A New International Order: Overcoming or Transforming the Existing One
Author: Vladimir Baranovsky
Source: Social Sciences, Vol. 50, No. 2, pp. 36-59
Abstract. This article questions the thesis about a crisis or even collapse of the existing world order, a thesis that has become an important element of the current international discourse. The world has faced similar challenges before; the question now is which of the current ones create dangerous tensions and to what extent they could be minimized and absorbed within the existing international order. The struggle for a place in the hierarchy of the polycentric world will intensify. Even so, the realistic perspective with regard to the international institutional structure is not its radical transformation, but consolidation of existing mechanisms (albeit with possible adjustments). In the shifting balance between various influence centers in the world arena the most important (if multi-vector) changes have to do with the potential of China, the USA, the West in general, India, Russia and a number of regional states. The ranking in international affairs is kaleidoscopic in character creating potential instability of the world system, but also lending it additional flexibility.
Among the key dividing lines within the system are those between the USA and China, as well as between Russia and the West. Yet the major systemic intrigue stems from the center-periphery relationship. Of key importance will be the challenges emerging at the intersection of the international system and nation-state imperatives (interference in internal affairs, global problems, and sovereign particularism). This article introduces new accents in the treatment of traditional international topics (security, the use of force, the status of territories).
Keywords: world order, international system, bipolarity, polycentrism, balance of forces, international hierarchy, dividing lines in the world arena, international institutions, international actors.
V. Baranovsky, D. Sc. (History), full member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), Russian Academy of Sciences. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was first published in Russian in the journal Mirovaya ekonomika i mezhdunarodniye otnosheniya (World Economy and International Relations. 2019. Vol. 63. No. 5, pp. 7-23; DOI: 10.20542/01312227-2019-63-5-7-23).
Assessments of the current political situation are dominated by dramatic motifs. The picture that is painted is often truly apocalyptic: the world is entering a new era marked by the dominance of aggressive nationalism, renunciation of formal and informal imperatives of behavior in the world arena, erosion of deterrents, dangerous brinkmanship, growing uncertainty, universal renunciation of playing by the rules, and, as a result, heightened risks and unpredictability.
While the author is mindful of all the aforementioned dangers, he does not see them as immanent to the modern international system, still less as something that dooms it to inevitable collapse. It is true that some new parameters are emerging, but it is important to look, first, at their content and, second, at their consequences for world development, for the actors in international life and the state of their mutual relationships. Perhaps the international system is indeed in need of replacement, although this thesis has yet to be substantiated and the cost of changes has to be estimated. But perhaps something very different is needed: to identify the vulnerabilities of the international system in the face of the problems that arise and ways to increase its resilience, stability and the ability to solve these problems. Reducing everything to total destruction of things as they are and their total replacement with something that did not exist before is by no means always the best solution.
Occam’s Razor: Entities Must Not Be Multiplied Without Necessity
The annual Munich Security Conference is usually presented with a report analyzing major international political challenges confronting the world. This year’s report begins with a clear statement: today we are looking not simply at the challenges or even a string of crises we may be witnessing the collapse of the existing world order [9, p. 6].
The theme appeared in analytical discourse already two or three years ago . However, today it has been taken up by political heavyweights. The report mentioned above quotes Angela Merkel who, after being elected German Chancellor for a fourth term and especially after announcing her decision to leave her post, is perceived as the guru of European politics: The well-known and tested framework of [international] order is under heavy pressure (der bewährte oder uns gewohnte Ordnungsrahmen im Augenblick stark unter Druck steht) . A still more dramatic picture was painted by her Foreign Minister Heiko Maas:
That world order that we once knew, had become accustomed to and sometimes felt comfortable in that world order no longer exists . It has often been suggested that even if efforts are exerted to rectify the situation it would be extremely difficult to restore the status quo ante. According to the French president Emmanuel Macron, we are looking not just at an interlude in the historical process, we are currently experiencing a crisis of the effectiveness and principles of our contemporary world order which will not be able to get back on track or return to how it functioned before .
In recent times, the idea of the collapse of the former world order has also become dominant in Russian political discourse focused on international problems (including journalism and even scholarly research). True, the emphasis often differs dramatically. The logic of the discourse goes something like this.
A new international system emerges in the wake of major military upheavals as a result of agreements between the main actors who claim a major role therein. This is what happened after the era of Napoleonic wars, after World War I and after World War II. However, no such line was drawn under the old order after the end of the Cold War. The new world has been formed pragmatically but not conceptually, i.e., by addressing specific problems on an ad hoc basis and without any general plan, without achieving a consensus and without keeping a mutually acceptable balance of interests. For that reason, it could not have provided a reliable and sustainable basis for the organization of international life that took shape in practice. It preserves some elements of the Yalta-Potsdam system, yet it is seen as being less and less fit for the new reality which increasingly challenges these elements.
Thus, what is happening in international relations today should be seen as a stimulus for meeting the deferred requirements with a time lag of about a quarter century. It is high time to agree upon the new parameters of shaping the international space, new rules of behavior in it, new mechanisms of determining mutual responsibilities and mutual opportunities. To remove the injustices of the initial period after the end of the Cold War when some countries by force of circumstances had been debarred from developing/adjusting the project of European (and international) architecture. To recognize the legitimate interests of countries stemming from their histories, cultures, geography, economic motives, and security imperatives.1
For all the diversity of views on what constitutes the crisis of the world order [1; 10], there would seem to be ample grounds for dramatic assessments. Looking from Moscow, the first thing that leaps out at you is of course deterioration of the relations between Russia and the West, which have made a U-turn with amazing speed. Recent mutual positive expectations have been replaced by mistrust and vexation, arms control is falling apart before our eyes and geopolitical rivalry is back. The West believes that Russia has launched a counteroffensive, as witnessed by its surge of activity over a large foreign policy perimeter (South Ossetia, Crimea, Donbass, Syria). On our side, the information and political space is dominated by rantings about the West trying to prevent Russia from rising from its knees, trying to push our country to the periphery of the international political system and even wipe it off the face of the earth.
