The Yalta-Helsinki international system is far from perfect, but rather than further undermining it through ad hoc arrangements of one sort or another, effort should be more profitably directed at devising improved ways of combining sovereignty with more effective and progressive forms of internationalism; a new synthesis adequate to meet the challenges of our times while recognising the changed balance of power in the state system, writes Valdai Club expert Richard Sakwa.
Amid the clamour about the return of great power politics and the crisis of international order, there has been much talk about the establishment of some sort of new concert of powers. The idea is attractive for at least three reasons.
First, it suggests the restoration of managerial capacity to international affairs. The last few years have been characterized by a palpable sense of drift, mostly towards the worse. United States leadership has been distracted by its domestic problems, exacerbated by the global financial crisis in 2008, engagement in unwinnable ‘forever wars’, and then by the Trumpian disruption, which repudiated traditional forms of ‘leadership’ in favour of a new model of ‘greatness’.
Second, it would provide a forum for the great powers to meet as relative equals. It would represent a tangible, if more limited, model of multipolarity, and thus move beyond US-centric unipolarity and the nascent Sino-US bipolarity, which some fear could take the form of a G-2 condominium. This forum would allow the major issues of the day, above all those dealing with war and peace, to be hammered out. It would be based on consensus, and thus equalize all the great powers. There would be no room for hegemony here.
Finally, it would represent a normative shift away from liberal idealism towards a more pragmatic realist approach to international affairs, treating states as they are rather than what they should be (from certain normative perspectives). This would allow deals to be made on the basis of respect for national interests.
These are all important arguments, but the solution they propose would be liable to exacerbate rather than alleviate problems. The historical experience of the ‘Concert of Europe’ provides a model that worked in its time, but is unlikely to do so again.
The attraction of the idea nevertheless is clear. Russia considers the Concert of Europe established at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 as the golden age of European diplomacy. The Congress outlined a system in which spheres of influence would be recognised, and in which the Congress members would defend each other from revolutionary insurgency. The notable innovation of the Vienna system was the rapid restoration of France to great power status, and instead of punishing the country, it was swiftly rehabilitated and brought in as a founder member of the new order. It thus had a stake in the new dispensation, and despite various bouts of revolutionary and military turmoil, became a status quo power. Tsar Alexander I was a founder member of the Congress system, and ‘alarmed’ his fellow delegates, as Walter Russell Mead puts it, by proposing a proto-Wilsonian ‘international system that would rest on a moral consensus upheld by a concert of powers that would operate from a shared set of ideas about legitimate authority’.
The system combined great power restraint and accommodation with recognition of the underlying realities of power. It inaugurated an unprecedented period of European peace that by and large endured for nearly a century, until it spectacularly collapsed amid the carnage of the First World War. A crucial mechanism of the Vienna system was the balance of power, but in the first decade of the twentieth century this became ossified in the form of rigid alliance systems, with the Entente powers (France, Britain and Russia) balanced by the Central European bloc of Germany and Austro-Hungary, with Italy a quondam member.
The Great War discredited the concept of the balance of power, and one of the main arguments in favour of retaining NATO after the Cold War is to avert a reversion to dangerously competitive great power politics.
The Yalta and Potsdam conferences at the end of the Second World War in 1945 once again confirmed Russia (in its Soviet guise) as a power broker of the first order. Again, for good or ill, the agreements at Yalta provided the framework for a peace order that endures to this day, although modified by the Helsinki Final Act in 1975 and the end of the Cold War in 1989-91. The Yalta system was based on sovereign internationalism, in which great power interests are recognised but diplomacy is assumed to act as a regulatory mechanism. This was codified through the creation of the United Nations, and the five permanent members of its Security Council act as a permanently-functioning concert of powers.
However, in the early post-war years two systems of order were created. The first was in large part inspired by the US but not synonymous with it, namely the Yalta international system with the UN at its core. As Stephen Wertheim argues in his important new book, Tomorrow the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy, during the war a new model of US engagement in global affairs took shape. US leadership would be advanced, but as far as possible it would work through multilateral institutions. The second system was more narrowly what would later become known as the US-led liberal international order, which represented the institutional form of US hegemony.
