[Analytics] Small states show the world how to survive multipolarity

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is revealing Cabinet's decision about moving to alert level 2 at 4pm today. Photo / Pool. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Small states such as New Zealand lack the decisive military power or economic leverage needed to pursue their interests unilaterally. They must live with asymmetrical power relations. An obvious example is New Zealand’s relationship with China. Jason Young specially for the East Asia Forum.

China is New Zealand’s largest trading partner and has been an important source of migrants, international students, tourists and investment. New Zealand represents less than one per cent of China’s total imports and exports. How is it possible for such a small state to exert influence with large and powerful states?

Successive New Zealand governments have tried to leverage international law and organisations like the World Trade Organization (WTO). Such bodies provide small countries with the tools to defend their interests through agreed norms of diplomacy and treaty-making, and to ink economic agreements that are framed, supported and defended by the WTO.

The 2008 New Zealand–China Free Trade Agreement is one example of how international organisations underpin New Zealand’s relationship with China.

Without recourse to these international rules and norms, smaller countries would struggle to create a level playing field for their people and businesses and be forced to sacrifice self-determination for survival.

There is still a chance to avoid this.

A major contribution of the Western-dominated post-war era was the development of international organisations built upon the principles that nations and individuals are equal and that fair and impartial rules should govern their interactions.

The United Nations General Assembly, the WTO, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the International Criminal Court of Justice represent significant milestones in the development of multilateralism and global governance — even if imperfect and hampered by great-power rivalry and interests.

New Zealand has prospered under an international system where liberal countries have dominated in a fortuitous combination of multilateralism and like-minded dominant players.

But today the distribution of global power and influence is shifting. Western powers no longer have a monopoly on science, industry or ideas. The rise of non-Western and non-liberal powers — most significantly China — have burst that bubble and are pushing the world towards a potentially explosive form of multipolarity.

Changes in the relative distribution of power challenge the interests of existing powers and emboldens rising powers. Non-liberal powers, given the opportunity, may challenge the liberal foundations of the international system and revise international institutions to reflect their norms and values.

A concerted and coordinated effort is required to maintain the values of open commerce, democracy and human rights. This will be a hard fight, a fight for hearts and minds, and one that can no longer ignore the reality that only 5.7 per cent of the world’s population live in full democracies.

Existing international organisations are the best starting point to manage the rise of non-liberal countries and allow a contest of ideas with fairly applied rules. They are the best hope for finding consensus on common challenges like climate change and for promoting orderly competition.

The experience of small states navigating these institutions is instructive for traditionally dominant states and rising powers alike.

Some powerful countries are already turning strongly toward multilateralism. Japan is a case in point, signing up to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and promoting the rules-based order through its Indo-Pacific strategy. The European Union maintains a foundation of multilateralism, international law and human rights in its international policy.

Other nations have been more selective in their adherence to the norms and rules of the international system. The US–China trade war is just one of the most egregious cases in point.

Most recently, the failure of the great powers and multinational institutions alike to lead the global public health and economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic should be a wake up call for all countries.

While there is good reason for existing powers that fear the erosion of their dominance to pursue their interests unilaterally, there is also good reason for rising powers that fear that the international system does not reflect their preferences to do the same.

Understanding that long-term interests are best served through international cooperation and agreed principles of engagement is the cornerstone of a civilised world. This will require compromise and a degree of acceptance of difference if not agreement.

Small states shouldn’t have to go it alone but may need to join together to lead. New Zealand and Singapore, for example, are already working together to create a plurilateral agreement to maintain open trade and commerce during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the distribution of global power shifting, it is time for all countries to think more like small powers. Giving primacy to multilateralism can help avert the tragedies of the past, when the pursuit of narrow interests trampled small and medium powers and heavy costs were imposed upon the great powers.

Without a ‘rules-based order’, small states like New Zealand will be at an even greater disadvantage and major powers will be frustrated and blocked from achieving their interests. Multilateralism and a rules-based order are not just a moral choice, they are necessary for a functioning world.

Jason Young is Director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre and Associate Professor of International Relations at the Victoria University of Wellington.

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