True, even at this stage of reflections one gets a sense of déjà vu: we have faced such situations more than once and in fact fairly recently by the measure of history. Think of the Berlin crisis, the Caribbean crisis, politically motivated restrictions on trade and economic links (Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, or CoCom), boycotts of sporting events (Moscow and Los Angeles Olympics). Not to speak of the arms race. The same goes for geopolitical rivalry in various regions of the world: Vietnam, Angola, Afghanistan (to mention only some) plus the constant explosive situation in the Middle East where in 1973 there was real and not propaganda balancing on the brink of a big war between the two superpowers with nuclear forces in a high state of readiness.
Serious dangers have of course arisen on the East-West (Russia-West) track. They are indeed serious, but there is hardly any reason to consider them something new. Except perhaps by comparison with the practice (still more hopes) of the recent past. And even with this assumption, there is not so much new but rather well (and not so well) forgotten past.
It would be appropriate to recall the argument as to whether it would be right to describe the downturn in the relations between Russia and the West as a new Cold War . Strictly speaking, these discussions are largely terminological, and everything depends on the content invested in the concept of the Cold War.
If one interprets it as a specific form of relationships between the USSR and its satellites on one side and the Western states (above all the USA and other NATO member countries) on the other that existed more than 40 years ago, then parallels with the present time are possible, but there are no serious grounds for equating the former and the latter. The differences in the character of confrontation between the parties are too great on practically all counts, from ideology and political system to the military component.
But if one interprets the Cold War as a broad, although not all-embracing confrontation of the sides (i.e., stopping short of a military clash) then there is a host of such situations in the history of international relations when acute and diversified confrontation arises and persists between states (sometimes for years and decades) but the conflicting parties do not want to see it evolve into a real ( hot ) war. Although the word combination cold war was not used, the essence was precisely this: large-scale confrontation (sometimes on the brink of war) without actual military engagement. In general, bearing in mind past experience would be useful not just to define terminology. Past experience also attests that it is not always possible to disengage from such a clinch by calling for the formation of a new international political system. Cautious minimization of the threat of uncontrolled escalation followed by a gradual reduction of the conflict-prone potential and tension may turn out to be more effective.
Let us go further over the factors that would seem to suggest that the old world is disappearing or must disappear. Until very recently, many of these factors seemed to be absent or marginal. Today, they may appear as shaping a new reality. But the question is to what extent does it replace or erase the old reality?
The rise of China is of course a huge factor. The overriding question is what regional and global consequences this trend would have for the world economy and the system of political relations. However, this factor did not arise today or even yesterday. Back in the 1960s, the impulses emanating from Beijing had a tangible impact on two of three components of the international-political system of the time, the socialist world and the Third World. And in the 1970s, China introduced changes to the world’s bipolar structure and embarked on the path which today is turning the country into one of the three (or perhaps two) main power centers in the modern world.
The Arab Spring (more broadly, the Muslim awakening) was yet another tsunami that swept a huge territory comprising some countries and regions of key importance to the modern international system. The question as to the long-term effect of this phenomenon remains open and no definitive answer has yet been given. Surmises that these developments may generate new trends in the international arena are totally legitimate. But such type of surmises could be legitimately formulated with regard to other phenomena, similar in scope, vigor and depth and which the international system faced more than once.
For example, in the 1960s, there emerged dozens of new states, which had thrown off the colonial yoke. This certainly had consequences for the international political system, but it did not give grounds to consider that the latter was outdated and had to be replaced. Today, going back to the case of Arab/Muslim countries, in some of them the upsurge of social activity and political transformations was more or less successfully absorbed by the wave of reforms whereas the possibility of turmoil spilling over into the international arena was ultimately foreclosed. So, it is unclear whether the old international system has exhausted its potential in this field or whether a new (what new?) system would be more successful?
Brexit: many Eurosceptics feel that it puts into question the prospects of integration within the European Union and its role in the international system. A couple of years ago the same was said about the EU’s suddenly revealed inability to cope with the problem of migration. Another tired mantra that has been repeated year after year has it that the integration community suffers from overstretch, that Brussels has turned into a dictator under whose pressure member countries are languishing. Hence the conclusion about a new international system that would mitigate the abuses of integration and in general throw it into the dustbin of history: either the need for such a system is becoming ever more urgent or it is already marching triumphantly across the continent (the European Constitution has failed, the Brits are jumping ship, etc.).
Without arguing here with these judgments, let us just note the obvious: in its more than half a century history, the European Union has been hearing the death knell many times, but it is still the most successful international political project inherited from the 20th century. Yes, the EU is constantly facing problems, often struggling to solve them with varying degrees of success but in the end, it solves them in a way that gradually strengthens and not dilutes integration, without renouncing the old for the sake of an unclear new. Emmanuel Macron, as mentioned above, seeking to boost his political rating, clearly tries to harness the integration project rather than brushing it aside as an encumbrance.
The list of arguments in favor of the need to form a new international system (or that it is about to come into being, perhaps has already arrived) may be continued. Such a system, like deus ex machina, is expected to miraculously solve all the problems, remove all the questions arising in international affairs.
For example, what line could Washington adopt on international affairs (ranging from isolationism and unilateralism to hegemonism and coercion into partnership) considering the internal political turmoil in the USA? Who can claim the role of new centers of influence and what would be their potential? According to what parameters would the international hierarchy be built? What imperatives (influence, utilitarian considerations, political-ideological empathy, identity, priority of national interests, motives of solidarity, etc.) would guide international actors?
The list goes on and on. In each case, we come upon questions that may be specific, but which have this in common that they present challenges for any international political system. The one that exists today may be ill-suited for the purpose and then it will accumulate potential for crisis. But it also may be directed by its participants toward reacting to these challenges with varying degrees of effectiveness, for example, through modernizing its mechanisms, adjusting and adapting them.
The bottom line is that there is no great need to reflect, let alone argue, as to whether a new world order has already arrived or is likely to arrive in the foreseeable future. Given the wish, this hypothesis may be adopted and even a new name could be given to the new world order (just like George Orwell coined the term the Cold War). However, something else seems to be more important: to scan the existing international political system in order to identify ongoing substantive changes and their possible consequences so that we could better understand present-day realities and be prepared to face the challenges of tomorrow.
