Jun 21, 2024

The Case for a “Helsinki 2.0”

The world is turning polycentric and pluralistic, with competing ideas about order. Re-establishing the principle of universalism without interference, the basis of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, offers a way forward. 

The West German delegation at the first phase of the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, July 1973.
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Following the end of the unipolar moment, the major powers are wrestling over power hierarchies as well as tangible economic and security interests. These conflicts of interest are embedded in complex questions of order, as this historical crossroads is characterized by a number of special features. Firstly, after the end of Pax Americana, no power is dominant enough to impose its ideas of order on a polycentric world. Secondly, after the end of Western hegemony, civilizations’ ideas of order derived from different traditions of thought collide.

Opinions differ widely on what the new world order could look like. Within the West, the liberal universalists, who are fighting for the continued existence of the liberal international order with democracy and human rights at its center, are opposed to the isolationist nationalists, who would prefer to dismantle the liberal multilateral superstructure. 

The so-called Global South is no longer prepared to accept an order that does not reflect its growing weight. But here too, views on what the world order of tomorrow should look like differ widely. Some want to maintain the strength of international law as a protective shield against the law of the strongest, reforming multilateral institutions in order to preserve them as cooperation platforms for solving global problems. Others favor a Westphalian order of sovereign states that provides protection against external intervention in their internal affairs or even violations of their territorial integrity. Russia and China also see liberal norms as a gateway to interference, but do not take the sovereignty and territorial integrity of their smaller neighbors too seriously. Russia is striving for a multipolar concert of great powers that imperially control their regional zones of influence. China thinks more globally; it is promoting a concert of civilizations that coexist peacefully on the outside but interpret universal norms according to their own ideas of order on the inside (cuius regio, eius religio). For the first time, therefore, the question arises as to whether and how principles of order can be derived from a polycentric and pluralistic world that can serve as a point of reference for all states.

These disputes are by no means academic. The International Criminal Court's (ICC) arrest warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin and the requested arrest warrant against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are currently polarizing the global public. In the view of many critics in the West, unequal is being equated with unequal. Countries of the Global South, on the other hand, criticize the double standards of the West: Should international law and human rights apply in Ukraine but not in Gaza?

Behind this is the question of whether the liberal institutions developed in the years following the end of the Cold War will survive the end of Pax Americana. Like Russia and China, many states reject the ICC, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and the review mechanism of the Human Rights Council. But even the liberal hegemon, the United States, is now talking about non-binding UN Security Council resolutions, wants to impose sanctions on the ICC, and is restricting free trade through protectionist measures. If former US President Donald Trump were to enter the White House again, the time of the liberal international order would probably be over for good. However, the European Union, formed from treaties and committed to the rule of law, cannot survive in a world without rules. It is therefore in Europe’s core interest to preserve the rules-based order. However, the resulting conflicts  between its power interests and values polarize European politics.

Two Key Fields of Contestation

In the midst of this confusing mix, two central issues can be identified where the different conceptions of order clash. Firstly, whether it is sensible and possible to reform the existing multilateral institutions in order to preserve them as platforms for negotiating global solutions, or whether they should be written off as irredeemable and replaced by regional and issue-related minilateral cooperation between nation states. Secondly, whether there can and should be universally recognized norms that serve as a point of reference for all states, or whether the landscape of norms in a pluralistic world must inevitably disintegrate into a patchwork of parallel worlds of values.

Can there be global governance mechanisms in a polycentric world? Multilateral organizations are under fire from several sides. In the US, the Republican camp has been attacking global institutions that supposedly want to shackle the superpower for decades. During his first term in office, Trump cancelled the country’s membership of a large number of organizations and treaties; in a possible second term in office, the transformation of the liberal hegemon into an isolationist nation state (“America First”) is likely to accelerate further.

Post-colonial critics interpret the multilateral institutions as an attempt by the West to cement its dominance through unequal treaties and hidden privileges. Far from being a collective actor, the emerging powers of the Global South are united nonetheless by a common call for a reform of the global governance architecture that adequately reflects their growing weight.

China continues to show interest in reforming the multilateral architecture, but has itself laid the foundations for an alternative (partial) order with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New Development Bank, BRICS, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

In order to resolve the current blockades, the multilateral architecture dating back to the post-war period would therefore have to be adapted to the global balance of power in the 21st century. However, it is currently difficult to imagine how the reform of the UN Security Council, for example, can succeed. Here, the permanent members pay lip service to reform, but their actions reveal their interest in maintaining their special position. A reform of the World Trade Organization is likely to fail due to domestic US resistance.

In contrast, this adjustment is conceivable in the Bretton Woods institutions. Here, however, the growing weight of the Global South is likely to come at Europe’s expense. Europe must therefore weigh up its long-term interest in a stable, rule-based order against its short-term loss of influence.

Partnerships of the Middle

In view of the many blockades, a breakthrough in one of the global challenges would be all the more important to show that progress by compromise. A joint approach by the Paris Club and the new creditor states from China to India and Saudi Arabia could, for example, pave the way for a fundamental reform of the global debt regime. The leading role of France, a middle power, is worth noting here. In view of the mistrust between Beijing and Washington, it is unlikely that a proposal from one opponent will meet with the approval of the other in the medium term. Initiatives by smaller and larger third powers could be helpful in breaking this stalemate.

Beyond security issues that are difficult to resolve, “partnerships of the middle” could play an important role in bringing movement to stalled negotiations on global issues with pragmatic proposals. If the global institutions remain blocked, minilateral formats, regional forums, and thematic partnerships can help to achieve concrete progress that can be taken up by other states. In the long term, however, the goal must remain to reform the global institutions in order to maintain them as central platforms for cooperation on planetary issues.  

