When you shake a kaleidoscope, all the tiny slivers tumble in chaos, finally settling and forming a beautiful pattern. Every shake creates a form never before seen, and likely not to be seen again.
A kaleidoscope metaphor is useful because it reflects a world where everything appears unruly. Yet one crucial aspect is missing here: the hollow tube housing the shiny flakes. No matter how much anarchy occurs inside the tube, the tube organises the constraints – rules about what the flakes can and cannot do.
What about the hand that shakes? Is there not an assumed human agency involved in stirring the slivers into new designs? The hand is not important, it is the tube that matters. The hand could be anyone’s or no ones. The hollow tube of world order is the international rule of law, its various cultures and conflicts are the colourful bouncing flakes.
And if there is one central thread overarching this modern global system’s rule of law, it is the concept of exclusion or inclusion in this rule of law. This isn’t simply a devious United States’ manipulation, plenty of countries around the world vote daily with their feet for inclusion rather than exclusion. That’s extremely important.
Exclusion or inclusion is the question. There is no third option. This arrangement is not necessarily a bad thing, but it would be a mistake to say the form of this question is universally recognised or accepted. Our international rule of law is a largely Western framework which emerged slowly over centuries as the default operation of the world market system.
There have always been human forces which don’t accept the form of this question. Russia wishes to tear up the default rule of law in Ukraine and hasn’t elucidated exactly what a ruleless world might look like. To Russian president Vladimir Putin it is not where a person is born which dictates her nationality, it is decided by the language she speaks in the family kitchen.
Others, such as China, wish to formulate its own framework of rules. Beijing certainly doesn’t want to live in a world without rules, however it prefers to carve rules of its own making. In the Asia Pacific, which is both the focus and the limitation of Chinese power, multilateral trade deals are Beijing’s way of making the world a better place – for China.
Both the Chinese and Russian movements are the rejection of answering the question of exclusion or inclusion. How they manoeuvre in the future is up to them, yet it isn’t certain that belligerent Russia wishes to encourage outright war over who writes the rules. That’s exclusion even Russia couldn’t survive.
Carl von Clausewitz described war as the continuation of politics by other means. The key point here is that politics is always occurring. He knew war might make headlines, yet wars are avoided every day because the process of politics doesn’t have to lead to a continuation by other means.
It’s a cliché to say victors write history, but it isn’t at all obvious to point out that wars aren’t the only way winners and losers are decided in this world. Often it is those small, quiet political decisions made in hallways at meetings which move the chess pieces in the game of nations most significantly.
This is the context of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). It is not simply a trade deal between 40% of the world’s economies or a selfish national security strategy for participants. The TPP is forcing nations around the Pacific to respond to the question by choosing exclusion or inclusion.
With all the forces tugging the world in various directions, there has never been a more important time for nations which respect the idea of liberty central to the rule of law to cooperate on encouraging the best egalitarian rules for living in the 21st century.
New Zealand’s future also depends on answering the question by choosing continued inclusion. It might sound hypocritical to respect the importance of competition in the marketplace and then reject competition when it comes to who sets the rules for this marketplace. Yet that is the dilemma the world is grappling with in these early years of the new century.
Economic interdependence isn’t a panacea for war, the history of Europe over the past 100 years should make this obvious. And the current economic system may not be perfect. Yet the alternative of a world without a rule of law or one which is radically different is sure to weaken and disintegrate every aspiration for freedom and self-determination.
That is why Mr Putin’s vision for Ukraine and Beijing’s ideals for its near abroad must be challenged. Because they represent a fundamental restructuring of the international system. This isn’t just about the West anymore, it’s about everybody.
After all, Clausewitz says there’s always the option of the continuation of politics by other means. Don’t for a second think this option is impossible even if it doesn’t seem likely right now. Even the Russians prepare for the inevitable moment when people and intentions change.