International norms and the international rule based order are based on the universalist ideology of a liberal western civilisation and its Westphalian State history, with little accommodation let alone coexistence of alternative ideological or philosophical positions or dynamics. This has caused tensions but more importantly a situation where the tools for mediation and resolution of conflicts, or of arbitration and institutionalisation of diversity are imperfect in international institutions such as the United Nations. It restricts all efforts to be compliant within options consistent with the paradigm of an interpretation of liberalism with no scope to negotiate as equals or with respect for alternatives.
The current ideology in international institutions, international law and international relations assumes axiomatic universal paradigm status. This means all alternatives are considered in need of correction, reform or improvement relative to the ideal liberal ideological values, norms and principles. This approach permeates all of the institutions of United Nations as the body has institutionalised liberalism within all its organs and treaties.
The consequences of this is two-fold. It militates against nature’s propensity towards diversity and plurality. Secondly it restricts the flexibility of the first article of the United Nations Charter as it cages the scope of activity within a paradigm that assumes hegemony and preference as well as the reference against which possibilities for peace are explored.
The first contradiction is indeed axiomatic. Nature is not universalist. Gravity may be one of the most fundamental force but there are also anti-gravity forces. There is matter but also dark matter and anti-matter. There is the physical universe with its laws but there are also black holes. The range of vegetation, species and life forms is phenomenon. Life needs oxygen but there are others who thrive on its lack. Most species need light, but there are others that are destroyed by light. Most species need warmth but there are others that thrive in sub-zero temperatures. The list is endless. The number of species is almost endless. Some animal species, such as elephants are highly social, matriarchal and collectively look after their young. Others like lions are highly patriarchal and kill the young offspring of male lions they have ousted from the family. Some like wild dogs work in packs and have a hierarchical system, while others like bears are highly individualist and territorial about their hunting ground. Even within species there are variants. Some apes and monkeys have rigid hierarchical cultures that rook no challenge while other like the bonobos have a very cooperative culture. Nature is certainly not universalist. The UN and international institutions are universalist.
Similarly human society and its civilisations have evolved over many centuries and thousands of years in different ways. Some have a strong sense of individual sovereignty while others have complex systems of filial responsibilities or family orientated cultures with duties and obligations. Legal systems also vary among civilisations as do concepts of rights, duties, obligations and responsibilities. Some cultures are hierarchical and both comfortable and strong with such systems while others have high levels of consensus among members before decisions are made. Like nature, human society is not governed by a single set of value systems, legal instruments or political orders. There are some extraordinary and somewhat unrealistic assumptions in some of the treaties of the UN that all of human kind seeks the same set of freedoms, values, rights and life ambitions. This is a universalist assumption that crushes diversity of perspectives and contradicts nature’s propelling tendency towards diversity and pluralism.
Universalism is the presumption that a group of individuals or communities can identify what is fundamental to all human beings and how that can be achieved. While the struggle to live and have dignity is natural to all life, the route to realising this is not necessarily universally through a regime of rights. In some species and in some cultures of human beings, life is sustained and nurtured through a complex set of responsibilities. An unnatural death, or even death by disease, is seen as failure or abrogation of duties and responsibilities of the whole family, relatives and even village community. Life is not protected just by a regime of rights against an aggressor or intruder or negligent State but by a collective sense of commitment to sustaining life.
The United Nations charter starts with the essential mission for which it was established, that is ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’. In Article 1 it states that its purposes are ‘ to maintain international peace and security and to that end to take effective collective measures for the protection and removal of threats to the peace and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace.
If the foremost primary mission of the United Nations was and remains to maintain international peace and to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, then it would be necessary for it to remove or at least diffuse one of the most recurring triggers of wars in history, particularly in the history of the western sphere and middle east. This is the tensions that arise when one dominant culture tries to impose a hegemonic order upon others based on its idea of the perfect set of values and governance. Through history this fuse has been ignited by religions that assume their truths are universal and divine while others are false. During colonialism wars were supported by the notion that the dominant force was ‘civilising the barbarians’ or ‘civilising those who were in need of a greater civilisation’. Even slavery was justified by ideological propping with one community assuming itself to be ‘civilised’ while others to be ‘uncivilised barbarians worthy of being treated as labour in captivity’. The World Wars were fought with competing secular ideological hegemonies being a major frame in the war. Nationalism and claims of threats to nations was a significant factor although territorial designs and access to resources were just as important.
Nevertheless the UN charter introduces an ideological preference in the next sentence that it assumes is self evidently universal, universally desired by all people and universally applicable across the world. It states in the preamble that’ to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights … in the equal rights of men and women…. The charter in Article 1.3 states‘… in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion’. The Charter then commits to a practical route for itself to attain these by stating in Article 1.4 ‘To be a centre for harmonising the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends’.
Having established the ideology that it feels will bring permanent peace or remove the scourge of war, it embarks on ‘harmonising’ the actions of nations in the attainment of these goals.
Given that many wars in history have been over ideological competition and campaigns or ‘crusades’ as they were called, for ideological hegemony, it is contentious whether the United Nation’s mission to end wars would be achieved by committing to harmonising the actions of nations to the preferred ideology. Harmonising the actions of nations is controversial. It means that ‘nations’ and civilisations would have to sacrifice their distinctive cultural or philosophical and political worldview and adopt the one that the UN promotes. This also means that the power or dominance or even ownership of the ideological hegemony to which all nations have to move towards is in the hands of those countries or civilisations whose worldview and ideological paradigm the United Nations has adopted as a universal preference and standard. It is not difficult to see that this immediately negates the intention of the mission to end wars, since wars in history have largely been fought for ideological hegemony, although as well as resources.
