Reviving Regionalism in the Age of US Decline

Tanupriya Singh
Tricon dossierThe Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961 (Photo: Museum of Yugoslavia, CC BY-SA 3.0 RS, via Wikimedia Commons)

A new dossier by the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research and Cuba’s Center for International Policy Research examines the decline of the US-led “rules-based international order” in favor of a decided shift towards regionalism and internationalism

Over the past 20 years, the United States has entered a “state of great fragility,” which includes a loss of ideological legitimacy with the failure of neoliberal globalization. This has created space for new ideas and political experiments rooted in regionalism, non-alignment, and multilateralism, away from a unipolar and unequal system dominated by the US.

A new dossier produced by the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research in collaboration with the Center for International Policy Research (CIPR) in Cuba examines the realities and potential of these competing visions for a world order.

New regional arrangements have emerged that have sought to create new modalities for trade, as well as other forms of financial and political exchanges, that are not bound by the “Washington Consensus and the IMF-Wall Street- Dollar Complex.” A key part of these developments has been the emergence of China as a trade and development partner for many countries in the Global South.

These changes have also renewed ideas of ‘multipolarity’ in the international order, or the existence of multiple poles of power. However, more likely, what will form the basis of a “new kind of internationalism” is the ascendance of “regional integration, driven by a non-aligned perspective,” the dossier notes.

Moreover, while the hegemony of the US has decidedly declined, as CIPR Director José R. Cabañas Rodríguez notes in the Foreword, it still maintains “its ability to ‘lead from behind’ and impose ‘wars’ and instability within ‘enemy’ countries without committing its own troops.” And it often does so in the name of preserving what it calls the “rules-based international order.”

Whose rules? 

Despite its repeated evocations, the US has yet to concretely define what it means by a “rules-based international order.” Instead, the US unilaterally and arbitrarily determines the “rules” and then decides whether countries have violated them—and the way in which these rules are enforced is not through a common consensus, but through unilateral and illegal sanctions, blockades, and “any means necessary.” A clear example of this is the ongoing, over 60-year-long blockade of Cuba.

Beyond such unilateral actions, the US also manipulates international law to police other countries, the dossier notes. For instance, while the US is not a party to the Rome Statute (which established the International Criminal Court), it uses the court to target its “enemies.”

(Meanwhile, the US has what is known as the Hague Invasion Act, which authorizes military action to “liberate” any US citizen or a citizen of an allied-country from criminal prosecution by the court)

Even when it does sign or ratify international treaties, the US leaves itself enough room to circumvent their provisions. For instance, while the US accepts the jurisdiction of the United Nations International Court of Justice (ICJ), it retains the power to veto its rulings as a permanent member of the UN Security Council—something the US did in 1986 to evade paying reparations to Nicaragua.

Order for the sake of exploitation

The question that emerges is this: what purpose does this “rules-based international order” serve?

This order, the dossier notes, “is premised on the tenets that the owners of property (capitalists) must have the right to exploit labor and nature and that there must be no limits placed on the desires of these capitalists, who are organized into large and powerful firms.”

Any popular movements or governments, especially in the Global South, seeking to defend their national and territorial sovereignty against this onslaught become targets of methods of hybrid warfare including sanctions and even direct military intervention.

The rules-based international order thus provides for the continued extraction of wealth and resources from the Global South through neo-colonial structures of exploitation.

Decolonization and the roots of regionalism  

While relatively new formations such as BRICS and the SCO are gaining attention, regionalism has a rich history, particularly in Latin America and Africa, going back to the period of decolonization.

With the end of the Second World War, imperialist states moved to establish military and trade pacts, which effectively privileged Western—or, more precisely, US—interests, not just in the West (through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Economic Community), but also in Latin America (the Organization of American States) and Asia (the South East-Asian Treaty Organization).

However, newly liberated countries seeking to break away from these neo-colonial structures sought an alternative, initially through the UN framework, which notably included the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) of 1961 and the 1964 UN Conference on Trade and Development.