Universalism versus Non-Interference

The conflict over the principles of order is no less difficult. For the West, the universality of international norms, especially human rights, is part of its identity. The atrocities of the Second World War strengthened the conviction that a positivist legal order, i.e., one in which the respective ruler can establish “law” at will, is too susceptible to abuse. Drawing on the tradition of natural law, the basic principles of a liberal order were therefore removed from the legislators’ grasp by means of protective clauses in national constitutions and, to some extent, in international law. In view of the escalating cultural clashes between identitarian tribes, Western democracies are also realizing that pluralistic societies can only be organized on the basis of universalist norms (“equal rights for all”).

Especially after the Cold War, many societies in the Global South experienced Western interference in their sovereign affairs through structural adjustment programs and humanitarian interventions. What the West sees as the protection of liberal principles ranging from market freedom to human rights is read by post-colonial states as a gateway for imperial practices of domination into a Westphalian system of equal states. In authoritarian regimes, liberal norms are even feared as a Trojan horse to justify regime change. Great powers that claim to be on an equal footing, such as China, are using their new power to take the bite out of universal norms.

China may claim to be committed to a rules-based order with universal norms such as sovereignty and human rights. In practice, however, Beijing ignores the ruling of the International Court of Justice on territorial claims in the South China Sea and uses its influence in the Human Rights Council to devalue political human rights in favor of economic and social ones. With the Global Civilization Initiative, Beijing is now going one step further. Universalism, reviled as Western cultural colonialism, is countered by a culturally relativistic concept of the peaceful coexistence of civilizations, which are to interpret international norms within their civilizational spheres against the background of their historical experiences and culturally shaped concepts of order.

This thinking in terms of spheres of influence in turn makes smaller states nervous as they fear for their sovereignty and territorial integrity in view of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For all their skepticism about Western attempts to interfere under the guise of universal norms, there is also a resolute rejection of neo-imperial hierarchies that give the “big neighbors” a say in the exercise of sovereign rights within their spheres of influence.

This clash of liberal, imperial, and Westphalian traditions of thought makes it difficult to reach an agreement on the organizational principles of the world order. However, in view of escalating global conflicts and the risk of a direct confrontation between nuclear-armed superpowers, it is imperative to find a new global agreement on the composition of the international order.

Helsinki 2.0

A return to the CSCE process (Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe) could be useful here. In the most recent Cold War, irreconcilable principles of order opposed each other: liberal democracies with universal human rights on the one hand, and “actually existing socialist” dictatorships on the other. The stroke of genius of the Helsinki Accord, the agreement signed by 35 nations that concluded the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe held in the Finnish capital in 1975, was to confirm the universality of human rights in general, but in practice to refrain from attempts to enforce them in the other side’s zone of influence. Ultimately, it codified what had already been established practice in the crises of East Berlin (1953), Budapest (1956), Cuba (1962), and Prague (1968). The combination of universality and non-interference was the basis for détente between the ideological antagonists.

A “Helsinki 2.0 formula” could thus also pave the way today for a détente in the escalating conflicts between great powers. All states should reconfirm their commitment to the universality of international law with human rights as a common goal and renounce their practice of intervention. 

If this sounds fanciful, note that the positions of the competing superpowers are actually less far apart than the rhetorical skirmishes about democracy versus autocracy would suggest. Russia has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. China has signed a total of 20 UN human rights conventions; in 2004, the protection of human rights was incorporated into the Chinese constitution. However, Beijing counters frequent accusations of disregard for human rights by pointing out that the “Western” human rights approach focusing on individual rights does not fit the reality of people’s lives in China. Conversely, beyond rhetorical condemnations, the West has refrained from intervening to protect human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. In realpolitik, almost all states subordinate their values to their power, economic, and energy interests.

Pragmatic Realism

Such pragmatic realism is causing outrage among human rights activists. However, liberal interventionism has been discredited after the spectacularly failed attempts to spread democracy at gunpoint in Afghanistan and Iraq. Refraining from telling others how they should organize their lives would also be a first step toward overcoming the Global South’s deep frustration with the West’s double standards.

The realpolitik renunciation of liberal interventions only tacitly abandons a possibility that cannot exist anyway under the conditions of nuclear deterrence. Instead, the combination of credible deterrence and economic resilience with respect for the red lines of competing great powers is the best of all bad options for preventing major wars.

However, the smaller states in particular are concerned that the withdrawal of the American global policeman will be seen by other major powers as a license to interfere in their sovereign affairs at will. A Helsinki 2.0 formula must therefore uphold the universalism of international norms without triggering wars by crossing red lines.  

Those who do not want the emerging polycentric world to be organized according to imperial principles must join forces with the vast majority of small and medium-sized states that are in favor of the Westphalian principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-violent conflict resolution, and non-interference. For the West, this means saying goodbye to the liberal euphoria of the years following the triumphant end of the Cold War and focusing on maintaining a normatively thinner order with the same rules for all states. 

If the West adopts this approach, the defensive reflexes in the Global South that are currently blocking the search for common solutions within multilateral institutions will dissipate in the medium term. There is already a starting point for a Westphalian order with a multilateral superstructure: the original Charter of the United Nations. Adapted to the balance of power in the 21st century, it can once again provide a generally binding framework that protects the weaker parties from interference and enables the negotiation of collective solutions to problems.     

Marc Saxer heads the Geopolitics and World Order project at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Asia/Pacific, based in Bangkok. He is a member of the Commission for Fundamental Values of Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD).

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