Values and the Ethics of International Order

January 28, 2016

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This article builds on a paper presented to the Carnegie Council's Global Ethics Fellows Fifth Annual Conference, "An Ethical Dialogue between Asia and the West: Philosophical Traditions, Moral Contentions, and the Future of US-Asia Relations." The Conference took place in New York City, October 20-23, 2015.

For a country to become a global political power able to contribute to shaping an international legal, political, or economic order that enjoys a sense of legitimacy, it needs to be strong both internally and externally. It needs to be strong internally from the economic, political, military, and social standpoints; it also needs to be strong externally from these very same standpoints. But this is not enough. These elements are necessary conditions, but they are not sufficient. What is also required for such a country is the right repertoire of values with which people identify, both at home and abroad.

At a time when U.S. primacy is in doubt, at a time when many contemplate with trepidation the possibility that China could become a global political power, at a time, also, when the threat of radical Islam in the Middle East and beyond goes hand in hand with anti-Western attitudes, the question of the right repertoire of values, along with the legitimacy and ethics of the international order, could not be more important.

Western Power and the International Question of Values

To be sure, there is much material power behind the West’s ability in the modern era to dominate the world and shape the international order to its image and its advantage. Technological superiority, dynamic economies, and military might are some of the material factors that played a key role in making Western powers (European powers and then the United States) successful at projecting their power worldwide, establishing hegemony, and putting in place a system of international relations. But power was not the only instrument of importance in ensuring their success. Equally important was the repertoire of values at the core of the political and social modernization of Western societies. While liberal and democratic values1 emerging in the context of the Enlightenment2 do not constitute the whole story of the normative spread of the West globally (worldwide projection of Western powers and of the values accompanying them started in the 15th century), they have prime of place.3 From the 18th century to the present time, their increasing influence and the support they offered to the Western projection of power went through four major steps.

The first step was when liberal and democratic values became—especially in the context of the American and French revolutions—constitutive elements, as the horizon and foundation of society, of countries of strategic importance. The second step saw their spread from the early 19th century onward in Europe and beyond (Latin America), generating in the process ferocious battles between progressives and conservatives. The ups and downs of nationalism throughout the 19th century and all the way to World War I and even World War II are part of this story. The third step coincided in the 20th century with decolonization. Such decolonization took place in the language of the West, as indicated by the central function of notions such as right of peoples, self-determination, and human rights. As such, incidentally, decolonization, while certainly restricting the reach of the West, also widened and deepened it. Following the end of the Cold War, the fourth step is the one we are still in the midst of, which, at least in the context of the United Nations, stresses the importance of human rights (see Responsibility to Protect and Millennium Development Goals). But this last step or period is turning out to be challenging, including for liberal and democratic values and their contribution to the legitimacy and ethics of the international system. Among other things, authoritarian China, viewed as a challenger of the status quo in the Asia region and globally, is making the stakeholders of the current international order nervous; the threat of radical Islam is developing on the heels of the failings of secular democratic politics in Europe and beyond; and the evolution of global capitalism appears to be more and more at odds with the inclusive ethics and politics of democracy, internationally as well as nationally.

Chinese Values and the Evolution of International Order

We would not be talking today about the possibility of the displacement of Western values if the material and the normative (values) power of the West, once more or less firmly installed at the top of the international distribution of power, were not now under stress due to these challenges.

Yet, focusing here only on the challenge coming from China, the threat that this country represents for some is perhaps more imaginary than real. For even if it is now an economic force to reckon with, even if it has the ambition of achieving global recognition and status and becoming number one, significantly altering the international order could be out of reach for China. Not simply because its economy seems to be slowing down, but also because even if its economy does not slow down, it may be that China is lacking the right set of values required in the contemporary era for a country to become a global political power able to underwrite a legitimate international order.

In this regard, the predicament of China is somewhat similar to that of Japan in the 1980s. At the time, many analysts, in awe of its rapid recovery after World War II and its rise as a major economic power, thought it really possible that Japan would surpass the United States as a global power. Of course none of this happened. As its economy stopped rising and, while preserving its prosperity, started to become stagnant, Japan dissipated as a threat. But, more to the point, had Japan continued to grow economically it is nevertheless unlikely that it would have been able to translate its global economic power into a political global power. This is not simply because the legacy of World War II made it difficult for Tokyo to project a policy of national interest and trying to alter the international system. What was challenging as well, and perhaps more, was that the fact that the values at the core of Japan’s identity insist probably too much on the unique and different character of the country and its culture, making it difficult for other countries and cultures to identify with them and embrace them, and vice versa. In other words, the terms of Japanese exceptionalism are too inward looking and thus quite incompatible with allowing others to recognize themselves in it, in order to become the value basis for a new or simply reformed international order paradigm.

