Posner on the New 19th Century Regime

Religious freedom is generally considered one of the fundamental “international human rights” that international institutions are enlisted to protect and propound. This is much more Mark’s area of specialty than mine, but lately I’ve been thinking about the state of play in the international community with respect to religious freedom. Mark’s post below on the misperception of Vladimir Putin’s aims and the broader lack of understanding as between WEIRD cultures and those many others with different views is an important reminder that it would be a mistake to assume congruence or convergence in the world at large with respect to those values that we, for various culturally specific reasons, deem fundamental.

It was in the light of these musings that I found Eric Posner’s new post at Foreign Policy–Sorry, America, the New World Order is Dead–a bracing and insightful read. A bit:

The second pillar of the post-Cold War order was recognition of human rights. Under international human rights law, all governments must respect the rights of their citizens. While the number, nature, and scope of those rights are contested — and while many countries that signed onto human rights treaties argued that rights must be interpreted in light of their own religious, traditional, or practical commitments — the new liberal order envisioned a world that abided by the basic terms of liberal democracy. The Soviet Union’s collapse seemed to provide spectacular vindication for this view and to portend its universal acceptance.

Yet the human rights regime has failed as well. It has become increasingly clear that many countries simply disregard their human rights commitments. Russia, for example, has moved toward authoritarianism despite its ratification of universal human rights treaties and its accession to the relatively robust European Convention on Human Rights, which empowers people to bring cases against their governments. China has certainly not liberalized. Most developing countries lack the capacity to implement their human rights commitments, even when their governments and publics support them. Even Western countries violated the spirit of these treaties by taking harsh measures against al Qaeda in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks….

Back in the 1990s, at the height of optimism about international law, academics believed that they had to answer a puzzle. The four pillars of the new international legal system self-evidently embodied a liberal worldview that countries like China and Russia did not subscribe to and that indeed most countries outside the West had traditionally rejected. So what would compel these countries to obey international law? An enormous number of theories were produced, with their accompanying buzzwords: Countries complied with international law because their leaders had internalized the law. Or because they were bound by cooperative networks of judges and bureaucrats from different countries. Or because domestic and international NGOs put pressure on violators. Or because countries had become interdependent. Or simply because it was fair. At the heart of all these theories was the assumption that all countries complied with international law more or less equally.

The most obvious explanation for legal compliance was all but ignored. Countries obeyed international law in the post-Cold War period because the United States and, to a lesser extent, Europe forced them to do so. Part of the explanation, of course, was that with the Soviet Union’s collapse, the liberal order gained significant prestige. But much of the explanation lies in the fact that countries feared that if they did not play by the rules set by the West, they would be deprived of aid, investment, technical cooperation, and opportunities to trade — and, in extreme cases, might be threatened with sanctions and military force.

If this explanation wasn’t clear in the 1990s, it is clear now. As the United States loses power, it has become obvious that no one else will guarantee the peaceful settlement of disputes, enforce human rights, or ensure that international criminals are tried and convicted….

Put another way, the liberal order that was born with the Soviet Union’s collapse rested on a fiction: that all nations were equal and submitted to the same rules because they reflected universal human values. In reality, of course, the rules were Western rules, and they were enforced largely by the United States, which was no one’s equal. Today, the fiction has been exposed, and the world order looks increasingly like the one that reigned during the 19th century. In this order, a small group of “great powers” sets the rules for their relations with each other and interacts under conditions of rough equality. Smaller countries survive by establishing client relationships with the great powers. The great powers compete with each other over these client relationships, but otherwise try to maintain conditions of stability that allow for trade and other forms of cooperation. The major challenge for the great powers is to ensure that competition for clients does not erupt into full-scale war.

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