Princeton Principles conference participants

Seeking a Set of Principles to Rebuild the World Order

Jul 24 2023
By Tom Durso
Source Princeton School of Public and International Affairs

SPIA’s Ikenberry and James Co-Host Unique International Gathering

In 1787, with the nascent United States of America in danger of going broke and falling apart, a group of delegates met in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation, the young country’s governing document. The Constitutional Convention instead resulted in an entirely new system of governance, one that markedly increased power at the federal level.

Almost 240 years later, a group of international scholars and public intellectuals, deeply concerned by the state of the world, convened at Princeton for a kind of latter-day constitutional convention, this one aimed at fostering unity on a global level. The COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and strained relations between the United States and China are among the matters that inspired the initiative.

“The idea was to bring a group of leading thinkers together and see if they could identify a set of shared principles that could provide the basis of rebuilding the rules and institutions of world order,” said G. John Ikenberry, the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Politics and International Affairs, who co-organized the gathering. “It’s a fairly ambitious effort to see what countries might agree upon despite their deep differences and use those foundational principles and norms to rebuild what is widely seen as a troubled, even crisis-ridden, international system.”

The meeting, titled Reconnecting the World and held this spring, produced the Princeton Principles, a document laying out “minimum conditions for rebuilding the international, rules-based order.”

The 10 tenets address how countries interact with each other, economic development and competition, human rights, nuclear weaponry, dispute settlement, and territorial and regime integrity.

 “The fragmentation of the global system may not be reversed,” the document states, “but we believe that its decay can be arrested and its complexity can be managed by the adoption of a minimal set of shared principles, which may in due course be a stepping-stone towards something greater.”

The Princeton Principles is an initiative of the Princeton Project on Reimagining World Order, which is directed by Ikenberry and housed in the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies. The Princeton Principles conference was co-hosted by Harold James, the Claude and Lore Kelly Professor in European Studies and a professor of history and international affairs at the University, and Oliver Letwin a former member of parliament in the United Kingdom.

Ikenberry, James, and Letwin were the signatories of the Princeton Principles document, which was hammered out after much discussion and debate by more than a dozen scholars and political figures from the United States, Europe, Asia, and South America.

“We want to use these principles as an invitation for dialogue, both intellectual and political,” said Ikenberry. “We are inviting global thinkers from diverse parts of the world to reflect on the foundational ideas for an updated 21st century international order that might gain more legitimacy and respect, and more traction in evolving and enforcing effective solutions to security dilemmas, great power competition, and conflicts across global alignments.”

The three signatories are taking the Princeton Principles to conference and workshops in various regions of the world with the hope of stimulating a wider dialogue.

Ikenberry plans to run a series of meetings to revisit and update the Princeton Principles. These meetings will culminate in a larger international conference – a sort of simulated global constitutional convention – in the spring of 2026.

“The participants will dig into the various spheres of order – security, economic, and the global commons,” he said. “Along the way, we will be asking foundational questions: Are there any universal or widely shared principles that the world – despite all its diversity – might agree upon? Through which institutions and by means of which arguments might a common vision be regenerated?”

While there has been much focus on strengthening world-based order in such areas as world trade, security, and the environment, the Princeton Principles seeks to articulate the commonly held basis for these efforts.

“There’s a lot of scholarly activity these days focused on the sources and future of international rule-based order,” Ikenberry said. “But this initiative tries to look for the deeper principles that might be able to help guide and illuminate more specific efforts.”