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The Survival of the Fittest

The rules-based global order is an illusion. Developing a new order will require more pragmatism

Interview with Parag Khanna, Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow, Robert Bosch Academy, Berlin

Körber-Stiftung: We would like to show you this headline on international order in the context of the US elections. It states “The end of the world as we know it”. What is your reaction?

Khanna: I would say: It was going to come to this anyway! And to speak in the words of Donald Trump: It’s gonna be unbelievable! [laughs]

Körber-Stiftung: So the end of the world was inevitable and you even seem to look forward to it …

Khanna: It was inevitable that Brexit and the election of Trump happened in two Anglo-Saxon states. At the end of 2016, everyone assumed the dominoes were falling across the West. But the West is not a uniform entity. Dominoes did not fall in Canada, France or Germany. Why? Because those are social democracies and multi-party systems that can moderate their extremes. Frankly, they are better regime forms than the market democracies in the US and the UK. Especially in the US, the quality of governance decreased steadily over the past years. One could view it as evolutionary competition among different kinds of states facing the same challenges. Just like in evolution, you can become extinct. So do you want to be a duck-billed platypus or do you want to be a biped with fingers and limbs? No one wants to have governments anymore that do not protect people in a world of disruption!

Körber-Stiftung: So the West is not declining, but at least, the rules-based international order is falling apart, right?

Khanna: There has never been such a thing as a global rules-based liberal order. Why would you say there was? In the last 27 years since the end of the Cold War, I do not recall any phase where everyone was playing by the same rules or in which power dynamics disappeared. This is a Eurocentric perspective. Asia’s rules were never Washington’s rules, but Asia makes up 52 percent of the planet’s population. We Westerners are so shocked right now, because we have never listened to the rest of the world. Guess what, now it is talking.

Körber-Stiftung: In the conflict with Russia, the EU seems eager to defend this non-existent rules-based international order by not allowing Russia to get away with a breach of international law. Is this a waste of time then?

Khanna: Christian Linder said it is very unlikely that the EU will convince Russia to abandon Crimea, and he is right. You cannot pretend that the rules-based order already exists, you have to build it. This has to be done by coming to a settlement based on the existing reality and using this as a foundation of the new order. The EU will not be able to turn back the clock on Crimea. We need a political compromise that can serve as a cornerstone for how we are going to handle such disputes in the future.

Körber-Stiftung: So all rules of international law are up for debate?

Khanna: No, it depends on the field and who is part of them. Many countries were not part of the process that made these norms, or did not even exist when they were written, so it is not surprising they do not feel bound by them. They have their own rules for solving local conflicts, and these matter much more than any Security Council Resolution. No UN resolution has solved the conflict in Kashmir or Palestine. Again, this truly universal rule of law has always been a fantasy.

Körber-Stiftung: And who will matter in tomorrow’s world? Given that Asia not only accounts for half of the world’s population but also experiences much more dynamic development, will Germany and the EU become irrelevant?

Khanna: The EU is an economic, diplomatic and legal pole of power. Secondly, EU trade with Asia is now greater than EU trade with America. We’ve grown up in a world where the transatlantic relationship seemed to be the single most robust economic anchor in the world. That is not true today. Asia seems to need Europe more than it needs America. So the question is rather, is America still relevant?

Körber-Stiftung: Is the EU only attractive as a market, or do political systems and values play any role?

Khanna: It is tough to say. Europe is supposed to be much more adamant and loyal to human rights and values. But on the other hand, Europe just failed to criticize Chinese human rights, because Greece and Hungary are taking Chinese investments.

Körber-Stiftung: What does Germany’s strength mean for the EU?

Khanna: You would not have a meaningful European Union without Germany, but Germany without the European Union would not be that important either. Remember that Europe as a whole has 600 million people! Britain just learned the hard way how unimportant it is in the world without the EU. Germany as the biggest economy has special responsibilities for the EU, but it is still too small to be a global power. Take defense, for example: neither Germany, nor any other European country is really going to matter in the world unless there is coordination, pooling of resources and a common set of military assets.

Körber-Stiftung: Finally, which of the following actors do you most likely trust to solve global problems: Russia, China, the United States, the European Union, the United Nations or NATO?

Khanna: The EU. It has the right ideas for solving problems, even if it doesn’t have the capacity to implement them itself. The right idea is regional integration. Strong regional integration means stability.

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