Between Chaos and Multipolarity
(i) The most popular idea expressed in discussions on this topic  points to the growing chaos in the world arena. And yet until recently some kind of order in the international political system has existed. One may argue whether it was good or bad, but it provided a certain algorithm of the state’s international behavior. The state knew that there are certain limits (formally established or tacitly recognized) that should not be crossed and if they had to be crossed, then only after thoroughly weighing not only the possible gains but also the potential risks (and one’s readiness to pay for them).
According to this logic, the system is becoming more and more disorganized and lacking in order. It is increasingly dominated by the no-holds-barred morality. Carried to an extreme this model of game without rules amounts to total arbitrariness of international political behavior, a readiness to use any means (including pressure and military force) to achieve one’s goals.
It is this kind of vision that underlies the current alarmism concerning the modern international political situation and its future. Of course, there are some grounds for such a vision. Various segments of the international system are obviously in disorder. Some are fraught with eruptions (potentially dangerous for Russia). The situation in some regions is increasingly fraught with conflict.
Norms of conduct that were thought to be internationally recognized are put into question, in words and in practical actions.
However, talk about international relations being less and less manageable has become commonplace. Assessments on this matter should be balanced and weighed. Are there enough grounds for dramatizing the scale of this phenomenon? It has not led to the triumph of the Hobbes war of all against all. Such a war is not thought to be real or inevitable. Even if one proceeds from the most critical evaluation of how existing mechanisms of interaction among states in the world work, it is clear that there is no question of their total collapse. Nor can one see anyone being interested in this happening. For the overwhelming majority of states the unpredictability of development according to that paradigm outweighs any possible gains. Thus, such a full-scale scenario is unlikely (unless one bases all the prognostications on the second law of thermodynamics and the inevitable increase of entropy in the Universe).
Nor should one idealize the degree of governability of the international system in the good old times. Essentially it has always been anarchic even when it seemed to possess more order . Think of the relatively recent era of fierce confrontation between East and West: in spite of the phenomenon of bloc discipline there have been more than enough examples of deviant behavior of those considered satellites expected to toe the line of the leaders (of the USA or the USSR).
Certainly, there is nowadays an urgent requirement to provide the international system with more stability, to modernize its elements that once arose as a response to the no longer existing realities and are irrelevant to the today’s challenges. It has to be stressed that Russia, objectively, is interested in this no less than other countries. However, it would be presumptuous and irresponsible to think that since the existing world order is not organized in full accordance with our interests and aspirations we would gain by destroying it to the ground. We may end up on the losing side.
(ii) Let us suppose for the sake of argument that we proceed from the presumption of the need to oppose the new international disorder. The question suggests itself: in what way? Convincing answers to this question are not just few and far between, they simply do not exist. True, the model of the concert of nations (states) is sometimes mentioned as an attractive alternative. Is it justified?
This half-forgotten word combination goes back to the times of the Vienna Congress of 1814-1815, which determined the European disposition after the end of the Napoleonic wars era. As applied to the present time, this approach means a stable international political system (in various regional contexts and globally) based on agreements among a narrow circle of major powers.
This model obviously reflects objective reality, i.e., the hefty role played in international affairs above all by big, influential, authoritative countries. Such a model would very likely guarantee for Russia a place in the group of the select. However, this kind of mechanism is distinctly oligarchic in character. Who would determine the composition of the concert of nations, what would be its competence, would rank-and-file countries agree to renounce their own role in favor of the grandees?
On the other hand, that major powers are more important players on the world arena is nothing new, it is a reality. Have things ever been different? It is true that there could be different methods of putting this rule into practice more formal rules, patterns of great powers concept, mechanisms of Realpolitik, etc. Meanwhile the interplay between grandees as a rule has an ad hoc character. And it does not take place among all but among those directly involved in a specific problem situation. This brings to mind the concept of coalition of the willing first applied in a somewhat different context.
While a permanent symphony orchestra is the norm it is hard to imagine a similar model of a concert of nations. Part of the problem is that when this idea is articulated in its extreme form it is often married up with the principle of legitimacy. In fact, it posits the need for and justification of supporting only legitimate regimes, which should be the basis of a joint course of major powers. However, there are no universal criteria of legitimacy or illegitimacy of the order established in various countries. Indeed, the experience of the Vienna concert on that count is contradictory. It is possible to tacitly accept such approach on the ad hoc basis, but one can hardly expect key international players to be willing or able to agree among themselves interacting only with the legitimate authorities in any conflict situations arising in the world. And if, in specific cases, there is a consensus on such a matter then there is no need for a concert of nations.
(iii) Among the most popular exercises on the topic is speculation on the number of poles in the international political system what it was yesterday, what it is today and what it may turn out to be tomorrow.2
Until recently, the prevailing notion was that classical bipolarity associated with the Cold War confrontation is a thing of the past. This may be questioned today in the light of the new confrontation on the Russia-West track. For example, it may be argued that the overcoming of bipolarity took place only on the surface or has been nullified by non-cooperative behavior of its main protagonists. One interpretation attributes such uncooperative behavior to Moscow (Crimea, etc.) and the other to Washington and its allies (NATO expansion, sanctions, etc.).
After exit from bipolarity 1.0 followed a brief period of triumphalism of the unipolar world model. Essentially it is a system run by one power acting as an unchallenged hegemon and ignoring the interests of other international actors. Such orientation of international political development could be either proclaimed openly or (more frequently) implied without particular efforts to mask this goal. During the first presidency of George W. Bush, the US sought to organize its relations with the external world on that basis.
However, already in the 1990s the concept of unipolarity was shown to be untenable and was pushed into the background of political-analytical discourse. The election of President Trump breathed new life into the concept. For all the negativity of the country’s establishment with regard to the President Trump, the idea of unipolarity is still running strong in the ranks of extremist champions of American hegemony. It is also referred to in anti-US propaganda for the purposes of its critical exposure. Incidentally the rationale of such policy is not obvious: playing up opposition to the unipolar world unduly attracts attention to this topic exaggerating fears and fueling confrontational mentality.
