A Liberal International Order Starts at Home

These are tough times for many democracies, argues Colin Robertson, but it's not too late to reinvigorate domestic and international institutions.
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September 12, 2013
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Arguments about intervention aside, the Syrian episode raises a bigger question: How do we restore trust in our elected governments, our domestic democratic institutions, and the liberal international order?

Angst in democracies is not new. In the 1930s, the democracies were threatened by collectivist totalitarian movements and the international order withered away. This is not the problem today. Neither is it the kind of ungovernability – the ‘crisis of the state’ – that the Trilateral Commission worried about in the 1970s. Survey after survey demonstrate a lack of public trust in government. This is mirrored by a similar disappointment in the United Nations. It is not that we lack democratic energies. On both sides of the Atlantic there is active citizen engagement on issues like climate change, gender equality and gay rights. But the formal institutions of government are in atrophy. There is no active movement for institutional reform or constitutional adjustment. UN reform is an oxymoron.

The Democratic Disconnect: Citizenship and Accountability in the Transatlantic Community’, recently released by the Transatlantic Academy, with contributors from Europe, the U.S. and Canada, assesses the economic, political and demographic challenges confronting the democracies. Gridlock and polarization, say the authors, characterizes the United States. In Europe, institutional stalemate goes beyond the financial crisis. Canadians, they write “worry about the tendency of their political system to place largely unaccountable power in the hands of the prime minister.”

In terms of the international order, the report identifies three trends: First, the increasing public disillusionment with military interventions and their conviction that problems at home should be the priority; second, the steady rise of, and co-ordination between, a group of new states, some democratic and others authoritarian. Often led by the BRICs, they enjoy the benefits of the liberal international order but they aren’t as ready to support its institutions; third, there is exhaustion with multilateralism in Europe, the U.S. and Canada. All three phenomena were evident in the June meeting of the G8 and in last week’s St. Petersburg G20. The upshot is disequilibrium within the international system. Fatigue grows. Isolationism beckons.

So what to do? The first step, the authors argue, begins at home. Public institutions have to reconnect with their citizens. The authors argue that political parties are the critical building block and that leaders need to spend more time in actively engaging their citizens. Reinvigorating our democratic institutions, argues the report, will revitalize the liberal international order. Liberal democracies have always promoted institutions of international co-operation and governance in tandem with domestic innovation because they are “profoundly interdependent”. Break this link and the authors describe a pivot away from universal and multilateral institutions toward forms of minilateralism and exclusivity.

It’s an interesting argument. We know what happened when the liberal world order broke down in the first half of the last century. There are war graves across Europe and Asia that attest to our commitment and sacrifice to restore international order. It took decades of careful statecraft to create the architecture designed to ensure peace and security. In creating the United Nations and its various agencies, Canadians were active and present because it reflected our values and served our interests.

The United Nations has never met the high expectations of its creators and efforts at reform have fallen short. Yet we now look to UNICEF and the UNHCR to take leadership in dealing with the Syrian refugees. We turn to the Security Council for a peaceful solution. UN weapons inspectors are preparing the report that will guide their action. A little known UN agency, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, will take the lead in disposing of Syria’s chemical weapons. In time, the perpetrators of the crimes will face either divine justice or the International Criminal Court.

There will be bumps on the road to Damascus. Armed intervention is still on the table. In the meantime, the machinery of international order is at work. As they draft Canada’s remarks to this year’s General Assembly, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Minister John Baird should keep in mind the enduring utility of the UN and its institutions.