In the Cold War this assumed security-oriented and militarised forms, namely the Atlantic power system with NATO at its core. In the post-Cold War years the Atlantic power system rebranded itself as the liberal international order, and thereby made claims to universality while retaining the power configuration of the original. It is this combination of power and norms, termed liberal hegemony, which in the end proved unstable. Even the US in the Trump era contemplated defection, while Joseph Biden’s attempt to return to foundational principles threatens only to exacerbate the contradictions.
Nevertheless, the combination of leadership and hegemony in the post-war years proved to be remarkably effective, allowing the US and its allies to claim victory in the Cold War. However, the end of the Cold War also exposed the contradictions. First, the Yalta international system was always bigger than the US-led liberal international order, and provides a framework for the other powers to assert certain prerogatives, above all in the UN Security Council – hence the distaste for this sort of multilateralism among certain circles in the US. Second, the putative post-Cold War ‘harmony of interests’ took the form of hegemony within an expanding Western order, thus implying (and in practice provoking) contention with outsiders. As Ian Clark puts it, the ‘informal concert (NATO and friends)’ usurped ‘the role of the formally accepted concert, namely the UN Security Council’.
This is why today the idea of a new concert of powers would undermine the institutions that were created at the end of the war, and which continue to serve as the framework for international affairs today. It would represent an exercise in power, and thus its legitimacy would be questioned. This would undermine any efficacy that such a concert might enjoy. Unless exercised through brute force, international affairs always require a balance between the exertion of will and gaining the agreement of others. Hence, while superficially attractive, there are major problems with the idea.
First, a concert of the great powers, in which each would exercise veto powers, would replace American hegemony. While this would represent a return to the normative principles of the Yalta system, it also entails the risk once more of the great powers determining the fate of lesser states, as well as the sort of paralysis that has plagued the work of the UN Security Council. It would also undermine the achievements symbolically denoted by the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, in which human rights were restored to the centrality already suggested in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. There would also be the intractable problem of deciding who was in and who was out – the perennial issue at the centre of UN reform.
Second, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Gordon LaForge note that ‘Even if states could create a modern-day version of the nineteenth-century Concert of Europe, however, it would not be enough to tackle the hydra-headed problems of the twenty-first century’. These include climate change, pandemic diseases, cyberconflict and inequality, none of which can be tackled without mobilizing new actors and new forms of agency.
Third, a narrower Concert of Europe (excluding the US) would possibly provide an avenue to resolve the new division of Europe. At the end of the Cold War there was much discussion of creating a European Security Council based on what was then the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This would have provided a format in which Russia would have become the co-founder of a new cooperative security order. This obviously threatened the primacy of NATO, and hence was vetoed by the Atlantic powers. Today a new version of a European Security Council has been suggested, as a way of tying in post-Brexit UK with the European Union – proposals that demonstratively exclude Russia.
The alternative tradition is the Gorbachevian idea of some sort of Common European Home, represented in the Gaullist-Mitterrand tradition as a Confederation of Europe, and in the Vladimir Putin years as Greater Europe. The institutional configuration of this idea is not clear, but suggests some sort of analogue to the UN Security Council at its head. However, one of the fundamental features of the post-Cold War era is the suppression of European pan-continentalism in favour of Atlanticism. The alternative idea of some sort of ‘Concert of Eurasia’ is also hardly an attractive proposition.
In sum, a concert of powers would continue the tradition of substituting some sort of sub-order for the existing international system. Already the liberal international sub-order after 1989 made this claim, with its rules-based principles supplanting international law and the UN normative order when expedient. The Yalta-Helsinki international system is far from perfect, but rather than further undermining it through ad hoc arrangements of one sort or another, effort should be more profitably directed at devising improved ways of combining sovereignty with more effective and progressive forms of internationalism; a new synthesis adequate to meet the challenges of our times while recognising the changed balance of power in the state system.