China's People's Liberation Army

How to avoid the Third World War

Tucker marries an English School insight with the thought of two giants of philosophy


This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Global Discord: Values and Power in a Fractured World Order, Paul Tucker (Princeton University Press, £32)

This is a big book, about big ideas. At its core is a vision not only of how to understand the vast complexity of modern international relations, supranational political institutions and global political economy, but how to stabilise it and make it work better.

Paul Tucker — a former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England and long-time member of the Monetary Policy Committee — is one of the very few people alive who could write such a work, blending as it does philosophy, political economy, international relations and real-world experience of how major international organisations function. He has done so with remarkable success.

Global Discord puts forward a vision of international relations that rejects (a somewhat simplified account of) the two dominant approaches hitherto on offer. On the one hand, so-called “Realists” affirm that the international arena is anarchic, a scaled-up version of Hobbes’s infamous state of nature, where life is nasty, brutish, and short. This vision cannot be right. Not only do cooperative supranational organisations plainly exist, but states often bind themselves to the decisions of such organisations, submitting to international law even in the absence of a Hobbesian sovereign coercing them.

Furthermore, it is simply not true (as realists claim) that states operate solely on the principle of self-interest, viewing all other states as equally hostile rivals. North Atlantic democracies such as Britain, France and the US don’t regard each other with the deep suspicion directed towards (say) Russia or Iran. This is in part a function of their long-shared histories, including robust common commitments to liberal democracy. As Tucker shows, these things matter.

Yet the book also resists falling into the other major school of international realism, so-called “Liberal” accounts that (following the German philosopher Immanuel Kant) appeal to moral duties and the power of reason having the capacity to pacify the international arena. Against this, Tucker insists on a hard-headed acknowledgement that global confrontations are not going to go away. The only sensible bet is that they are going to get worse.

Principally, this is due to the unstoppable rise of China as a political and economic superpower. Its strategic incentives do not align with those of rich western democracies, and it does not share a heritage of commitment to the same moral and political values, nor a deep investment in the current international order of economic-political institutions such as the UN, the World Bank, IMF and so forth.

It is not always easy to integrate domestic norms with supranational organisations

Tucker’s major innovation is to deepen the power and plausibility of what is sometimes known as the “English School”. This approach insists upon the possibility of “anarchical society” in international affairs. Through ties of mutual interest and reciprocated respect for the so-called “laws of nations”, Hobbesian wars of all against all can be transcended, but without falling into implausible Kantian over-optimism. Tucker takes this English School insight and marries it with the thought of two giants of philosophy: the 18th century Scot David Hume, and the 20th century Englishman Bernard Williams.

From Hume, Tucker constructs a sophisticated account of how nations may, over time, build international conventions and institutions capable of binding them to collective decisions. Whilst initially being motivated only by self-interest, with enough repeat experience of commitment to shared endeavours, nations — like people — can come to believe in the rightfulness of obeying mutually agreed-upon rules, even in the absence of a Hobbesian sovereign.

This helps explain why international law not only does exist, but is often adhered to, even by nations whose immediate self-interest is not obviously served by doing so. It also explains how credible commitment can be maintained over time among international competitors without devolving into endless armed conflict.

From Williams, Tucker takes an equally crucial idea (also found in Hume): that central to political processes is the underlying conception of legitimacy, which actors and institutions are operating with. In the liberal-democratic societies of the West, we now take it as baseline that legitimate politics respect certain important values, including (to oversimplify horribly) respect for democratic accountability, the centrality of human rights, and respect for the liberty of the individual. This, however, is not a timeless moral imperative, but a product of the particular, often tortured and stumbling, histories of societies such as ours.

The problem is that, at an international level, it is not always easy to integrate the norms of domestic legitimacy with those appropriate to running supranational organisations (think the IMF or Davos), let alone when dealing with authoritarian regimes that flagrantly disregard human rights (such as Iran). This is especially so because many other nations do not share western conceptions of what makes for legitimate political action, either domestically or in the international arena.

Tucker urges  western democracies to steel themselves for the inevitability of discord

This is most true of China under the CCP, which, as Tucker spells out in stark detail, is committed to an explicit rejection of and hostility towards liberal democratic values, drawing on a different, Confucian tradition. China is a superpower, and is only going to get stronger. This means that western nations — in particular the US — and the international economic and political architecture erected following the end of the Second World War, cannot blithely proceed as if China will slot amicably into the global order (as some assumed would be the case back in the heyday of pre-2008 global optimism).

Against such wishful thinking, Tucker urges the western democracies to steel themselves for the inevitability of global discord. This will take place between, at the very least, China and the US, but probably also other rising powers (Indonesia, India, Brazil). He sketches four possible future scenarios: a lingering status quo of US dominance; a reshaped world order following the collapse of US dominance; a new Cold War between China and the US; and a superpower struggle via spheres of influence.

Which of these comes to pass is not yet determined; each would require different responses at the level of international politics and political economy. How the world navigates the challenge of adjustment, whilst avoiding the catastrophe of all-out superpower war, is not obvious. The great achievement of this profound and important book is that it offers a way of thinking about international politics that helps us to know what better decisions will look like. It might even assist some of those charged with making such decisions to do a better job. Books like this do not come along very often. When they do, one can only hope they are read as widely as possible.

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