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The war in Ukraine has drawn pointed attention to the manner in which global politics is conducted. Carl Von Clausewitz famously described diplomacy as the continuation of war by other means. Whereas earlier big powers got their way through war and conquest, they now got their way through diplomacy in the garb of realpolitik. International diplomacy as practised today can be dated back to the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 and the post-Napoleonic Concert of Europe (CoE) that tried to maintain peace by a balance of power among the bigger countries. While that Treaty was based on the premise of non-interference in the internal policies of other countries, a corollary of the Metternich system was that major powers had their own spheres of influence that others would not disturb. This cosy understanding was shattered by the emergence of nationalism and new nation-states from the 19th century onwards, leading to two world wars and later the Cold War.

As the differentiated global reaction to the crisis in Europe shows, diplomacy is still geared to the Age of Empires and CoE. It has still to fully adjust to the rise of nationalism and nation-states, even though we were envisioning a world beyond nationalism and nation states not so long ago. Has the prevalent system of diplomacy served us well and made the world a better place?

On one hand, it could be argued that it has prevented a state of perpetual war that characterized the pre-Napoleonic era. On the other, it is inconsistent with the principle of democratic nation states that supplanted monarchy. In democracies, it is not rulers but the will of the people expressed through the ballot box that is sovereign. It is perhaps time to align relationships between nation-states with democratic values that inform equations within them, be it in terms of respect for a consensus in civil society, or minority rights, in a way that realpolitik still does not.

The League of Nations and later the United Nations (UN) can be seen as first steps towards global diplomacy that reconciled democratic values within nation-states with relationships among them. But the League was primarily a European phenomenon with the international system bifurcated into states and colonies. The colonized in Asia, Africa and Latin America had no role in it. While the UN was also set up by the last world war’s victorious Allied powers, as colonies became independent, they were incorporated in the system.

But the League’s failure and the veto held by major powers in the UN Security Council ensured the continuation of realpolitik, where the voice of smaller states could be ridden roughshod over. This is precisely what is happening over Ukraine, with its destiny being decided by opposing big powers defending or expanding what they see as their zone of influence, rather than by what Ukraine, a nation in making, wants.

It was rising powers that pioneered the non-aligned movement for equidistance between the warring Western and Soviet blocs after World War II, and later assumed leadership of multilateral institutions of the ‘South’, such as the G-15, G-24 and G-77, bodies critical of ‘North’ dominance of the UN and Bretton Woods systems. As these powers gained economic heft, the G-7 was constrained to give them seats at the high table of global governance through the G-20.

Rising powers now distanced themselves from third world multilateral organizations and batted primarily for themselves by seeking to increase their own influence in institutions of global governance, such as the Bretton Woods institutions, the Financial Stability Board, etc. They are also jockeying for permanent seats in the UN Security Council with veto powers, rather than pushing for the abolition of this power altogether and giving primacy to the more representative UN General Assembly. They appear to have succumbed to the temptation of joining the established powers. The G-24 and G-77 are now critical of the G- 20, particularly of newly emerging powers, for not adequately representing their interests.

Global governance now needs to be democratized, with each country having an equal say. A global force at the disposal of the UN General Assembly could enforce a system of governance that keeps at bay both domestic tyrants seeking to impose their will over the free choices of their own people as well as international tyrants seeking to impose their will on other states. This would also free up vast resources spent on national militaries to better the productivity gains of the Industrial and Electronic revolutions for a more inclusive social welfare system aimed at those at the bottom of every country’s socio-economic pyramid, and also to address the critical issue of anthropogenic climate change.

This may sound very idealistic, almost in the realm of science fiction. But the status quo should not be taken as fixed. The world has changed enormously in the past. Ideas have changed and made it better. Indeed, science fiction is a good barometer of the direction we might move in the distant future. For example, in the prescient Star Trek series, federations are seen as the future of global and interplanetary governance (following extra-terrestrial contact). A federation like the European Union, for all its weaknesses, can indeed be seen as a movement in this direction.

Alok Sheel is a retired IAS officer and former secretary, Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council

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