One variation on the topic of the changing architecture of the international political system assumes the formation of a new bipolarity. Bipolarity 2.0 can take various shapes; the main ones are as follows: (i) the USA vs. China; (ii) Russia + China + anti-Western regimes vs. the US-led West; (iii) liberal capitalism countries vs. state monopoly (authoritarian) capitalism; (iv) status quo countries vs. those interested in changing the international order; and (v) golden billion countries vs. the disadvantaged part of mankind.
Of all these variants, the one that attracts most attention is that which puts the USA and China on opposite sides of the barricades. Its hypothetical antithesis was for a while considered an international duumvirate of those two countries (G2).
Let it be noted in this connection that economic interdependence between China and the USA is indeed growing and is more likely than not to prevent the two countries from sliding into overt confrontation. However, in the dialectics of rivalry and cooperation the elements of the former seem obviously to be in the ascendant. Meanwhile the model of American-Chinese entente cordiale so far looks more like wishful thinking and is not in evidence in real politics or in conceptual studies. There seems to be no serious reason for Russia to be overly concerned about the possibility of such a scenario playing out.
Even so, the scale and dynamics of that trend need to be carefully watched from the point of view of Russian interests. In any case, there are many grounds for believing that the axis of the emerging international system would be the relations between the USA and China built according to the templates of either strategic cooperation or strategic confrontation. It is an open question to what extent this fact would determine the character of the coalitions and divisions around them. From the experience of the previous variant of bipolarity we know that attempts to reproduce it in the entire international political system have not always succeeded.
To Russia, in certain situations and in the short run manifestations of a new bipolarity may at first glance seem attractive. In the current international setting, this applies above all to the second of the above-mentioned variants. To put it in a simplified way, it implies that Russia, China and countries sympathizing with them position themselves against the claims of the US and its allies to hegemony in international affairs. The motives for following that line are obvious, but possible costs must also be considered. In the long run, becoming involved in a new confrontation could have for our country the same socio-economic and other consequences as the Cold War had for the Soviet Union. As we remember, in the case of the Soviet Union it was one of the factors that made the country dysfunctional.
Nor are there obvious benefits to be gained by our state from other options of becoming involved in confrontational bipolarity. In order to be its leader, Russia would have to mobilize massive material and political resources at the expense of addressing other pressing national tasks. Meanwhile playing secondary and supporting roles within this model still further questions the rationale for such a choice.
Strictly speaking, any schemes of new bipolarity put Russia in a difficult position. For example, the US vs. China model should give even greater cause for doubt than the unipolar world because it is fraught with great uncertainties. It is unclear how Russia would be prepared and manage to steer its way between the two poles. The reasons for supporting one of the poles against the other are also dubious.
A more attractive option, in principle, would be to stay outside the framework of eventual bipolarity. It has to be noted that the above-mentioned report to the Munich Security Conference practically posits the existence of three main poles (influence centers) in the current international system: the USA, China and Russia. That said, the reasons for such a statement may be variously interpreted, for example, within the paradigm of confrontational interaction (or counteraction) of countries possessing liberal and authoritarian political regimes.
(iv) Having designed various configurations of the world order in terms of the existence of one, two or three main centers of power (influence), we can clearly discern a common vector toward multipolarity. This could be a long-term trend which is increasingly apparent in the realities taking shape in the world. It manifests itself in the broadening circle of international actors capable of influencing it and making their contribution to the dynamics of international development.
This is a slow process, but strictly speaking, it can be discerned even within the framework of a bipolar world order. It happened as the cohesion of each of the opposing global blocs (East and West) was diluted and some of its initial participants (for example, the former Yugoslavia and China) dropped out of the confrontational dichotomy.
The fundamental tendency of international polycentrism is developing as an antithesis both to unipolarity, which has failed, and bipolarity, which has receded into the past but is trying to come back in a new guise and with a changed composition of participants. However, polycentric trend proceeds in symbiosis with the elements of the world order being formed according to other templates . This is a fundamentally new quality if one seeks to discern one in the emerging international political system.
The main problem of the polycentric world order is how to organize its functioning. Ensuring effective international governance and minimizing costs is much more difficult in a polycentric world than within the models discussed earlier. For polycentrism does not guarantee world harmony. A polycentric system of international relations is hierarchic and over time this circumstance will have to be reckoned with more and more if its stability is to be ensured. This is no easy task because jostling for a place in the hierarchy would increase in every area economic, scientific-technical, cultural-ideological, and military-political. Nevertheless, the task of establishing order in a polycentric world should not be considered impossible. It is worth looking at the international system today.
Its key institutional element remains and will remain the United Nations. It is under the UN aegis that a large number of various formats of multilateral interaction among states in the world have been created and are functioning. Extra dimensions are added by structures outside the UN both of the general political nature (G7, G20), and of a functional kind.
The regional level of institutional organization of international life is extremely important. It includes several dozen major interstate structures (such as NATO, OSCE, CSTO), integration (or proto-integration) type entities and a relatively new phenomenon of megablocs (some are still more like potential components of the international system).
Finally, the presence of non-state actors is becoming ever more tangible in the international arena. So far, they by no means claim to replace the state as the main protagonist in the world arena, but their participation in a widening circle of events therein is a remarkable phenomenon.
By and large, we can talk not about lack of order in international life, but about its complex institutional structural organization. The latter may potentially deliver a balance of interests, bring to a common denominator various approaches and lead to perception of and response to new challenges.
Meanwhile many analysts and politicians find it hard to resist the temptation of presenting serious claims on that score. However, paradoxically, critique is combined with a lack of any convincing ideas as to the renewal of the existing system, ideas expressing not just good wishes but having a real chance of being implemented.
On the strength of all this it seems possible to take a risk of formulating a thesis directly opposite to what is considered the mainstream modern discourse: there are no grounds for expecting a dramatic change of the structures of international interaction. The realistic perspective is not a radical transformation of the international system but the strengthening of the mechanisms that ensure its functioning, albeit with some adjustments.