The inevitable happened almost instantly when the UN was instituted. There emerged a block of countries called the ‘west’ that claimed democracy, rule of law, human rights and liberalism as ‘civilised governance’, axiomatically universal and that which they were already practicing and that they felt all countries of the world should ‘harmonise’ towards. Resisting this and seen as the opposing worldview was communism as adopted by the Soviet Union. This was ascribed as authoritarian and anti-democratic, thus either in violation of the principles of the United Nations or in need of reforms to be consistent with the United Nations. In this group were placed, along with the Soviet, the People’s Republic of China and any other countries that did not have western forms of democracy. This group was and still is usually termed ‘dictatorships’ or autocracies. Thus a clear division of opposing ideologies emerged immediately after the formation of the UN and a fertile ground for wars was created by the United Nations itself by tying itself to one ideological mission. The UN had unwittingly created and instituted the conditions that had led to many wars in history. Inevitably there followed a long period of what was called the ‘Cold War’ but which led to many real and bloody wars through proxy and remote management. The two superpowers that emerged from World War II, decided to avoid a direct confrontation with each other as both had nuclear weapons. A direct conflict would lead to the third World War and almost mutual decimation.
The preference to create a hegemonic ideology and persuade nations or force them to ‘harmonise’ their actions to this, is a paradox that the United Nations has failed to appreciate in context of its founding mission. It was and remains the fertiliser for conflict and war. Ideologies usually consider that if the entire world embraces the same ideology, there would be permanent or eternal peace in the world and all wars of differences would come to an end. This is contrary to nature as nature nurtures diversity and pluralism. Any effort to push against nature and create an artificial or human imagined set of universal rules inevitably fail because neither human beings nor human society accept uniformity or universalism. It leads to more wars as the post-war period has shown.
What the United Nations needs to do is to revisit its charter and ask itself whether it sees its purpose as an institution that will work to end wars by mediating among, negotiating between and creating the circumstances for diametrically opposite and different political ideologies to coexist or does it consider its purpose to establish permanent peace by persuading the entire world and its nations to commit to a ‘universal’ set of values, principles, political ideology and standards that one of dominant civilisations that emerged from colonialism thinks is the ultimate ideal universal.
If the United Nations sees its purpose to ‘save succeeding nations from the scourge of war’, then it has to learn from history and avoid promoting both ideological hegemony and ideological universalism. It needs to restate its mission to encourage coexistence of diverse political ideologies and promote pluralism as well as enact instruments and create the tools to make that possible. Mediation needs to be between diverse ideologies without any side feeling they are being judged against one and required to conform to a particular universalist ideology. Dignity and respect of the human being can be achieved through all different ideologies and almost all ideologies claim their purpose to respect the dignity and security of all human beings.
Efforts have been made at the United Nations to establish a ‘dialogue between civilisations’. However this seems to have been marginalised. Moreover the influence of this exercise is almost irrelevant as the body corpus of UN treaties and orientation is to promote one civilisation. A ‘dialogue’ will also only attempt to harmonise others towards this one universalist ideology.
It is also not fair to assume that the west is behind all this or that it is enforcing the liberalism adopted by the UN to impose its hegemony. The charter and the subsequent treaties were drafted and agreed by the State members present. Among them were countries that did not have liberal form of democracies. Whether they lacked arguments against the deep convictions of the west that liberalism was the future, or they were implying that they too would ‘harmonise’ towards the ideals of liberalism, even democracy. There was little if any critique of the ideological hegemony being created and against which every nation, civilisation and ideology was to be judged from henceforth. The world handed hegemony to the west and then accused it of exploiting it.
The impact of this universalist approach based on western liberalism has been that when countries that practice liberalism deviate from it, it is considered as a temporary aberration. But the countries who do not have liberalism as their core political philosophy, are intentionally or unwittingly considered by the UN system as ‘fundamentally flawed’ in need of reform, even if this statement is not publicly stated. There is thus a permanent state of countries who meet UN standards and those that are ‘defective’ or in need of reform. The status of this category of countries is one of defensive. Whatever confidence they assert in international institutions such as UN, crashes against the liberalist wall of the charters, the treaties and the declarations. These countries are therefore in a de facto status of second class and not really in ownership of the agenda. They throw their weight by virtue of their size, power and finance, but ideologically they are always followers.
The United Nations needs reforming itself and needs to adopt pluralism rather than one form of liberalism as its driving conceptual foundation. This will ensure diversity is respected equally and with dignity thus removing one of the recurring causes of wars, the desire for ideological hegemony.
To start a serious debate, research and move towards a United Nations that is genuinely plural without institutionalising hegemony, there is a need for a movement and alliance for pluralism. Countries and civilisations that feel they are being ‘harmonised’ towards one universal ideology that grants control of the debate to one civilisation, could form a Global Alliance for pluralism or the Pluralist Alliance. This alliance could be the start of a genuinely pluralist world and human society moving away from wars, or the traditional notion of war to end all wars, and moving towards coexistence of differences and diversity of world views. Some of the treaties may need to be revisited and the wordings changed so almost all civilisations could coexist, be respected and not made to feel lacking perfection.
During the Cold War, India led the Non-Aligned Movement to duck the pressure to side with one or the other. Some 75 other countries, now increased to 120, joined this group and escaped inordinate pressures to some extent. But in current date the world is multipolar. It is no longer binary, divided in two blocs with a need for non-aligned to stay independent. In fact India itself is now a power bloc.
The current period offers an opportunity to realise this and institute pluralism, particularly at the United Nations, as the world is in a state of multipolar power blocks. The distribution of power and wealth is not binary but genuinely plural with different power blocks having distinct cultures and civilisations too. The time to start and form a serious debate about pluralism and end hegemony is now if ever. It could start with the BRICS countries forming a Global Alliance for Pluralism at the United Nations.