The crisis of international order: is it about injustice?
Chris Reus-Smit and Ayşe Zarakol outline the impact of overlapping justice claims on the stability of the liberal international order
Almost everyone agrees these days that the post-1945 international order is in crisis. Our order has been gripped by shock after shock in this millennium: 9/11, the global financial crisis of 2007–8, the rise of populism, Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to name just a few. The rules, norms and practices that evolved after the Second World War to limit conflict and facilitate cooperation are struggling to meet their original briefs and to adapt to new challenges, from preventing destabilizing uses of force to addressing global climate change. While many attribute this sense of rudderlessness to geopolitical power shifts and flagging US/western leadership, such accounts do not fully explain why the liberal international order itself has lost legitimacy in the eyes of so many around the world.
Our special section in International Affairs aims to explain this dynamic by showing that at multiple levels, our order is being challenged by polymorphic claims of justice that strongly motivate the aggrieved. We use the term polymorphic here to describe the ways these differing claims for justice in the international system interact and intersect in complex ways. We identify six such claims: recognitional, distributive, institutional, historical, epistemic, and, finally, intergenerational.
Polymorphic justice and the crisis of international order
In their introduction, the guest-editors argue that the post- 1945 international order is being challenged by a…
There are many recognitional injustice claims in the international order, but some are especially resonant in contemporary world politics. Most actors mounting recognition claims usually have formal membership in the order, but they nevertheless feel misrecognized. A primary example of this are non-western states that feel like second-class citizens in a western-centred order. Another example are former great powers trying to reclaim their lost status. There are also recognition justice claims from actors left out of the formal membership framework partially or altogether. These groups find injustice in the fact that the international order is organized around nation-states. Many terrorist organizations, for example, recruit followers by advocating alternative forms of political organization in world politics, most commonly religion. In the special section, these examples are addressed by two articles: one by George Lawson and Ayşe Zarakol on the charge of liberal hypocrisy, and another by Barak Mendelsohn.
Distributive injustice claims are concerned with the distribution of wealth in the current world order. These justice claims focus more on the material provisions of the international order and the uneven ways in which they are distributed, usually due to legacies of imperialism, colonialism and the exploitative nature of postcolonial economic relations. On this theme, Şahan Savaş Karataşlı shows how attempts by the global South to close the distributional gap have always triggered a crisis of US hegemony which pushed elites to reassert Northern dominance. Arnulf Becker Lorca highlights the vast gap that now exists between the distributional priorities of the global South and the North.
Hegemonic world orders, distributional (in)justice and global social change
Discussions about the crisis of the post-1945 world order and the decline of US world power have produced many…
Accusations of institutional injustice, and corresponding calls for change, have occurred at three levels of the modern international order: at the levels of underlying constitutional norms, institutional practices and issue-specific institutions. Drawing on the claims of global justice activists, Terry Macdonald argues for replacing the familiar liberal model of institutional legitimacy with a more complex variant of global pluralist legitimacy that reflects the increasing range of transnational governance actors against which justice claims are raised. Focusing on the global institutional injustices that persist as legacies of European colonialism, Catherine Lu sees in the contemporary crisis of the post-1945 international order openings for injustices to be debated and redressed.
Historical and epistemic injustice
Historical and epistemic injustice claims are inextricably tied to how histories of social and political change are written and memorialized — by whom, for what purposes, and with what emphases. The legacy of empire and colonialism looms large here. Questions of historical and epistemic justice are taken up in our special section in two articles, by Hitomi Koyoma and by Meera Sabaratnam and Mark Laffey.
Supposing the moral state: Japan and historical justice under liberal internationalism
The two foreign ministers of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan, Kyung-wha Kang and Taro Kono, were standing apart…
Intergenerational justice claims look to the past, the present and the future. While many justice claims have intergenerational dimensions, the area where they are most significant is in understanding the impacts of climate change. Robyn Eckersley argues that all political orders, especially the post-1945 international order, have had disordering effects on the environment, most dramatically through climate change. Sandeep Sengupta shows how past efforts to address justice claims, including those made in the name of future generations, have been almost completely set aside in current international climate negotiations.
A key feature of the injustices that currently beset the post-1945 international order is not just that they involve a variety of justice claims, but that these claims intersect in significant ways, manifest at different scales, and are pursued by diverse claimants. Our special section not only highlights the different types of injustice claims, but also the complex ways they relate to each other. Not all injustice claims are created equal, but they all need to be taken seriously if the order is to be maintained.
Chris Reus-Smit is Professor and Chair in International Relations at the University of Queensland, and a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.
Ayse Zarakol is Professor of International Relations at the University of Cambridge and a Politics Fellow at Emmanuel College.
Their article, ‘Polymorphic justice and the crisis of international order’ serves as the guest-editors’ introduction to a special section in the January 2023 issue of International Affairs on ‘Injustice and the crisis of International order’.
All views expressed are individual not institutional.