Configuration of the System: Positioning of the Actors
The international political system is witnessing a redistribution of the weight of various centers and a change in the character of their presence on the world arena. Substantial changes are taking place in the capacity of actors to exert influence on other states and on the world at large. Many countries which have traditionally been thought to possess considerable potential are seeing this potential reduced although their influence resources are still there. Simultaneously, some new players from amongst successful Asian, African and Latin American states are becoming more noticeable.
Significant changes are taking place in the assessment of the United States as the biggest quantity in the international-political space. It seems only recently that the US projected an image of the sole remaining superpower, but today there is a growing awareness of its gradual relative weakening. This phenomenon is popularly believed to herald the beginning of the end of the America-centered world [18; 6].
(i) Without going into the question as to how justified (or unjustified) such a view is and what time frame should we be looking at, let us be mindful of the fact that the United States still has enormous potential to influence international life. This applies to its role in the world economy, finances, trade, science, and informatics that will remain exceedingly important in the long perspective. The US military capability has no equals in the world, with the sole exception of the approximate strategic nuclear parity with Russia.
Washington’s traditional polemics between those who support isolationism and those who want to see active US involvement in international affairs tends to sharpen from time to time and even to move to the top of the agenda. New colors to this picture have been added by President Trump who said he wanted to reduce American involvement in external situations that do not directly affect American interests, a statement that caused a surge of concern among America’s allies. The question as to how significantly this factor will influence international relations in the long term and whether it will have systemic consequences remains open.
(ii) The assessment of diminishing US international positions is often extended to the West as a whole. Some see it as probably the most fundamental change of the world order in the last five centuries. However, the media often exaggerate the importance of this phenomenon overstating its scale and possible consequences.
There is also another and still more important factor. The surrounding world is simultaneously exposed to various standards and algorithms consumerist, cultural, mental, political-organizational, socio-economic, etc. coming from the West. This is a highly contradictory process which is perceived in different ways in the non-Western world. On the whole, however, the process is accelerating. The world outside the traditional West may generate a negative political and emotional aura in its attitude to the West, but simultaneously (and on a still larger scale) it absorbs the impulses coming from the West. In that sense, it is itself gradually becoming the West.
(iii) Within the international system, the center of gravity is increasingly shifting towards Asia. It is there that the most acute problem situations arise due to the emergence of hotbeds of terrorism, ethnic and communal conflicts, nuclear proliferation and territorial disputes. It also attracts the attention of global economic actors because for them expanding markets, high dynamics of economic growth and the energy of human capital are crucial. The vector of reorientation of Russia’s attention towards the East is a phenomenon within the same category.
The mutual relations among major international players in this huge geopolitical area are fraught with immense potential uncertainties. Broad opportunities are opening up there for constructive interaction but even more so for rivalry and the buildup of tensions. Putting in place cooperative mechanisms as a counterweight to existing or future instability promises to be an exceptionally important task of the international political system in the future.
(iv) One of the key factors of the current international political dynamic is increased Russian activity. Its actions in the Caucasus, Crimea and vis-à-vis Ukraine outline the sphere of its interests within the post-Soviet space and its commitment to act vigorously and aggressively. A new feature of Russian policy (which is clearly not met with universal approval) is its readiness not to make too much of the negative reaction of other international actors. This has irked many of them, but it has increased Russia’s self-confidence. By involvement in the Syrian conflict Moscow has demonstrated its intention to be present in this strategically important region, but even more so its claim to being one of the key actors in world politics.
How and to what extent Russia’s new foreign policy may influence the dynamics of the development of the international system is a topic that merits a separate discussion . At this point let us just note that Russia, paradoxically, presents several faces simultaneously. It is a revisionist power because it breaks the established rules of the game by challenging American hegemony and some traditional norms of the existing world order. At the same time, it is a status quo power displaying as it does a conservative attitude to established realities (for example, by vigorously opposing external interference while denying any such elements in its own actions). And it even advocates a revival of certain past concepts, for example, zones of influence. 3
As a result, Russia has become much more noticeable on the radars of world politics. If this was Russia’s goal, it has been achieved: the message that Moscow has to be reckoned with was energetically delivered to the world. However, it had to pay a high enough price for that, including sanctions, reputational costs, spiraling confrontation with the West, and an uncertain future of strategically important relations with Ukraine.
(v) China and India are two states which have seen the most noticeable change of their status in the international political system. It has already happened to China and is likely to happen to India in the near future. The strengthening of their positions is becoming an ever more important variable in the evolving regional and global balances and in the foreseeable future will often grow exponentially.
There are many open questions there. Chief of them is how stable will the two states be in terms of internal socio-economic and political situation and how they will project their influence in the world. This will prompt the actors in the international system in the 21st century to pursue a cautious and balanced policy but it would simultaneously push them toward competition. Such development would provide for these rising powers and other international actors additional room for maneuver and for coalition building, but it may also bring about surges of tensions based on mutual rivalry.
(vi) Some other states also claim de facto to become part of the nucleus of the international political system. This is an informal claim of course, but it may turn out to be even more important than various official status symbols. An important novel feature of recent times is the broadening circle of such states due to the inclusion of countries that until recently were fairly far away from the center of the international system.
The very logic of the development of the latter engenders this kind of dynamic. The immobilizing effect of bipolar confrontation is a thing of the past, and some regional players have seen an opportunity to position themselves independently in the world, something they could not even dream about before. For a long time, they were patronized (or perhaps controlled) by leading world powers. Today they do not only have a free hand, but a possibility to promote their agendas. And sometimes they claim regional leadership or even hegemony.
The results of such development for the international system are mixed. On the one hand, there arise growth points with potential of becoming new drivers of regional development. On the other hand, the system becomes more fragmented and may experience the tension of competing trends.
Turkey is an example in point. Its more active role in international politics is combined with zigzags in a whole range of areas of its relations with the external world. It also shows that the stakes in the struggle of the grandees for influence on the new players may go up, something the new players have been taking advantage of successfully in recent times.
