Winter 2011

Of International Systems: From Castlereagh to Climate Change

Douglas Hurd

In the last two centuries there have been three attempts to fashion a durable system in which the nations of the world might live together in peace. The first, at Vienna in 1814, is associated in Britain with the name of Castlereagh; it was conservative in tone and aimed at stability between the nations based on the status quo that had existed before Napoleon. It provided that in moments of crisis, the leading powers in Europe should meet’ the Concert of Europe’. The Vienna Settlement ignored the growing strength of nationalism, and came to grief when Metternich used it as a tool to support repression in the name of legitimacy, and when Bismarck gave secret and contradictory undertakings to different powers.

The settlement ended in the Great War and its successor at Versailles in 1919 was based on the opposite principles – open agreements openly arrived at, self-determination of peoples and the search for disarmament. Versailles disintegrated more quickly than Vienna, and in 1945, after another World War, the search began again. This time the emphasis was on recognising the realities of power; the great powers were granted a veto in the Security Council and as a result their misdemeanours went unpunished. We still live under that San Francisco system of 1945 today, but it is wearing out.

The United Nations still exists and has given birth to an array of specialist agencies, a huge number of meetings and much useful work; but the zip has gone out of it. True, the world would be a poorer place without the UN, but successive efforts at reform have run onto the rocks.

Maybe in 1989 there was an opportunity for more sweeping change. In that year the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the United States alone survived as a superpower. Maybe, but only maybe, if the Americans had launched an effort then and led us all in the search for a better international system, they might have succeeded. George Bush senior was a good president, but as he said himself, he did not do the vision thing’. That was one of the moments when vision was needed – but the moment passed and the opportunity, if it ever existed, for making a fourth big attempt at a valid international system, was lost.

The need for such a system is becoming clear. The world is grumbling its way into a new danger. China has become a great power, asserting its influence in Asia, Africa and Latin America. We cannot tell whether the Chinese will move from using economic influence and convert their influence into political power. What is certain is that the Chinese are establishing themselves as a formidable giant – and that the United States, since 1989 without a rival, realises that this rival is now in the world. The Americans are girding themselves to meet this new threat, stationing troops in Australia and updating their presence in the whole Asia area. I am not predicting imminent war, for both China and the US have a powerful interest in keeping the peace. But the rivalry between them is real and growing, and we have often seen such rivalries overflow into something more serious, whether the weapons used are economic or military, or simply political.

And there are no valid institutions in place to keep the peace. Some of us thought that President Obama might be the man to take the initiative, as Woodrow Wilson did in 1918 and FDR in 1944; but he has been caught up in other difficulties from which he cannot easily escape. I see no alternative leadership in this search. Certainly the Chinese show no signs of putting themselves at the heart of such a project; they would treat suspiciously any attempt by the West and particularly by the Americans to fashion a new world order.

Maybe the time has passed for such a grand institution. Maybe we shall just have to make do with the instruments, which we already possess. Maybe it will be a question of slow improvement, cautious reform, plus, if we are lucky, the steady building of a consensus for peace and of machinery for the settlement of disputes. As I write about 200 nations are sending representatives to the UN conference on climate change in Durban. If the majority of scientists are right, the world has maybe 50, maybe 100 years to put in place the system which will prevent climate change overwhelming us.

Or, if one of the superpowers, or a combination of several nations were to decide, as in the run up to the two World Wars, that it was in their interest to build up their armaments, they could within the same kind of period equip themselves for war. So, the time available for international institutionbuilding is not unlimited. I have no idea what form these institutions might take – whether diplomatic or legal or economic, or a combination of these with the use of force waiting for use in case of tragic necessity. But looking at the world today, I believe that the night is far spent.

Lord Hurd of Westwell, British Foreign Secretary, 1989–1995, and is President of Montrose Associates.