The Illusion of Permanence

A Roman attending the Colosseum 2,000 years ago could be forgiven for thinking that the Roman Empire would last forever.  And so to, 2,000 years before the Roman Empire, a tributary visiting the fabled Palace of Sargon may have believed that the Assyrian Empire would last forever.

For all of us, our views and expectations are largely formed by our lived experience.  So what we experience and see is often assumed to be the ‘natural order’ – to be permanent.

But as history attests, nothing lasts forever.  Not the Assyrian Empire. Not the Roman Empire.  And perhaps not the global institutions we have grown to assume will always be there.

Like so much affected by COVID, our global institutions will not be fundamentally changed solely because of COVID.  However, the impact of COVID will likely accelerate changes which were already unfolding.

One global change is the bifurcation of the post-Cold War world between what I will loosely call democratic nations and non-democratic nations.

So let’s consider the origins of those institutions, that bifurcation, and the risk to those institutions

The origins of our Global institutions

The Treaty of Versailles was the most famous of the various treaties which brought an end to WWI. By 1919 the parties to that Treaty were so concerned to avoid another global conflict that the Treaty recognised the foundation of the League of Nations to help avoid such conflicts.

The League of Nations (influenced by European and Anglosphere countries which prized, what we call, Western liberal democratic principles) fostered the establishment of organisations which would become the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Trade Organisation.

The League of Nations evolved into the United Nations following WWII.  Again, the United Nations was heavily influenced by Western liberal democracies and their philosophies.

Since WWII (which is the entire living memory of more than 90% of the world’s population) these institutions have been seen by many as the bedrock of global stability through maintaining peace (with more than 70 official UN Peace Keeping missions since WWII), maintaining economic stability (with the IMF coordinating some global economic policy) and promoting economic prosperity (with the World Bank currently funding more than USD80 billion per annum of development in the developing world).

Despite these global ‘liberal’ institutions having played a critical role in global stability since WWII, they face formidable challenges.

Bifurcation of the world

China has filled the geopolitical vacuum left after the collapse of the Soviet bloc.  It is the pre-eminent member of a group of what I shall loosely call undemocratic nations – countries like North Korea, Iran, Russia and others.  I don’t say these nations are without virtue, simply that they have a system of government which is fundamentally undemocratic.

On the other side of the ledger are a group of what I shall loosely call democratic nations – the Five Eyes countries (Australia, UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand), India, most of Europe and others. Similarly, I don’t say these nations are without their failings, simply that they have a system of government which is fundamentally democratic.

One may debate the merits of individual countries or their systems of government, however what is difficult to argue is that the two systems are incompatible and are competing for global influence.

The world is bifurcating between these two systems.  We see this in the trade wars between the US and China, the ongoing diplomatic tensions between Europe and Russia, trade tensions between Australia and China and the military tensions between China and India on land and China and Vietnam, the Philippines and others in the South China Sea.   Interestingly, it is technology which is likely to entrench this bifurcation.  China’s flagship Huawei has been effectively banned from key areas of the economy in most Five Eyes countries.  Others seem likely to follow. It is easy to see a world in which countries must choose between Huawei and another (Western) technology platform.  Given the importance of technology, this may become a binary choice consigning a nation into one trading block or another.  Those trading blocs may become military blocs.

The broader impacts of COVID have materially accelerated these trends.

The risk to our institutions

Our lived experience in Australia (as with many of the other Western liberal democracies that influenced the development of the UN) has for the most part been of a functioning liberal democracy that has provided for economic prosperity and social cohesion.  This is not to say there are not problems in Australia which ought to be addressed.  Nor is to say our history is stain free. Clearly neither is the case.  However, we have been an economic and societal success story.   This lived experience makes it easy for us to assume that our liberal democracy is the ‘natural order’ of things.  It is not.

One may argue that institutionalised liberal democracies are 330 years old, tracing its origins to the Bill of Rights in the UK in 1689.  The Bill of Rights codified for the first time many of the rights we now take for granted.  On this basis, in the time that humanity has organised itself into permanent settled societies (as distinct from nomadic societies) liberal democracy has been chosen to organise those societies for about 3% of the time.  And, at its high water mark, those systems of government have not been successfully adopted by more than about one-third of the world’s population!

In this context, it is not the natural order of things.  To the contrary, it is the unnatural order of things,

Today, liberal democracies are challenged both externally and internally.

Last week Twitter announced that it has closed ~32,000 accounts associated with disinformation campaigns run in China, Russia and Turkey.  Today, the PM announced that Australia had been subjected to a state-sponsored cyber-attack.  The external challenges to liberal democracies are obvious and growing.

Internally, we seem to face a crisis of confidence in our history, our institutions and ourselves.

The impact of global events (such as COVID-19) can see our global institutions increasingly used as a tool of parochial nations.  The politicisation of those institutions risks their effectiveness and support, creating knock-on impacts.  The WHO has been criticised by the US for acquiescing to China – with a consequent reduction in funding.  China has imposed trade sanctions on Australia, for pushing the WHO to investigate COVID and its sources.  African countries led by Burkina Faso (not generally seen as a paragon of human rights virtue) now press the United Nations to investigate racism and human rights in the USA.  And so it goes on.

As our global institutions are more and more caught in this crossfire of global politics, they risk losing the confidence of the nations upon whom they rely for their funding and other support.  The more democratic countries see these institutions drift from the liberal principles which underpinned their founding, the harder they will find it to retain confidence in them.

Whatever, the rights and wrongs of individual actions, there seems to be a marked increase in the use of our global institutions to advance parochial national agendas.  Perhaps it has always been thus.   But like all institutions, our valued global institutions only survive for so long as they have the confidence of their stakeholders.  Without that, they fundamentally change or cease to exist.

The League of Nations, founded on laudable principles, didn’t survive for more than a generation.  There is no guarantee that our current global institutions will survive – at least in their current form, with their current legitimacy.

And that is troubling for Australia.  We are a middle power, highly dependent upon the free movement of people, goods, services and capital.  And that movement in turn relies upon a stable and predictable global framework.  The impact of COVID-19 on the strength of our institutions should not be underestimated. We should be mindful of that lest, before there time, they crumble like the ruins of the Colosseum or the Palace of Sargon.