At the same time (largely due to their not being rooted in the global establishment), their policies may appear to be spontaneous, arrogant and even provocative. And their rivalries among themselves may lead to regional clashes and confrontations. An example is the new conundrum in the greater Middle East with kaleidoscopic zigzags in the alignments of forces within the region (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey) and diversified and often conflicting tasks the external actors set themselves and seek to solve (Russia, the USA and its coalition and potentially China). This territorial area noted for the vagueness of its external borders and internal cleavages has every chance of becoming a new field of the big game and the most problematic zone of the international political system in the 21st century .
(i) A notable feature of the current international system is gradual loosening of its internal hierarchy. Today we see it becoming more diverse and multi-level and prone to various fluctuations. Ranking in international affairs is not determined according to a scheme set once and for all, as was the case, for example, in the unipolar world. A non-rigid system may change its configuration and structure and take various shapes depending on many circumstances. They may depend, for example, on the specific sphere at issue; the balance of forces there (and in other areas); the character of relations between the states involved; and on other external factors.
This is essentially a highly controversial phenomenon because the inner hierarchy forms the pivot and the framework of any systemic entity and its erosion would seem to put it in jeopardy. The kaleidoscopic character of hierarchy in international relations may be a source of tensions creating a potential of instability on the global level and in individual regional segments of the world system. But it also makes the system more flexible helping it to adapt to new problem situations.
It is by no means certain that the emergence of a more flexible hierarchy will become the prevalent feature of the international system. It is unlikely to be an irreversible phenomenon. Most probably two circumstances will be key: the development of more structured international architecture and growing economic and political interdependence.
Of course, it is important not to entertain inflated illusions. Even if the international system becomes more flexible and varied, it is unlikely that the problem situations and dramatic clashes to which it would have to respond will diminish. All the causes that created them before will continue to generate them in the future.
However, looking at this dynamic in the most general way one can imagine that the main intrigue will follow two trajectories. The first is the emergence of a new configuration and balance of forces on the global and regional levels. The second is the center-periphery relationship over a broad spectrum (including technologies, information, resources, financial instruments, human capital, movement of people, security, etc.). The challenge facing international actors today is to put in place the globally balanced system while maintaining a complicated and contradictory dynamic of relations within its regional segments.
(ii) The problems stemming from the current or future systemic international political divisions will not go away. They have already been mentioned above.
The Russia-West cleavage brings together diverse factors, those that attest to mutual dissatisfaction with the course of development after the end of the Cold War, those arising from geopolitical rivalry and those connected with internal politics. The range of issues on which the sides do not see eye-to-eye tends to expand from NATO enlargement to the East, rivalry in the post-Soviet space, events in Ukraine and the situation in Syria. The cooperative part of the spectrum of possible mutual relations becomes marginal and almost a taboo. The chances for its progress are shrinking although they have not totally disappeared. There is little hope that given the wish when a political impulse toward it appears the situation could be rectified quickly and with little effort. Mutual trust is easy to lose and takes a lot of time and effort to regain.4
Another systemic dividing line is emerging between China on the one hand and the USA and its allies (especially Asia) on the other. It may even become a more important marker sidelining the twists of the Russian U-turn in international affairs.
Both types of dissociation may be mutually complementary. If the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization), the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and BRICS become involved an economic and political counterweight to the West may emerge. At the same time the underlying logic of this bipolarity is balanced by economic and political imperatives. The SCO leading countries (Russia, China, India) are heavily dependent on economic interaction with the West from where they get investments and new technologies. It is by no means certain that they would be ready to sacrifice this factor in favor of maintaining links with each other. There are contradictions too within the above-mentioned groups (China-India, India-Pakistan, between Central Asian countries), contradictions that are sometimes sharper than between them and the West. So, however attractive the idea of forming an alternative international system may be, a politically motivated wish to challenge the old establishment may not be sufficient.
Finally, let us mention yet another theoretically possible dividing line, i.e., the one that could be generated by counteraction to Islamic radicalism. One may speculate that this line could even bring together Russia, the West and China. But this far-fetched hypothesis is obviously not supported by practice. Although there is widespread fear of radical (extremist) Islamism, its opponents have a long way to go before they can become allies on a tripartite or even bilateral basis.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fear that confrontation with radical trends might introduce inter-civilizational (inter-confessional) rivalry into the international system. The consequences could have a negative impact on the internal situation in some countries (above all European ones) and spill over into the foreign policy sphere. In an extreme case, it may affect the entire range of relations between non-Muslim and Muslim countries. Especially if one takes into account the risk that the wave of populism may sweep away the seemingly strong immunity to risky words or actions in this field.
(iii) Another category of important challenges for the international system has to do with it becoming immersed in internal affairs or rising above the prevailing nation state foreign policy imperatives. Three groups of problems could be indicated here.
The first one focuses upon the question: how internal problems should relate to international relations? Let us recall that there is nothing new in discussions on that score both conceptual and at the level of practical politics. At the same time, one has to admit that the theme itself is acquiring a new urgency. The collisions around sovereignty and color revolutions are especially serious.
On one pole, there is an attitude that interference in the internal affairs of states should be minimal and even non-existent because it may express the aggressive designs of some international actors, their quest of dominance. On the other hand, there is the thesis of growing influence of transnational processes, the deep (and still deepening) connection between the problem situations within a country and the external world and the impossibility, in principle, of building a blind wall to keep these problems at bay.
This may provide the ground for polemical battles sometimes useful and sometimes not very fruitful (like passionate discussions as to whether it is possible to create a perpetuum mobile and how to create it.) However, some conflicts that arise are real (and even bloody).
There is no need to establish a new world order in order to determine ways preventing such clashes. The direction that may deliver a solution has long been indicated. It consists of the state assuming some obligations to comply with certain criteria in its domestic development. The criteria and the obligations to comply may be formal in character, but far more importantly they should represent a code of conduct that is recognized de facto.
