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Issue 35: January - February 2004



Towards a regional world order

By Luk Van Langenhove

At the beginning of the 21st Century, we are witnessing a transition from the classical Westphalian world order (based upon sovereign states) to a world order where world regions and their organizations, such as the European Union, the African Union, Mercosur, the League of Arab States and so on, next to States, are playing a central role in global governance. 

Processes of regional integration are indeed increasingly affecting and even shaping international relations. Trade and economic cooperation, as well as coping with trans-border issues and problems such as managing water basins or illegal trafficking, are dealt with more and more at a regional supra-national level. The number of regional trade arrangements notified at the World Trade Organization (WTO) is a significant indicator of this trend, and in many cases the economic integration is related to peace and security issues.

We are nevertheless not entering some kind of post-Westphalian world order in which nations are disappearing or becoming irrelevant. On the contrary, nation states remain important for identity and local governance. On top of this, there are many more states now than at the beginning of the 20th Century.

But the Westphalian world order has become a very complex system, where states do not necessarily act homogenously, where there are other global actors such as regional organizations, and where complex interdependencies rather than simple linear causality models shape the world. 

I propose to call this new model the “regional world order”. It is a neo-Westphalian world order as it still builds upon nations, but also complements it with a growing role for regions as geopolitical entities with Westphalian statehood properties.

Meanwhile, multilateralism, one of the founding principles of the United Nations, has its own problems. With the end of the cold war, the functioning of the United Nations, and especially its Security Council, became challenged by the prospect of making decisions in a less stable world order. 

And since 9/11, we live in what some have called a period of “frustrated multilateralism”, with open competition between two models of global governance: the United States-led “unipolar movement” versus the “regionalist movement” led by the European Union. 

Both within the United Nations and in many nations, this situation has reinforced pleas for a rethinking of multilateralism and for an “aggiornamento” of the United Nations to the new international circumstances. In September 2003, the UN Secretary-General addressed the General Assembly and dramatically stated that “we have come to a fork in the road. This may be a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself, when the UN was founded”.

Today, in the second half of 2004, a number of conditions are met that together create a unique window of opportunities, which allows to take the turn in the fork of the road that leads to a new efficient and effective multilateralism. 

First, there are signs that the policy of the United States towards multilateralism and the United Nations is changing, and one can hope that these changes will continue, irrespective of White House occupancy in 2005. Secondly, there is the prospect of the ratification of the European Constitution that will give the European Union a legal personality and hence create the first-ever regional organization that is capable and willing to act as a supranational organization within the framework of the United Nations. 

Thirdly, within the Security Council, Romania has initiated during its July 2004 presidency a new debate on the role of regions within the functioning of the Security Council. On 20 July, a Security Council meeting discussed how to strengthen cooperation between the United Nations and regional organizations in stabilization processes. It was the second time in history that regional organizations participated at a Security Council meeting and it looks as if that collaboration will be stepped up. 

Fourthly, the high-level panel on UN reform will present its report to the Secretary-General in December 2004, and one can expect that this will include proposals to reform the functioning of the Security Council.

The growing awareness of the threats of the current malfunctioning of multilateralism together with the above-mentioned opportunities have created the political possibility of change. Such change needs to be fuelled by ideas. 

In recent decades, many ideas have been formulated both within the United Nations and in academic and policy circles. While progress has been made in areas such as peacekeeping reform, following the Brahimi Report of 2000, and while internal reforms have already resulted in rationalizing the UN structures, the real problem is institutional reform, especially of the composition and functioning of the Security Council. 

Everyone knows the problems: membership reflects the results of a war more than 60 years ago and not the current state of the world. And the one-country-one-vote principle in the General Assembly does not reflect the differences in power or the fact that UN members are not equal in terms of population, geographical size or gross domestic product. Neither does the principle of sovereignty reflect the current evolution of increasing integration and cooperation between some countries.

The key issue in any institutional reform aimed at reinforcing multilateralism is that it has to find a way to create a balance of power among UN members and a balance of responsibilities and representation of the people of our planet. Such a complex set of balances cannot be found if reform propositions continue to be based upon nations as the sole building blocks of multilateralism. 

In order to profit from the current window of opportunities, a radical rethinking is needed, which recognizes that, next to nations, world regions based upon integration processes between nations have to play a role in establishing an effective multilateralism. So it might well be that the future of multilateralism is the creation of a world order based upon what Swedish international relations scholar Professor Bjorn Hettne defined as multilateral regionalism or multi-regionalism: a world order that implies schematic relations between all regional organizations, making up a form of global governance.

I believe that regional integration and the emerging multi-regionalism have indeed the potential to provide a new legitimacy to multilateralism. But there needs to be a global forum based upon international law that allows world regions to interact with each other and settle their disputes. The world Organization could become such a forum of dialogue between regions.

Here are five key elements of how such a UN-based multi-regionalism could look:

1. It needs to be based upon a renewed adherence to the principle that the United Nations has the prime responsibility for the maintenance of peace and security, while, in line with Chapter VIII of the UN Charter, new roles, and responsibilities for regional arrangements or agencies need to be developed.

2. The Security Council needs to become a hybrid forum composed of nations that can be considered to be global actors, together with regional organizations that group the other nations into global actors.

3. The United Nations needs to accept regional organizations as full members that can act next to nations in all the UN agencies, and needs to rethink its own regional structure (the five regional economic commissions) so that they function together with key existing regional regimes.

4. The United Nations needs to actively support regional integration among its member as a tool for economic development and an instrument for peace-building, by creating regional structural development funds and development assistance mechanisms. 

5. The current scarcity of resources for UN peacekeeping activities needs to be remedied by establishing regional-global security mechanisms where not only nations but also regional organizations take their share of the burden.

Realizing a multi-regional world order is not utopian, as it starts from today’s reality that, next to nations, world regions are becoming increasingly important tools of global governance. It needs, however, a lot of creative and innovative thinking based upon careful analysis of the regional dimensions of ongoing conflicts and of existing cooperation between the United Nations and regional organizations.

The challenge is that in line with the complexity of the emerging new world order, any proposal to rethink multilateralism in such a way that it incorporates regionalism needs to be flexible. A simplistic system of regional representations that replace the national representations will not work. And above all, in order to become politically feasible, the idea of a multi-regional world order needs to be supported and promoted by civil society. As long as this is not the case, old habits and organizational structures will not change, and the world will not become a more secure place to live in

Luk Van Langenhove is Director of the UNU research and training programme on Comparative Regional Integration Studies (UNU-CRIS). This essay appeared in a recent edition of UN Chronicle.

© 2004  United Nations University