The global arena's new balance of power and dynamism entails challenges for Swedish foreign and development policy. Respect for universal human rights seems to have diminished since the 1990s and is being challenged by new African, Arab and Asian institutions that do not want to submit to the UN on these issues. Much of what Sweden has fought for in multilateral contexts is at stake, says Göran Hydén
Is a new world order in the making? In the chaos that prevails in the world arena, it is difficult to see any clear features. Some people perceive the decline of American hegemony as a sign. New countries, not least China and Russia, are gaining ground. Others point to the increased influence that non-state actors have gained. Governments today have less say in the global arena. Individual nations or the world at large are becoming increasingly difficult to govern.
How are we to understand what is going on and what challenges for Swedish foreign and development policy lie in its extension?
The first is to correctly analyze the underlying factors that determine the behavior of states and other actors in the world arena. Globalization has created a new pattern of competition in which states' control over their citizens has significantly decreased. People relate to each other in new ways. Many work in multinational companies and develop new loyalties. The same is true of those who experience the religious faith as the anchor of life. In the shadow of the new wars, people are forced to flee and find refuge in other countries. We have a global social mobility which means that when we meet who we are easily tends to become more important than we are.
The result is that the world is no longer primarily characterized by conflicts of interest within individual states, e.g. between employers and employees. Instead, it is increasingly the social identity, ie the relationship between people, that tends to determine politics.
We see it on many levels. Provinces or regions seek greater political independence with Scotland as the current example. Religious minorities strive for protection as we see e.g. in the Middle East. The same is true of indigenous peoples in Latin America and elsewhere. Social justice is not created in conflict between social classes but increasingly between social communities.
Slightly simplified, it can be said that the world is increasingly divided vertically rather than horizontally. We also experience this trend in Sweden, but here as a threat to social justice. It is no longer the worker against the director who represents the mainstay of society. The majority on both the right and the left agree on the foundations of the policy. Instead, the challenge has been how far we are prepared to open our hearts to people from other countries.
What is happening around the world is a particularly great challenge for Sweden in particular with its secular focus and tradition of enlightened government. For decades, politics has rested securely in the economic cradle. We Swedes are therefore spoiled with rational solutions often found in intricate but constructive plus-sum games.
Such solutions are much more difficult to achieve in a policy driven more by social identities than economic interests. This tends instead to be characterized by a zero-sum dynamic, ie the winner takes everything (or so it is perceived by the political contractors). In the order that increasingly characterizes the world, this dynamic is emerging as a major challenge at both the national and international levels.
For Swedish foreign policy, it is especially a couple of "holy cows" who are exposed. The first is human rights. Within the UN and in other international contexts, Sweden has been one of the strongest advocates and defenders of justice and equality. Not least when it comes to social, economic and cultural rights, Sweden has been a driving force. In their relations with the aid countries, rights have been a basis for policy.
In Sweden, we speak proudly about these rights in capital letters - MR. We refer to all the conventions and declarations adopted by the global community through the UN. We demand that all countries be ready to follow these social liberal ideals. However, many do not and there are data indicating that respect for human rights has declined since the 1990s, which can be described as the global pinnacle of liberal democracy.
However, this does not mean that human rights in the form of respect for personal autonomy and integrity have lost their relevance. As political scientist Stephen Hopgood argues, we may have reached the last days of human rights while, paradoxically, the fight for human rights within locally or regionally defined terms is growing.
Regional interpretations of what applies mean a blow to the other holy cow: the United Nations. The universal element in MRI loses its strength when e.g. Africans, Arabs or Asians experience the special empirical experiences in place as the driving force behind their fight for justice. They do not want to be encouraged by the international community and its ideals. They want to take matters into their own hands and in that way bring about an improvement in their living conditions. It is local ownership of the struggle that counts.
It is therefore no coincidence that MR has fallen completely into the background in the discussions that are now being conducted about the UN's successors to the Millennium Development Goals. The latter were perceived in most developing countries as forced. Now, with the help of China, Russia and Brazil, these countries want a looser arrangement that reduces the UN's role in favor of regional and local institutions.
The EU, which now determines much of the framework for Swedish foreign and development policy, finds it difficult to assert itself at the international level because the Union follows a policy determined by the least common denominator in the Member States' outlook. In addition, the EU is not inclined to put power behind its words.
As in the earlier stages of World War II, it is the United States that must take responsibility for ensuring that liberal and democratic values are not swept away. The downgrading of the armed forces that has taken place in most European countries means that one has to rely on power in beautiful words and civil actions, something that seldom gives influence in the whirlpools of realpolitik.
Much of what Sweden has fought for in multilateral contexts is therefore at stake. In the world that is now looming on the horizon, one challenge after another looms in a way that threatens the traditional foundations of both foreign and development policy. The incoming government, as well as the Riksdag, has every reason to take a closer look at how to respond to world developments, which will most likely be further strengthened in the 2010s.
The author is Professor Emeritus of Political Science