Perhaps over time the practice will become more widespread in the framework of international system development according to the liberal algorithm. But today movement in that direction has clearly stalled in some of its segments (or has even reversed). There are many signs to show that this dynamic will characterize the development of the international system for a long time to come.
However even the next change of vector does not guarantee rapid development in the said direction. By contrast, the probability of new conflicts being generated is much higher. Present-day life abounds in such examples. For example, some partners of a strife-torn country may interpret the events there from opposite angles (as in the case of Ukraine and Syria) or no agreement is reached on measures the international community can and must take (as in the case of Libya).
Thus, under present-day conditions, plunging into domestic problems from the international political level may generate conflicts. This throws up another question: would it be true to say that an effective antithesis is elevation to the level of general challenges and global problems? The picture that emerges is highly controversial.
On the one hand, the existence of common problems has traditionally been thought to stimulate consolidation of international community because the imperative of cooperation in areas where it is impossible to achieve meaningful results acting separately is obvious. Indeed, in practice this broadens the area of international cooperation. The list of such spheres is constantly growing: ecology, climate, human health, migration, new technologies but also terrorism, corruption and other forms of transnational criminal activities…
Optimists are convinced that the incentives to cooperation are so powerful that they will soon help to overcome the collapse of the relations between Russia and the West or at least mitigate it. However, skeptics have their grounds for pessimistic assessments and forecasts.
Global problems and shared challenges do not only push the states toward cooperation, but also create new contradictions between them. For example, they may deepen the actual inequality of technological potential (because leaders will always seek to adapt joint decisions to their own interests and are not eager to altruistically share their achievements with the laggards). Or they may relate in different ways in different countries with their other priorities (as is happening today in the sphere of cybersecurity). The considerable body of experience of handling such problems, although certainly positive, has yet to bring about a breakthrough in terms of influencing the international system. For example, the problem of fighting international terrorism contrary to expectations failed to become a powerful driver for joint actions.
Most importantly, the commitment to solve such problems through joint efforts assumes a model of a globalizing world with common values and universally shared interests. In reality an opposite trend is gathering momentum which gives priority only to one’s own concerns. This is the third challenge for the international system.
Let us define it as the phenomenon of sovereign particularism. It refers to ideas and political imperatives that proceed from the absolute value of sovereignty and an equally absolute prevalence of national (country) interests.
Today this mode of thinking and this line of practical behavior seem legitimate and natural to many. Indeed, how else can one formulate foreign policy tasks, economic development goals and conditions for security except by recognizing the unconditional priority of one’s own interests? Many countries are leaning to this side. The preservation, let alone growth, of this attitude may affect the attitude to the external world in general. By placing particular motives at the top and putting on the back burner those that go beyond the framework of nation-state pragmatism, relate to the problems of society in the broad sense or prize solidarity.
The arguments from the national egoism arsenal can be very effective in the propaganda battles because they do not need sophisticated justifications and can easily gain support inside the country. Hence the attractive possibilities of effective legitimization of a corresponding policy. It is also easy to refer to the concept of sovereignty. (We do what we consider to be necessary guided by the national interests and opposing any external pressures).
The consequences for the international system are obvious. The result will be a growing number of prerequisites for international conflicts, greater difficulty in achieving mutually acceptable compromise solutions while the stability of the system itself will come under a severe test.
Traditional Problems: Shifting Accents
The agenda of the world order today and tomorrow is still the same as it was yesterday and the day before yesterday. But some new accents have emerged in the political discourse and they may well attract extra attention. It may be that they would reveal some fundamental parameters that would adjust the world order.
(i) An important novel feature is the broader interpretation of security and all things related to it over the entire range of problems: concerning the threats and security challenges, conditions of security, the methods, means and instruments used, parameters of possible interaction with external partners, etc. Security is a more diverse and multidimensional phenomenon than purely military security; nowadays it often includes the state of affairs in many spheres of social life which previously were beyond the boundaries of this theme.
This is a highly controversial trend. On the one hand, it reflects reality more adequately and on the other hand, it waters down the specificity of the concept of security since it may include any problem. It devalues the criteria of security, reduces the possibility of its proper assessment which may become subject to expediency considerations proceeding from alarmism stoked up with respect to specific situation.
While this approach would seem to be an antithesis of traditional military force thinking, in practice the two approaches often go hand-in-hand. This brings back to life the old algorithms such as the one that describes the classical paradox of security when concern for security for oneself in reality prompts the opponent to step up its military activities. The result may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, which we see for example in the context of re-emerging confrontation between Russia and NATO.
It would be dangerous if this becomes the norm. This is a case when international actors must reverse the trend no matter how it is interpreted (as a result of a new world order or as a legacy of the old one).
(ii) The critical situation in the nuclear arms field is a great cause for the worry . All the concerns that seemed to have been left behind over the past several decades are coming back. There is a danger that the entire experience of the relevant discussions among politicians and official negotiators when official agreements were hammered out and concluded and intensive verification activities took place will be thrown overboard. We see public legitimization of the political use of nuclear weapons as well as their military use, something that for decades would go beyond political correctness and was almost a taboo topic.
One can see serious consequences here for international relations. First, this may create an imperative for military buildup and for launching new spirals of the arms race. Second, the threat of dangerous brinkmanship in a sphere that can quickly escalate into a military clash with catastrophic consequences. Third, a high probability of the nuclear non-proliferation regime collapsing, with prospects of new states acquiring nuclear weapons and the growing danger of nuclear terrorism.
This confronts the international-political system with a truly dramatic challenge. Either to stop the above changes (which may be unrealistic) or focus on reviving nuclear arms control in the future (preferably not too distant future, perhaps from square one, with a different configuration of participants and on the basis of adjusted benchmarks and principles). One can take heart from the fact that international actors have already traversed that path in the past.
A new world order may be formed without arms control. But in that case its effectiveness will be highly problematic (at least in ensuring international security).
(iii) A clear trend in modern international development is a weakening of self-restraint (formal and political) in the matter of trans-border use of force.
