we are told we must defend the rules-based order. But whose order? What rules? Why should we defend a system if we had no say in shaping it?

The primary architect of the neoliberal order was Austrian philosopher Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992). Neoliberalism was put into practice in the 1980s, when US president Ronald Reagan and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher swept away Keynesian state interventionism to pursue a free-market model.

But the deeper thinker on the constitutional law, politics and international order was German jurist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). And Schmitt’s influence on conservative political circles in almost all the big powers appears to be growing.

I only became aware of his work when Noema magazine wrote an editorial on his 1950 book Nomos of the Earth. Schmitt is controversial because he essentially wrote the legal basis for Nazism in the 1920s, which left him ostracised from academic circles for decades.

A brutally realist thinker who explored the legal foundations of European political theory, he argued that no order can function without a sovereign authority.

Schmitt is considered an authoritarian supporter because he saw sovereign power as resting ultimately in the executive (rather than the legislature or judiciary) – because the sovereign (that is, the president) decides in exceptional situations where the law must be suspended or emergency powers assumed to restore order.

Executive decisions are either bound by law or the leader’s moral bearings.

Today, the world debates whether former US president Donald Trump is morally or legally culpable for the 2021 January 6 riots while Nato supports non-member Ukraine in the war against Russia on a matter of moral principle.

But if the war escalates into global nuclear destruction, how do we trade off individual rights with the collective rights of everyone else to survive?

Schmitt dissected European constitutional laws and the international order, dividing them into three phases: pre-1500, 1648-1919 and thereafter. Before the discovery of America, European powers fought each other under a religious cloak, since the pope decided on disputes of rights on moral grounds.

Indeed, it was the papal bulls of 1455 and 1493 that authorised the Portuguese and Spaniards to conquer all lands, and seize and enslave Saracens and non-Christians in the Americas, Africa and Asia.

The religious rationales comprised the domination code, whereby Christians can rule over non-Christians and possess their property, as well as the discovery code, whereby lands owned by non-believers are treated as terra nullius (empty land), meaning non-Christian indigenous peoples do not have rights.

But when the Dutch and English started fighting with the Portuguese and Spaniards about overseas territories, what was the legal justification? Dutch jurist Grotius (1583-1645) provided the secular rationalisation that discovery alone is not enough, that since there was freedom in the seas, occupation by a sovereign state confirmed rights seized through war.


Dutch King apologises to former colony Indonesia for mass killings during independence war

Dutch King apologises to former colony Indonesia for mass killings during independence war

Schmitt argued that jus publicum Europaeum (European public law) emerged after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia to allow sovereign countries to have the right to go to war based on their own judgment of justice and necessity, without interference in each other’s domestic affairs.

This changed after the end of the first world war, when the 1919 Treaty of Versailles treated the losing side as criminals, with their rights cancelled or confiscated.

While the Europeans were busy fighting each other, the United States rose in global power and imposed its 1823 Monroe Doctrine, asserted its own sphere of influence, with the right to intervene in Central and South American states.

That sphere of influence would cover cultural, economic, military, political and today technology exclusivity beyond legal sovereign borders.

Chinese behaviour in Asian seas driven by Monroe Doctrine of its own

Schmitt was prescient in seeing that where war is fought on the basis of “good versus evil”, in which all rights of the other side are “cancelled” (like the foreign exchange assets of Afghanistan and Russia are frozen or seized), the situation may be an unstable equilibrium.

The unstable European security architecture was settled decisively by the US in two world wars because of its overwhelming military, economic and industrial power. But, in today’s multipolar situation, who decides on the rules of the international order? If both sides accuse the other of being evil and illegitimate, what decides it other than the use of arms?

To cut a complex story short, the Nato military alliance, comprising nearly 1 billion people and some 47 per cent of world GDP, assumes its status quo role of final arbiter of the “rules-based order”.


‘We will not stand by’: Nato heads of state meet to address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

‘We will not stand by’: Nato heads of state meet to address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
The problem is that the economies of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), plus Indonesia, account for 3.5 billion people and one-quarter of world GDP in market terms. But on GDP based on purchasing power parity, they are nearly equal with Nato and so may have their own views on the international order. What if the larger non-Western countries want their own version of the Monroe Doctrine?

The moral principle that we all should live peacefully on one planet should override sovereign nations’ fighting over power, especially when this means humanity could go up in flames, either from climate change or nuclear war.

For the nomos (or order) of the planet, we should all cooperate rationally. If we truly believe in democracy, can all 8 billion people in the world vote on the rules-based order, or do we still leave it to the Group of 7? No order is stable without true legitimacy on democratic principles. How to achieve that order remains a truly open question.

Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective