The End of Institutions and the Era of “Small Deals”?


World politics is radically transforming before our very eyes. Formerly a relatively well-ordered system of interstate relations and institutions, it is turning into a somewhat chaotic set of sporadic interactions that are normally short on long-term effects. To a considerable extent, this is facilitated by the US government, the main source of unpredictability and global irritation.

On the whole, however, this state of the international environment is the logical result of its development dynamics over the last 18 years. In the spring of 1999, NATO openly disregarded the UN and all norms of international law as it launched a military operation against Yugoslavia. It seems this is the date from which we should start the count of the disintegration of law and international institutions, the most important components of the world order in the 20th century.

To some extent, all subsequent developments have been an extension of the practices that first emerged in 1999 and were applied to an increasing number of international political situations. Unilateral use of military force became the rule, and called into question the territorial integrity of states, leaning heavily on a no less important principle, the right to self-determination. Gradually, international intercourse came to be dominated by time-serving considerations, tactical solutions and the inevitable chaos.

An example of this evolution is the foreign policy of the United States, the most important world power so far. Washington has sprung several unpleasant surprises on its partners over the last few weeks in the form of its actions and numerous controversial statements about the fate of the Syrian government, America’s relations with China and Russia or the importance of Ukraine for US voters. Its spontaneous actions include a missile attack on an almost empty Syrian airfield, the British foreign minister cancelling his trip to Moscow and the sending of a carrier task force to the Korean Peninsula coast, accompanied by unequivocal threats on social media to deal with the “arrogant” North Korean regime.

This raises the question of whether our partners are prompted to act the way they do by intellectual and organizational chaos, or if they have an ulterior motive. In Russia, this question is asked out loud. Europe and China, more economically vulnerable US partners, ask this under their breath. But the measure of concern is approximately the same in all three. What differs is the form of its expression inherent in the local political traditions.

It seems the intellectual and organizational chaos is not the main factor. It is present, of course, but what prevails is a delicate political calculation based on a specific system of values. Within this system, a concrete tactical solution can prevail over long-term planning and institutions. Not surprisingly, the new administration’s first and so far most successful decision was to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) formed by Japan, the United States and a number of states in the region, which could have become a truly long-term integration project.

In a sense, the new US administration is a political player modeled on the incumbent Turkish president, a player who disregards institutions – the permanent norms and rules – as a matter of principle, and is oriented solely toward his instincts and current needs. It seems, therefore, that the new US foreign policy draws a line under the question of whether the international institutions are crumbling. No wonder the Europeans are at a loss. After all, rules and norms are what they have built their peaceful future on, in the same way as German pensioners build their future on the world’s most stable social insurance system, protected from fraud-related bankruptcy. Europe attempted to squeeze Russia into this system of rules and norms, but Russia proved too big. Trying to extend this system led to the Ukrainian tragedy. This is why the European countries are, on the one hand, seeking to come to terms with the United States, but appear extremely concerned, on the other. The new behavior model adopted by their senior NATO partner seems quite unpredictable.

Given the current dynamics and the trend of international developments, it is hard to discuss a “Concert of Nations,” like the one that existed in Europe in the 19th century. There are several factors involved. First, that unique system was based on a unity of values, including the principle of monarchic legitimacy and the unacceptability of territorial transfer (a monarch cannot be deprived of his territory). It is for this reason that the members of the “Concert of Nations” repeatedly prevented Russia from resolving the “Turkish problem” once and for all. In a concert, all members must recognize each other’s right to exist within a common system of values that disallowed wars of attrition or the toppling of a regime (regime change).

Second and most important, the 19th-century “concert,” as a form of world order, was not a method of settling relations between adversaries, nor was it aimed at resolving their bilateral problems. The 19th-century concert resulted from the absence of significant contradictions following the collapse of the Napoleonic Empire, rather than being a tool for their removal. (It will be recalled that Napoleon’s Empire was the most serious threat to the monarchic legitimacy until the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.)

In our day and age, therefore, we might rather speak of the 18th-century European balance based on things other than equality of military capabilities (formed in part by nuclear weapons today) and characterized by a lack of trust and frequent rotation of allies. This state of affairs, in turn, resulted from the rout of the three aspirants to the European hegemony in the course of three wars: the Thirty Years’ War, the War of the Spanish Succession and the Northern War. The present challenger, the United States, seems to be sliding towards the realization that its claims cannot be implemented. But the process is likely to take much time and lead to numerous excesses and crises. Many big and small deals are to settle these crises.

In Russia, what is known as a “deal,” a formula for preferred relations with the Americans under the new president, is rapidly turning into a dirty word, or at least is being publicly shelved as a form of dealing with the Americans until better times. It is hard to disagree with this. We shouldn’t really count on a deal, in the global sense of the word, as a solution to all problems on the basis of defining the “red lines” and rules of the game for any lengthy period of time.

Moreover, the emerging model of world politics does not imply any final solutions. Any solution will be situational and temporary. For the first time since the 19th century, peace is no longer a type of relations, but a pause between conflicts.  And within this system, “deals” are quite possible. But they will not be of a global nature. The latest example is the US-China relationship. Beijing’s slight pressure on the North Korean authorities made it possible for Washington to save face and renounce any further escalation.

World politics is increasingly a sum total of outwardly chaotic moves and micro-deals, and it will be this way for an indefinite period of time. Each of these deals is a new episode but never a finale. However, this fails to remove a more important problem. The world is always balancing on the brink of a military clash, if it has no rules of the game or has a very relative and limited range of such rules, or weak or nonexistent institutions. After all, we know that a solution to any conflict depends on the art displayed by diplomats and politicians rather than on the impersonal working of the mechanisms of international law or bureaucracies. This enhances the importance of the human factor and transitory circumstances.

In the face of weak institutions and law, international relations, in fact, “develop in the shadow of war” (to quote the great Raymond Aron). But economic interdependence and globalization do not disappear. Sanctions and the entire range of phenomena known as deglobalization are eroding this interdependence. We should not forget that the biggest volume of trade in 1913 was between Britain and Germany, which were locked in fierce fighting a year later. More than that, the majority of ruling dynasties in Europe were related to each other. Therefore, economic and human ties cannot prevent conflicts. But in the brilliant 18th century and even in the 19th century, war was a technical affair involving tens of thousands of professionals but not the civilian population. Today the threat of escalation is much greater and its consequences could be incomparably deadlier. All of this makes world politics in the new era more complex and unpredictable.   

Timofei Bordachev is Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club.                   


Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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