Here too, one should not exaggerate things: there are hardly grounds for saying that might is right is becoming the dominant algorithm and that just about everyone is prepared to use force always and everywhere to achieve their international goals. International law still plays a significant regulatory role on that score (although not always and sometimes with virtuoso flexibility in its interpretation). There are other restraining factors, for example, financial, or fear of undesirable reputational consequences.
And yet examples of the use of force externally continue to multiply. There have been many such examples in the past, but the danger today is of banalization of trans-border use of force when it would be considered not something out of the ordinary (or at least not normal), as it is today, but routine practice to which everyone is used and which everyone takes if not as proper, at least as inevitable. Even Moscow in the course of the turbulent events of the past decade departed to some extent from the maximum limitation approach on that score, the approach it has traditionally declared (no use of force outside the country except for self-defense, at the invitation of the official authorities or by the decision of UN Security Council).
An alarmist interpretation of the trend for more active trans-border use of force implies that it may become even broader in terms of territory. It could push into the background discussions as to its legitimacy while bringing to the fore the problem of achieving maximum result within the shortest time at minimal political cost (both domestically and internationally).
What does such development hold in store? Such actions by any country may result in increasingly lightweight decision-making in the future. It may be noted that Russia is by no means the leader in this field, but while over Kosovo and Iraq it opposed the process, its involvement in Syria brought it into the mainstream. Another consequence is that the international legal instruments in situations of trans-border use of force malfunction more and more frequently and are devalued giving way to political and propaganda instruments. One can also trace the connection with the reappraisal of ideas about the relative decrease of the role of the military force which were popular in the wake of the end of the Cold War.
Finally, the distinction between forceful and non-forceful trans-border actions becomes increasingly diluted. The concept of hybrid war that has emerged in this connection distills both the fear of external threat and the potential of influencing others. Both become a complex phenomenon that may include everything from straightforward and black propaganda to the bribing of politicians, from cyberattacks to actions to destabilize the financial system, from organizing separatist movements to special forces actions, etc.
Strictly speaking, all this is not entirely new. History (even biblical texts) bristle with examples of this kind: hybrid wars have happened frequently although they were not called that. However, some circumstances connected with this phenomenon might well be described as new. They manifested themselves in the last 10-15 years. First, the use of corresponding technologies has been tested on an unprecedentedly wide scale flinging the door open for them into the future. Second, the colossal potential of propaganda and political manipulations in this field have been revealed and have turned out to be vastly greater than could have been imagined. Third, there arose the amazing phenomenon of apology of hybrid wars which are coming to be seen as more effective (or more dangerous, depending on the side from which you look at it) than traditional methods.
(iv) Another problem which is as old as the world, and which stands out in bolder relief from the picture of the existing (or emerging) world order, concerns the country status of territories. This includes such issues as change of borders, secession, irredentism, etc. They have never been simple, but they may acquire a new (and dangerous) dynamism under the impact of the rapid and profound changes that are replacing age-old immobility. This is especially true of places where there is a surge of socio-political activity, including the search of identity on ethnic, confessional, cultural-historical, nation state and other grounds.
Contradictions over borders and country affiliation of territories have always been among the key sources of conflicts and wars. That is how these problems were solved throughout most of human history. However, the international community gradually built up a body of experience in resolving such contradictions without the use of force.
This experience shows that it is a daunting task. But it also generates an awareness that one cannot act in a cavalier fashion and in haste, or else one would have to pay a heavy price. This issue has a long history; diverse approaches have been devised (including at the highest professional level by the OSCE). Objectively, it is important to use this potential to minimize the conflict algorithm in addressing the said problems.
Russia solved the Crimea issue quickly and apparently with great efficiency. That it won’t backtrack on this situation is obvious. Similarly, there are unlikely to be attempts to test Russia’s mettle over the Crimea issue. So, while the international legal aspect of the case is likely to be long in limbo, the geopolitical component looks fairly stable.
However, it is far from obvious what conclusions can be drawn from this precedent for the international system. Does it pave the way for playing out the same scenario in other places and by other actors? Should it always be necessary (and possible) to proceed from the unquestioned prevalence of the principle of self-determination (expression of the people’s will) over any other imperatives? What political agreements and understandings can be observed or ignored in the process? How important is the factor of external safeguards or the absence thereof? What are the prospects of gathering lands together based on the principles of ethnic community or political self-identification of the population? How great is the role of change compressed in time (the quick force factor)? How justified (feasible) is the use of force or its projection through hybrid technologies?
The factors that determine the behavior of states in crisis situations like this are concrete and depend on the situation. But they may turn out to be relevant in areas of international turbulence (for example in Africa and in the Middle East) even in spite of the convincingly demonstrated and very high political, reputational and other costs of unilateral actions with a significant use of force. ***
The arguments as to whether the existing world order is good or bad and whether alternatives are possible in these turbulent, rapidly changing times are probably inevitable. In the course of such arguments, analysts should bear in mind three key characteristics of the world order: its stability, effectiveness and maturity. The stability of any world order is guaranteed by its successful functioning. The key indicator of effectiveness is the ability to adequately respond to challenges arising in the process of international political development. The sign of maturity is the ability of participants to minimize the problems that do not lend themselves to solution, to avoid panicking on this ground and to be committed to constructive interaction for the sake of maintaining international stability.
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1 Russia, according to Fyodor Lukyanov, did not recognize the post-USSR realities as immutable… [It] never fully agreed to the existence of a new world order which the West took for granted, although it has tolerated it as a given from the mid-2000s [8, p. 74].
2 In the context of the issues dealt with in this article the concepts of center of force, pole of influence and similar terms and word combinations are used interchangeably. One can find differences between them but here we are concerned only with the conventional use of words. The same applies to the terms multipolar, multipole and polycentric, unipolarity and unipoleness etc.
3 By analogy with the terms revisionist state and status quo state let us call the state with such type of behavior plus quam perfectum state.
Trust between Russia and NATO countries has been totally lost, according to a recent joint report of the Russian International Affairs Council and the European Leadership Network. Nevertheless the report formulates this mobilizing recommendation: …to see how the existing relations of mutual deterrence can be rendered more stable [12, p. 6].
Translated by Yevgeny Filippov