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If Good People Let It, Authoritarianism Ready to Move In

rusted barbed wire around an enclosure

Hugh Dugan By Monday, 25 March 2024 11:04 AM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

Last week I was invited to deliver a speech in Azerbaijan.

There in the Texas of Central Asia I witnessed a ruling family that knows well how to showcase its oily wealth.

For example, each year a high-speed grand prix takes over Baku’s roundabouts and boulevards along the Caspian Sea. Those same waters spawn world-famous caviar available in smart shops. And an annual conference, the Baku Global Forum, convenes 250 mostly former dignitaries to see and to be seen.

These supernumeraries synched well with their mighty host stating that our fractured world needs a rules-based international order. But no one specified whether that order formed bottom-up or top-down.

My duty there was to review for the assembled (several from Moscow U. class of ’66) concepts of international relations such as realism between states, idealism among them; and the rules-based international order.

Given a Soviet-succored audience, I seized the moment, while, mindful that I would have to fly over Iranian airspace to return to New York. Here I share my speaking notes.

Realism views states as operating in a competitive world where power and influence drive their action and enables a tenuous balance among them.

In contrast, idealism believes that true world harmony depends upon states sharing universal values and operationalizing them through international cooperation and mechanisms such as the United Nations Organization.

And what of the rules-based international order? Whether driven by realism or idealism, the rules-based international order must always be liberal. The correct and full phrase is rules-based liberal international order.

With that, some of the assembled began to wonder why I had been invited.

What does the word “liberal” add?

Liberal means that the rules evolve through custom, practice and agreement of willing sovereigns; (antonym of liberal: coercive).

I cautioned that the textbook phrase rules-based liberal international order not lose the word liberal. Otherwise, its foil “authoritarian” is poised to move into that phrase like a squatter into a neglected house, claiming dominion and digging-in for as long as possible,

Yes, a rules-based authoritarian international order is in the making by our adversaries with China in the lead. They are abetted by the fabled good-people-who-do-nothing.

Of course, this would not go well. History shows that authoritarianism deploys coercion and undermines sovereignty. This starts at home and then covets what is free abroad.

The international order revised as authoritarian would dispel freedom more than any strident realpolitik worldview or a naïve, idealistic one.

Lesson: The international order’s rules must derive from customary practice and human rights, not be engineered for efficiencies prized by an authoritarian elite.

Now, back to idealism and realism.

At the Baku conference a few saw surges of nationalism and populism in several countries as a threat to enlightened governance in those places.

Such idealists worry that this unleashes a realist worldview and agenda into foreign relations. They fear realpolitik as a trap into a more deeply fractured world, one worsened to lurking, authoritarian predators.

Rather, idealists prescribe taming inter-state tension by international cooperation through multilateral means, such as at the United Nations.

Realists are not so disposed. They assert that a strong state is needed for offsetting global forces both routine and sporadic. Only after settling on a pecking order, states might be open to multilateral mechanisms, that is, for maintaining a balance of power among themselves, albeit tenuous.

Further, realists observe that trust invested in the likes of the U.N. Organization — that is, in the diplomatic-industrious complex or in the “deep state” global elite — has netted little since World War II.

They evidence years of fanciful, pay-it-forward projects divined by bureaucrats in the towering U.N. Their “shoulds, coulds and woulds” crowd out the “shalls, cans, and wills” needed as realism’s teeth for enforcing rules that matter.

Whatever their sway, idealism or realism, all peoples align on a basic point: that each state is sovereign and inviolable. States co-exist. But they now bump into each other more frequently, like bumper cars, sometimes planned but most often in passing.

But even a small violation can constrain a state’s scope of action.

So, although each state is sovereign, the sum of day-to-day forces in the international system can barely accommodate that sovereignty.

But somehow, they do.

How? Let us look at this from a road traffic perspective.

When entering a roundabout, each car has the right of way. But increased traffic flows mean more accidents. To avoid these, each routinely opts to yield the right of way. And it all happens without signs or traffic police.

Mutual yielding, whether in a grand prix motor race or taking turns at the United Nations microphone, does no harm to one’s pride or sovereignty.

Conclusively, to yield does not mean to cede or to surrender. Yielding is a decision taken in enlightened self-interest. Such yielding is an exercise of each state’s sovereignty and thereby strengthens it.

In sum, effective statesmanship sometimes yields to foreign constraints while continuing to discern openings for further cooperative advantage.

Such enlightened self-interest  —in practice, custom and agreement — structures the rules-based liberal international order.

Yes, that order appears fractured at times, and it must withstand setbacks and take lessons learned.

So, to reinforce its resilience, call it by its full name: the rules-based liberal international order.

Otherwise, a rules-based authoritarian international order is on our door and ready to move in. It would supplant freedom more thoroughly than could any mere realpolitik powerplay or idealistic burden-sharing scheme among countries.

A liberal order enables governance without government. An authoritarian order, however, means freedom-squelching governance with top-heavy government. Take your pick.

That was my sermon, patiently received by the autocrats and others in that audience. I hope that it enlightened my gracious hosts and colleagues.

Hugh Dugan served as acting special presidential envoy for hostage affairs and senior director for international organization affairs at the national security council after having advised 11 U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations since 1989. He is Founder of The Truce Foundation, inspired by the Olympic TruceRead Hugh Dugan's Reports — More Here.

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A liberal order enables governance without government. An authoritarian order, however, means freedom-squelching governance with top-heavy government. Take your pick.
united nations, authoritarianism
Monday, 25 March 2024 11:04 AM
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