Michael J. Barnett, on global governance in an age of change

“International organizations are not going to be able to move great powers where they do not want to go, and they are likely to be in survival mode.”

We pursue our exploration of the impact and effects of Putin’s war in Ukraine on multilateralism and the UN Geneva scene with an interview with Michael Barnett, Professor of International Affairs and Political Science at George Washington University and one of the foremost thinkers on global governance.

Is international cooperation still possible under such circumstances? Can agreements still be reached? Is it wise at this point to further isolate Russia? These are some of the questions I asked Michael Barnett. His interview is below—along with a brief note about his latest book, Global Governance in an Age of Change.

How much has the war shaken the multilateralism system?

I think it’s pretty shaken. But context is critical. We already saw an erosion of multilateralism, beginning with the perception of American decline and a series of trends and shocks that occurred under Obama’s watch, before Trump. A lot of these tremors were set off by the rise of China, and trying to figure out where China fits in, what China’s interests are, what rules of the game the US wanted to keep and which ones it was ready to let go. And then you have Trump, a raging bull without a cause beyond himself. Exit Trump and enter Biden. There is heightened expectation that Biden will be Obama-esque, or Obama as some remembered him. But Trump’s policies, in many areas, were not a radical shift from Obama’s, and Biden hasn’t expeditiously returned the U.S. to the fictionalized view of the Obama years. Still, there’s hope that “America is back”—but you can’t go home again. The multilateral system had already begun to adapt to Trump and a U.S. that wanted to lead from behind.

We now have Ukraine. But the issue is not just Ukraine. The fact is that two major great powers, China and Russia, have had very different views about the existing multilateral setting for quite some time, and the multilateral system was already in crisis. Ukraine will most definitely make cooperation harder, except on the narrowest issues. International organizations are not going to be able to move great powers where they do not want to go, and they are likely to be in survival mode.

Seen from Geneva, there was a relief when the Biden administration announced the return of the U.S. to the multilateral table. But there was also some skepticism, because the world was no longer the same. And now, with Ukraine, it’s clear that there is a concerted pushback against the US, the Western powers, and their allies. The BRICS are leading this effort; and the two recent votes at the UN General Assembly, on condemning the war and excluding Russia from the Human Rights Council, are a good indication of the state of international affairs. Would you agree?

Yes. In terms of Biden, I think the U.S. has tried to put the Trump years behind us; if not in substance, then in tone, rhetoric, and collegiality. But there remains the fear in the U.S. and around the world that Trumpism, if not Trump himself, are about to return, that the U.S. is a divided nation and looking more split all the time, and is no longer the ‘indispensable nation,’ even if it wanted to be. So, I don’t blame Europeans for questioning whether the U.S.  that they of their long for will return anytime soon.

Moreover, there’s no new vision by the Biden administration at least not that I can tell.  They began by having a sort of a summit with the democracies, which I don’t think enthused many people. I didn’t see a lot of grandeur there. Especially given that this was a democracy that had an attempted coup only a few months before, and whose democracy was being dismantled through lies and changes in voting rules.

One of the impacts of Ukraine is that it has allowed many liberal internationalists to get their mojo back. Ukraine demonstrates the need for a solid Western order. Maybe not liberal, but certainly Western. At the same time, I agree with you that the public statements and UN votes are something of an MRI that exposes a much more divided world than we might have expected given the audacity and brutality of the Russian invasion.

You would have thought that many states in a precarious situation would have voted to condemn Russia. But it shows that there’s been a decline in Western dominance—the US and the West cannot bring the global South to heel in the way they used to. China has also peeled many of these countries away, and they no more want to bite the Chinese hand that now feeds them than they wanted to bite the Western hand that used to feed them. It’s quite a new game.

Can we still talk about global governance and ‘all-inclusive multilateralism’ when you have a member of the five permanent members of the UN (P5) considered a pariah state by the Western powers, but being supported by countries that represent about two thirds of the world population?

Yes. We have a model for this, which is the Cold War. What you’re describing resembles what was taking place for most of the Cold War, where you had a Security Council divided by bipolarity and Cold War politics. It meant that there were lots of areas and arrangements that were out of bounds, but it didn’t stop a variety of global governance agreements. It was an era in which you were able to get some things done, even on human rights with the Convention Against Torture, and there were various GATT rounds that were taking place.

