Recent international meetings and elections show the international order still prevails over global chaos

Opinion: Five important meetings of international leaders convened last fortnight (November 6-20). These included COP27 in Egypt, the Asean summit and East Asian Summit in Cambodia, the G20 summit in Indonesia, and the Apec meeting in Thailand. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern attended the latter four in person and contributed to the first by Zoom. These conclaves enabled her to consult in person with top European, North American, and East Asian leaders, including President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping, confirming New Zealand’s internationalist credentials.

These meetings were initially focused on economic cooperation and climate change mitigation but were overshadowed by the Russian bombardment of Ukraine’s utilities, provocative North Korean missile tests, and Chinese overseas assertiveness. Because the meetings achieved few breakthroughs, critical analysts said they signified a deteriorating and destabilising geo-political order.

Pessimists argued that spreading protests and armed conflict stoked by climate change disruption, energy and food shortages, and rampant inflation now pose intractable problems for responsible governments and international organisations. That the post-World War II rules-based order, and the achievements of internationalism and globalisation are in serious jeopardy. That the ideals of democratic governance and the practice of rational public policy are deeply eroded by disinformation, disillusionment, and distrust. And that intensifying demagoguery, autocracy, and extremism raise the likelihood of terrorism, aggression, hybrid war, nuclear war, space war, and cyber war.

While evidence to support these gloomy assertions is readily available, it tends to be selective and partial, and to ignore broader institutional and historical contexts. I propose an alternative view, in five parts.

First, the fact that dozens of busy leaders travelled great distances to attend the meetings signified they regarded consultation with their peers as still important. By participating they reaffirmed the value of information-sharing and trust-building and the utility of international institutions. The meetings were civil, participants were respectful, and the proceedings unfolded without violence, disruption, or walk-outs. That such varied delegates did not reach headline-worthy agreements is no more than a reflection of the diversity of international actors, which is nothing new.

Second, many of the leaders represented European countries but readily agreed to attend conferences in Southeast Asia. This indicates that Europeans are beginning to share long-standing American assessments of the importance of Asia for world trade and peace. The recent deployment of warships to Asia by Britain, France, and Germany, and Britain’s enhanced diplomatic outreach to the region, are other indicators that Asian affairs are increasingly global affairs. Most leaders agree China’s policies constitute a set of challenges that link Asia to the rest of the world.

Extreme political parties and leaders have failed in elections in France, the US and Brazil and, probably, the United Kingdom next year

Third, the meetings were able to identify some specific problems and negotiate some oases of consensus about how to approach them. The participants concurred that climate change was a threat to humanity, that fossil fuel emissions cause it, that rich countries must take poor countries’ needs in to account somehow. They concurred that Russia was an illegitimate aggressor in Ukraine, that proliferation of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles was unacceptable, that China’s economic slowdown was a worry, and that inflation and disruption of trade and supply-chains must be mitigated. Policy prescriptions differed, but these differences are long standing and deeply embedded, such as those between GSG-emitting developed countries and low-lying vulnerable developing countries, or between Russia and Europe, or between China and the West. Summits cannot resolve these differences, but can moderate them.

Fourth, although East-West and North-South divisions hampered consensus among the COP27, Asean, EAS, G20, and Apec leaders, each institution endured, set up committees and work programmes, produced a communiqué, and scheduled further meetings. Critics scoffed at the paucity of substantive reforms, but realists were relieved by the absence of acrimony and breakdown, and the commitment to continuity and progress, at least rhetorically. Also, when Ardern made it clear to Xi that New Zealand had consistently differed on issues such as human rights, South China Sea claims, and militarisation of the Pacific islands, Xi expressed acceptance of these differences, commended New Zealand’s independent foreign policy stance, and focused on extending the 50 years of harmonious bilateral relationship into the future. This bilateral pragmatism is a model of accommodation in a contentious world.

Finally, global assessments indicate the overall level of violence is in gradual decline (albeit flaring up intermittently in specific hotspots). Ceasefires have cooled civil warfare in Yemen, Libya, and Ethiopia. Grain and oils are being exported from Ukraine, and Liquefied Natural Gas is flowing from the US to Europe. Aid is being dispatched to Pakistan and other victims of flood, drought, and hunger. Extreme political parties and leaders have failed in elections in France, the US and Brazil and, probably, the United Kingdom next year. While many troubles remain, notably Russian bombardment of Ukraine’s utilities, China’s hyper-militarisation, and ethnic clashes in Africa, liberal media are calling attention to them. Progressive governments and international institutions are addressing them to varying degrees.

We optimists can take heart from recent international meetings and elections to conclude the fundamentals of international cooperation survive. While many humanitarian inequities and atrocities demand mitigation, the past fortnight of meetings provides evidence that international order still prevails over global chaos.

Stephen Hoadley is Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland's Faculty of Arts.

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