To be sure, China is more experienced than Japan in terms of shaping a regional, if not an international, order around its values. After all, prior to being dislodged from its leading position in Northeast Asia, it was for a very long time at the center of a tributary system that was largely based on its values and views of the world. There is also a mixture of flexibility and pragmatism in the Chinese approach to change that can be an asset. But this does not make it easier for China to put in place or at least change the international order with the support of its values and the ethics they represent. Assuming that this is one of the international goals of the Chinese political elite (which for a number of reasons is somewhat unlikely), it is difficult to see how the required threshold of identification with Chinese core values (and their ethics) that would be needed, at home and abroad, as a basis for soft power and impact on the evolution of the balance of power and the transformation of the international order could be attained. Four types of obstacles, related to the authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime are especially in the way of the universalization of Chinese values.4

To begin with, considering the shaky character of the domestic credibility of the Chinese regime (linked in large part to economic performance), it is difficult to imagine how its stated values could be attractive enough to be embraced internationally by others as the basis for a reformed international order. Moreover, how could the values put forward by the Chinese regime, including its current push for Confucianism, be a resource internationally and be universalized if the Chinese themselves (common people and even the elites) appear to be rather cynical about the normative claims put forward by the regime to boost its legitimacy? In addition, a political regime shaped by authoritarian values, being likely to not only overlook the rights of its citizens but also the ones of others beyond its own borders, is not well-positioned to generate a type of soft power able to contribute to a credible and stable international order. Finally, this is all the more problematic considering that the limitations of soft power for an authoritarian regime are particularly at work internationally due to the fact that the power reach of an authoritarian regime is, in general, always weaker at the international than at the national level.

What Lies Ahead?

In conclusion, the current international order and the ethics it expresses and projects, including in its progressive aspects linked to liberal and democratic values, are likely to remain the frame of reference for the foreseeable future. In this regard, one of the major strengths of this international order and the ethics of liberal and democratic values associated with it is that these values can be taken, and have been taken on board by actors eager to challenge the system and put forward claims in support of their rights. As we alluded to earlier, this is very much at the heart of the history of decolonization. Such strengths explain why the progressive values that contribute to shape the international order continue to be a magnet, attracting and being called upon as a way to make international order more inclusive, more ethical and more legitimate, as the inspiring role played by international human rights indicate.

However, this does not mean that all is fine in the current international order and its ethics. Far from it. For we know that the contemporary international order and its ethics are also a target—a target, especially for not being democratic enough in its values, or for not being true to its democratic values. Accusations of hypocrisy, double-standards, self-serving policies, and of national interest primacy over human rights, particularly directed at major democratic powers, are often mentioned to express doubts about the ethics of the present international order or the seriousness of its commitment to progressive ethics.

This is to say that it would be a mistake to remain idle, satisfied with the status quo. Rather, we should be working on clarifying and improving the moral advantage that liberal and democratic values continue to lend, despite their problems, to the current international order and its ethics.

To do so, we have to push forward in at least four directions. First, the gap between the reality of the current international system and liberal and democratic values has to be reduced. This entails making international order, its (international) law and its ethics less captive to the interests of the powerful, including the powerful democratic countries. Second, the liberal and democratic values supporting a more inclusive ethics of international order have to be extended and enhanced. Third, liberal and democratic values have to be called upon at the international level in a non-righteous way; they should be able to help draw the line between what is right and what is wrong on the basis of a greater self-awareness. Fourth, the ethics of international order needs to address better than is the case today the structural violence, the embedded disparities of power between rich and poor, and the damages they create.

Ultimately, pushing forward in these four directions amounts to making better, stronger liberal democratic values and their traditions and ethics at the international level as well as at the national level.

1 We do not mean to say here that liberal and democratic ideals overlap entirely. Their relationship is made up of commonalities and differences.
2 Building on the work of Francis Bacon, Descartes, Locke and Spinoza, some of the major figures of the Enlightenment are Diderot, Rousseau, Hume, Smith, and Kant.
3 The progressive aspects of the liberal and democratic values that enter into the fabric of the modern international order (including its international law component) are not all there is to it. This international order is of course also made up of conservative, non-liberal, and non-democratic elements.
4 Highlighting these problems with China does not imply that Western powers, including democratic Western powers, are themselves in the best position to lend a sense of ethics and legitimacy to international order. On this issue, see the concluding paragraphs. 

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