In John Ruggie, multilateralism has lost a great thinker and champion


On September 16, on the eve of the opening of this year’s United Nations General Assembly, John Ruggie passed away. A giant in the study and practice of world politics, Ruggie’s writings have left a lasting impression on a generation of colleagues and students, and his contributions to multilateral cooperation as a UN official will ripple through many others. During a half-century career straddling academia and policymaking, Ruggie has enriched our collective understanding of the normative nerves of the world order and the endless possibilities of international cooperation.

It’s rare for academics to have a direct impact on policy, but Ruggie certainly did. He served at the UN from 1997 to 2001 as Assistant Secretary General for Strategic Planning, helping to craft both the UN Global Compact and the Millennium Development Goals. He joined the organization in 2005 as Special Envoy to the UN Secretary-General, leading a set of Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, widely known as the “Ruggie Principles”, which define the responsibility of private companies to promote human dignity in their operations. Since other admirers are better placed to comment on his years in the political arena, I will focus primarily on his intellectual contributions to the field of international relations, which have deeply shaped my own worldview.

Ruggie’s writings were groundbreaking because they questioned the mind-numbing dominance of America’s two main academic approaches to world politics, known as “realism” and “neoliberal institutionalism.” The first portrays sovereign states as relentlessly pursuing relative power and material interests in an anarchic international system, “every state for itself”. The latter accepts many premises of realism about the motivations of the state, but is more optimistic about the prospects for global cooperation in this environment of anarchy. Both perspectives describe states as rational, unitary actors trying to maximize their expected utility through a set of consistently ordered preferences – the sovereign state as homo economicus, as it was.

Realism and neoliberal institutionalism can explain much of world politics, such as why strategic rivalry is so common and why collective action is so difficult. But as Ruggie acknowledged, they overlook the impact that ideas, identity, culture, norms and history can have on state behavior, and say virtually nothing about the drivers of change. systemic. They thus provide a sterile and static conception of international relations. Indeed, as he pointed out in a founding essay, the two orthodoxies are unable to explain the most fundamental transformation of world politics during the last millennium, namely the transition from a medieval world order characterized by heterogeneous and often overlapping claims to political authority, to a world of sovereign states. This change began in Europe and is conventionally, though simplistic, dated to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years’ War. These purely rationalist models also cannot explain other epoch normative changes in world politics, such as the abolition of slavery or international rules banning the use of chemical weapons.

Ruggie’s greatest contribution was to insist that the structure of world politics is so much ideational for it is material, and the normative fabric of international relations, as well as the identity and values ​​of individual societies, may be as important as the distribution of material power in shaping state preferences and behavior. He conceded that all nations pursue their interests. The crucial question – as he posed in the article “What makes the world stand together?” – is how they define those interests in the first place. Or, as he puts it, “what’s going on before has the neo-utilitarian model come into effect? ”

Ruggie’s greatest contribution was to insist that the structure of world politics is as much ideation as it is material.

Rather than taking “the national interest” for granted or obvious, Ruggie chose to open the black box. This was a subversive maneuver, implying that the national interest could simply be determined by everything that interests a state. Sharpen the criticism, he insisted that states not only pursue material goals, but also play roles and pursue a global goal shaped by their unique national identities and cultural commitments, as well as international norms and standards.

Ruggie’s work provided intellectual ballast for an emerging and competing paradigm in international relations, now known as constructivism. One of his main ideas is that states respond to the logic of consequences, that is, what will this action do for me? But they also respond to the logic of adequacy, i.e. how should I act, given my identity and my role?

Lest it all sound too esoteric, Ruggie’s ideas helped shift our understanding of the origins of the post-1945 international system and the United States’ unique role in its construction. Prior to Ruggie’s interventions, realist scholars like Robert Gilpin and Stephen D. Krasner, drawing on the work of economist Charles Kindleberger, had developed an influential “hegemonic stability theory”. They attributed the relative openness of the capitalist world economy in the 19th and 20th centuries to the presence of a globally dominant power, first Britain, then the United States, capable and willing to provide public goods, including open markets, a reserve currency. and military might to deter potential challengers.

Ruggie begged to differ. The open, multilateral, and regulated international system that emerged after 1945 owed less to the “United States. hegemony“, He insisted, that”American hegemony. ”That is, it was as much a function of the identity of this particular hegemon – the United States – as of the material domination of the United States. Ruggie supported this thesis with a set of counterfactuals If Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union, or even Imperial Britain had emerged from WWII as the world’s dominant power, the shape of the world order would have been entirely different. postwar system emerged because before his death in 1945 then President Franklin Roosevelt and his senior officials wanted to project outward many of the principles that were supposed to govern domestic politics and economics The American goal, as historian Antoine Deporte notes, was to “lock in a hitherto Hobbesian world.” The fact that the United States has often failed to live up to its ideals does not invalidate this interpretation.

Ruggie also enriched our understanding of the social foundations of the post-war global economy, as well as how their gradual erosion reinforced a populist backlash against globalization. The foundations of the contemporary international economic order, of course, were laid at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944, the same year Ruggie was born. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, Ruggie explained, the US and UK governments, which dominated these negotiations, rejected the laissez-faire economy. They sought a governed multilateral monetary and trading system, supported by strong institutions, that would balance a general commitment to non-discrimination, reciprocity and progressive trade liberalization, with great latitude for national governments to intervene in their national economies. to advance full employment and other social aspects. well-being goals. Ruggie called this bargain between external openness and internal intervention as a “compromise of integrated liberalism.”

By the early 1980s, this market had started to collapse, thanks to the Thatcher-Reagan revolution and the rise of neoclassical economics. The liberalization of global financial markets and world trade, together with the deregulation of domestic markets and the decline in social benefits, triggered a period of accelerated globalization that generated unevenly distributed growth, especially in advanced market economies, where the fortunes of labor have often suffered relative to those of private capital. The resulting glaring social inequalities gave rise to turbulent policies, notably in the United States, where support from declining mobile voters helped Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016.

The lesson was not lost on his successor. President Joe Biden’s adherence to a “foreign policy for the middle class” and repeated invocations by the FDR signal a desire to restore a social accord that has not been honored. For all these ideas and more, we have to thank John Ruggie.

A man of extraordinary honesty, Ruggie believed that the nations and peoples of the world could unite to make progress, however gradual and hesitant, on the great challenges of our time. He nurtured a generation of young academics and enjoyed the admiration of his colleagues, including his intellectual training partners. We are fortunate to benefit from his legacy.

Stewart Patrick is James H. Binger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World” (Brookings Press: 2018). His weekly WPR column appears every Monday.


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