Starting from different points of departure, the Nordic countries are coming closer together regarding their outlook on security, due to a perceived Russian threat and lack of American leadership. Multilateral forums like NATO, the EU and the UN remain their best chance of contributing to defining and addressing threats to their own and global stability.
In 2013, Venezuela was a defective democracy experiencing serious breaches of civil and political rights, but with more or less functioning electoral institutions, and accountability between the branches of the state. Today, the country is an authoritarian regime. President Nicolás Maduro’s government crossed into that territory on March 29 this year, when the Supreme Court, following instructions from the executive, stripped the country’s National Assembly of its competences, triggering the wave of demonstrations that continues today (42 a day on average) and that has cost the life of 126 Venezuelans. Another definitive step occurred on July 16, with the election, through massive electoral fraud, of a Constituent Assembly with total powers over the National Assembly and aimed at rewriting the national constitution.
There are two main victims of the Venezuelan crisis. The first are the Venezuelan people, who have not only witnessed a dramatic deterioration of their living conditions, but have also lost the ability to live together in harmony, for an undetermined amount of time. The second victim, on which I focus here, is multilateralism—the ability of states to bring collective solutions to conflicts and crises through institutions and other forms of cooperation.
These days, the pulse of the world’s political health is running fast. The general prognosis is terminal, the end of the international world order, as we know it. But determining what order we are on the verge of losing could do with more diagnosis, including tracking the symptoms of the disorder (and order) back to their beginnings. One of the useful roles that historians can play in this regard is to offer a longer view of what we have lost, or, at least, the international order that seems to be disappearing from view. So bear with me as I offer a “Cook’s tour” of two centuries in search of the point where the end possibly began, in order to understand better the history of the aims—or “ends”—of international order itself.
European historians have long assumed that the early nineteenth century made “international” politics possible: In 1814, after decades of continental wars against French hegemony, a coalition led by Russia, including Sweden, Prussia, Austria, and Britain (as well as some smaller now non-existent sovereignties) emerged victorious and established what became known as the “Congress system.” At its most basic, this comprised negotiations through discussion—famously identified with the Congress of Vienna—and transnational cooperation in the interests of permanent peace. In the years that followed, ambassadorial conferences in London, and occasional conferences around the smaller towns of the European continent, became a method for managing territorial and ideological flashpoints. Within a few years, the British foreign minister Lord Castlereagh confidently reported to his Prime Minister the practical value of this transformation of European politics:
how much solid good grows out of these Reunions, which sound so terrible at a distance. It realy [sic] appears to me to be a new discovery in the Science of European Government at once extinguishing the Cobwebs, with which Diplomacy obscures the Horizon – bringing the Whole bearing of the system into its true light, and giving to the Counsels of the great Powers the Efficiency and almost the simplicity of a Single State.
This article was originally published by the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) in June 2016.
Transnational challenges – including terrorism, instability stemming from regional conflicts and fragile states, nuclear proliferation, climate change, trade protectionism and pandemics – cannot be tackled without successful collaboration on a global level. But while the need for more effective cooperation between states remains acute, multilateral talks at the United Nations have often failed, stalled, under-achieved or lacked financing and commitment in recent years.
Large, bureaucratic institutions such as the UN, the EU, NATO and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) cannot be as innovative or responsive as they would always like. They are composed of diverse groups of countries with distinct world-views, resources, objectives and perspectives on threats to security. Frameworks created by such institutions risk becoming inflexible. Attempts to reach agreements between member states can be time-, resource- and energy-intensive. As a result, decision-making can prove cumbersome and slow-paced and lead to watered-down results, often requiring member states to cede control.