The UN had assisted other attempts at regional integration in the preceding years, including economic commissions in Asia and the Pacific, Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean, which emerged with political moves that drew from the 1955 Bandung Conference that brought together leaders from Asia and Africa.

However, these UN-backed initiatives did not “challenge the capitalist world system in any meaningful way.”

A much more radical vision of regionalism was proposed by anti-colonial leader and the first president of independent Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, who proposed “an African common market of three hundred million producers and consumers’ that would break the ‘artificial boundaries’ created by former colonial powers.”

The persistence of colonial structures and relations between the ‘core’ imperialist states and the newly decolonized ‘peripheral’ states also informed debates around development and dependency in the Third World.

The agenda for national development and regionalism that emerged at this time was “centered around attempts to delink from the logic of capitalist accumulation on a world scale, which was intrinsically structured to privilege the core imperialist countries and Western multinational corporations.”

In 1974, the UN General Assembly passed the historic Declaration on the Establishment of a New international Order (NIEO), which called for the building of a global system “based on equity, sovereign equality, interdependence, common interest, and cooperation among all States,” mounting a direct challenge to the world capitalist system.

However, these advances were obstructed by major shifts that took place in the following years; namely the Third World debt crisis, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it the rise of neoliberal globalization and unipolarity, with the “United States operating as the arbiter of the international system.”

Sovereignty and dignity 

Circumstances began to change with the turn of the century, as the US pressed ahead with the illegal invasion of Iraq, ignoring the efforts of the NAM to promote a peaceful resolution and the millions of people who had hit the streets across the world to reject the war.

In June 2003, India, Brazil, and South Africa launched the IBSA Dialogue, which led to the foundations of a “new intellectual agenda built on the concepts of non-alignment and regionalism.” Regionalism would be discussed again at the 14th NAM Summit in Havana, and the coming together of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa to form BRICS in 2006.

This regional bloc, which is expanding further, already represents 40% of the global population and 25% of the world’s GDP.

Such formations are anchored in regionalism and non-aligned multilateralism, away from the US-dominated spaces of global governance that have historically undermined the developmental agendas of Global South countries. These concepts, which were advanced significantly by Latin American countries in the early 2000s, have found renewed relevance in the present context, especially in light of the unilateral sanctions regime of the US and the war in Ukraine.

For Indira López Argüelles from the Cuban Foreign Ministry, this new regionalism “appears to be grounded in the concept of non-alignment”, especially in its use by regional processes in Latin America to refer to “economic self-determination” and “regional complementarity.”

A key development has also been the revival of the NIEO with widespread understanding of the failure of the global neoliberal order, of the push for deregulation, privatization, and “free markets” to provide a “widespread prosperity that never materialized,” Rodríguez notes.

In December 2022, the UN Second Committee presented a draft resolution to the General Assembly on the NIEO, a move welcomed by a majority of member states. The text highlights the “role played by regional, subregional, and interregional cooperation as well as regional economic integration based on equality of partnership in strengthening international cooperation…”

Alongside new regional formations, there is also a concerted effort being made by countries, especially those who have been subjected to the US’ illegal sanctions, for a proper revival of the original post-war and post-colonial world order which was informed by the “post-colonial consensus in the Third World to establish state sovereignty.”

This system is itself rooted in the UN Charter and the Final Document of the 1961 NAM conference which established sovereignty and dignity as its founding concepts.

As the world shifts away from US-led unipolarity, history offers evidence in favor of regionalism and integration.

“These ideas announce the possibility of sovereignty,” the dossier emphasizes. However, sovereignty by itself is not enough: “Sovereignty creates the opportunity for a state to craft policies that enhance the dignity of people, but it does not, by itself guarantee dignity.”

However, when together, these two concepts “enable people’s movements, whether struggling for or in state power, to fight against the suffocation of unipolarity and against the wretchedness of inequality.”