Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

The Future Shape of International Relations: Terence O'Brien Reflects on the Shape of 21st Century World Affairs

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

The Future Shape of International Relations: Terence O'Brien Reflects on the Shape of 21st Century World Affairs

Article excerpt


This first decade of the 21st century has produced a global financial and economic crisis whose ramifications for international well-being and the future management of world affairs are likely to endure. The crisis denotes change in the international pecking order, which for so long has been dominated by a handful of powerful industrialised economies.

International relations are shaped by the way powerful nations emerge, behave and interact one with another; by the way economic opportunity and prosperity are shared or not shared, inside the international community; by issues that transcend boundaries like degradation of the global environment, or piracy, or security of energy supply; by the influences of militarism, of radicalism, of protectionism; and by the assertive (even coercive) spread of values--both secular and religious. The central question for 21st century global affairs is how readily nations are disposed to nourish and sustain an international framework through which to mediate these complex issues.

The 20th century revolutionised the conduct of international relations. Dazzling advances in science, technology and communications accelerated the spread of goods, people and ideas across boundaries. They collapsed time and distance so international relations became more expeditious. The clear distinction between what constitutes an internal or an external issue or interest disappeared. The overall process, christened globalisation, magnified forcefully interdependence between nations and between the modern challenges they confront. Globalisation bestows new opportunities upon those countries equipped to capitalise upon them, but not every country was, or is, so endowed. Globalisation thus served, paradoxically, at the same time to widen gaps between the successful and unsuccessful.

It empowered business and non-government agencies and organisations to play a larger part in international relations. Single-issue non-governmental organisations concerned with the environment, human rights and the like now influence governments and the fashioning of international policy. Business exerts comparable influence. These trends will extend in the century ahead, and the task of harnessing non-governmental involvement with global management in ways that are equitable and effective will remain key in the international affairs of the 21st century.

Globalisation multiplies risks as well as opportunities. Afflictions like terrorism, organised crime, drugs, people smuggling, and avaricious unprincipled behaviour in financial markets transcend boundaries--harming nations irrespective of size, power or location. In the globalising world, it is no longer sufficient to define security solely in military terms; size and great power provide no guarantee of immunity against the prevailing afflictions. By the same token, it is not necessarily more dangerous, therefore, to be a small country--providing the right policy settings are always maintained. Geographical remoteness is no protection either, but strategic invisibility of the kind possessed by New Zealand constitutes a solid foundation for a nimble, independent foreign policy in support of a fair and just order in the world.

Murderous warfare

The 20th century proved to be an age of murderous industrialised warfare on a global scale. Two world wars shaped international relations profoundly. They were the product of diplomatic miscalculation among Atlantic nations, the core of so-called Western Enlightenment, that pride themselves on rational civilising values. Their conflicts engulfed even the most distant countries, New Zealand included. In the aftermath, there ensued four decades of ideological confrontation between communist totalitarianism led by the Soviet Union and Western liberalism led by the United States, both backed by massive weaponry, which produced permanent tension and proxy wars. …

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