What we may see then is not this kind of broader, inclusive multilateral aid or participation—but quite candidly, I don’t know if we’ve had that for a while. In large measure because of global gridlock, the world has been heading toward regionalism, agreements of the willing, public-private partnerships, and new kinds of global governance arrangements that depart from the standard global multilateral formula. We see this with climate change. It is gridlocked, so we have a multiplicity of actors creating new networks and experiments. On the surface there has been little movement, but underneath there is.

Also, much of global governance has been and continues to be based on clubs. There were always those who are outsiders, while the real action was happening among the most powerful western states, with China and Russia looking in from the outside. Multilateralism might be collateral damage from Ukraine. But the world didn’t stop seeking areas of cooperation during the Cold War, and there has been a fundamental change in global governance over the last two decades.

But I agree that we’re in for a bumpy ride. And clearly, many multilateral institutions and their Secretariats are going to be frozen, worried more than ever that they are going to make a misstep. International organizations are always worried about their survival and being publicly shamed. They are highly risk-averse and very worried about disappointing mom or dad. That will increase in the foreseeable future.

How long is the foreseeable future?

It’s going to depend on several things. How long is the Ukrainian war? Does it spread? Does it become further internationalized and lead to a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO? What’s the endgame, and how does it end? These are incredibly important factors. Also, the invasion has given the West a new sense of purpose—a reason to maintain the ties that bind—and there is no longer any belief that Russia can be a ‘normal’ power and that its ambitions were limited. That script has been thrown out the window. So, we’re back to a new containment. It will also be interesting to see whether and how this reevaluation shapes the West’s relations with China. It was already hardening, but it is quite imaginable that many Western governments will broaden the discussion from being Russia-specific to include all authoritarian governments.

But that doesn’t mean there can’t be areas of potential agreement. For instance, the U.S. has said that Ukraine will not affect our negotiations with Iran. Let’s see if that happens. As we know, even adversaries can have overlapping interests and an awareness of miscalculations and missteps that leave all sides worse off. This happened during the Cold War, with Russia, and continues with China. Interests shorn of values leading to rules-based agreements. So, it’s not impossible, but it will be much more limited. I think that there are a fair number of issues that this will apply to, even things like the SDGs.

When we talk about, let’s say, broader vaccine access, questions that refer to the global south, poverty, public health, I doubt you’ll get a lot of pushback from Russia. There are areas in which you can still, I think, get agreement. I do think that on those issues, China also will play its role given that it still sees itself as a leader of the Global South. So there are still lots of areas in which things can happen. On the security front, it will be nasty and testy. But if we can keep the security dimension separate, then I think you will still find, as we get through these initial months of the war and things begin to settle a little bit, that some of the multilateralism will come back.

Do you think it is wise to keep isolating Russia?

I do, but could easily argue the other side and am happy to change my mind. The argument for keeping the pressure on relates to both interests and justice. Russia will only ‘surrender’ when the costs have become unbearable, it has become persona non grata, and is suffering the costs of isolation. Also, while Russia is experiencing a lot of self-inflicted pain, it cannot be let off for ‘time served.’ What sort of justice is that?

Also, what happens if Russia is prematurely released from its isolation? Could it use this as a sign of weakness and continue its wars of aggression? The Poles and the Baltic states don’t know but are clearly worried. Also, Russia has started not just a war of aggression but has committed countless war crimes. It has left a trail of bodies over the last two decades. The Russian way of war cannot be the way of war. Serial perpetrators deserve more than a slap on the wrist.

At stake, moreover, is not just this conflict but also global order. Sovereignty is a fundamental principle of international order. These are rules that were accepted by Russia, they were not imposed on them when the multilateral system was built. These were rules that states devised because they are fundamental to a rules-based order. For instance, when the Chinese say a rules-based order, what they mean is a rules-based order that liberal and illiberal states can agree on, not necessarily an order that was set up by the West. The rules I’m talking about were not established by the West. They were that multilateral inclusiveness.

Some people argue that with the UN Security Council now completely deadlocked, Geneva’s UN hub could assume new importance as a platform for continuous dialogue. Do you agree?

So New York’s loss becomes Geneva’s gain? Is this the silver lining as seen from Geneva? I am not sure that location will matter, but if the blue skies and waters, and beautiful mountains can coax agreements, so be it. There are lots of issues that are debated In Geneva that continue to have resonance, and matter to the world. Maybe getting out of the bright lights of New York, and moving to the pastures of Geneva, will make negotiations a bit easier.