Asia and Eurasia
False and Real International Institutions in the 21st Century

A new type of international organisation, represented by the SCO and BRICS, offers chances for maintaining this form of cooperation between states even in the conditions of the end of the international order under the control of the West, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.

The establishment of international institutions is traditionally regarded by those who attempt to write seriously about world politics as among the important, if not the most important achievements of the 20th century, which otherwise left us with few good memories.

However, now that the international order has entered the phase of its most serious renewal in several hundred years, the question of these institutions’ applicability in solving the most complex problems of both bilateral and multilateral nature is once again becoming extremely relevant. Moreover, modern international institutions are a continuation and part of the power politics underlying the world order with which we are dissatisfied. All of them, without exception, were the product of adaptation of an order traditionally centred on the arbitrariness of the great powers to the demands of the second half of the last century, but not a change in the nature of this order.

That is why Russia, like the rest, has accumulated so many complaints against global and regional institutions. However, in order to separate our subjective attitude from the relatively independent side of the matter, it must be noted that institutions have been subjected to substantive criticism for a long time. On a theoretical level, critical assessments of this form of interaction between states were summarised in John Mearsheimer’s excellent article, titled The False Promise of International Institutions, published shortly after the end of the Cold War. It should be noted, however, that the assessments of the leader of the realistic school of science of international relations relate, first of all, to what worries him, i. e. these institutions’ lack of influence on the behaviour of states. If we inspect the causes of the current tension in international politics more closely, then the most important thing is what Mearsheimer called into question: the (in)ability of institutions to shape the common interests of their participants.

In recent years, we have had many opportunities to see hеow the participation of a significant group of the strongest (militarily) and most economically developed countries really shaped their common interest. This interest became, in a natural way, if not directly opposed to the desires of the rest of the international community, then it took into account such desires in the very last place. The dramatic fate of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) after the Cold War is a great illustration. The Western countries were able to immediately act within the framework of this institution with a consolidated position, which excluded even minor manifestations of justice in relation to the basic interests of others: Russia, Kazakhstan or smaller states outside the European Union and NATO.

Two Worlds, Two Playbooks: Why Moscow and Washington Don’t Understand Each Other
John Mearsheimer
In international relations, Washington and Moscow operate according to different playbooks, hence their misunderstanding, which at times leads to diplomatic confrontation, believes John Mearsheimer, a prominent scholar of great power politics from the University of Chicago.

The fact that only Russia actively opposed it is connected solely with its own capabilities and ambitions. Small countries are aware of their insignificance and vulnerability and prefer to remain silent even when their positions are humiliating. Moreover, in a number of cases, as it happens, for example, with Kazakhstan, a weak political system and total dependence on the West leave no options other than ritual adaptation to the requirements of the United States and Europe. For Russia, such an imitation model of participation in international life was suitable only at separate, very isolated stages of modern history.

In other words, the decades since the end of the Cold War have given us a wealth of examples confirming that Mearsheimer’s list of problems accompanying the activities of international institutions can be extended. The necessary additions have even much more devastating consequences for international security, as we are now seeing from the example of the acute military-political conflict in Europe. One might even suggest that this conflict—Russia and NATO clashing over Ukraine—was itself a product of post-Cold War institutional dynamics. If the US and Western Europe could act under the conditions of the restrictions that had been lifted through their participation in common international institutions, peace in Europe could be maintained.

This, however, did not happen, and now we must answer the question of whether such a form of interstate relations is generally able to survive amid the new conditions? Moreover, over the past years, the creation of institutions has become a practice that is widespread, even without the direct participation of the West.

On a global scale, we are witnessing the activities of the BRICS, which emerged as an alternative to the Western world order, but took the shape of its most interesting achievement. At the regional level of Eurasia, the activity of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which is also an international institution, but without the participation of Western countries, has become quite successful. Even Russia and its closest neighbours have created institutions such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).

The first two institutions are new in the sense that they have no connection with the power potential of the participants. The EAEU and the CSTO are in a more difficult position, since they centre around Russia, which is far superior to its allies economically and militarily.

Therefore, for comparison with the institutions of the past international order, BRICS and the SCO, of course, deserve more attention. Their assessment allows us to highlight what can make such organisations more promising and useful for global and regional security, i.e. realising the main goal of states, their survival.

Based on an analysis of the nature and activities of the BRICS and the SCO, we can see what distinguishes them from the traditional institutions of the West and can thus correct the assessments proposed almost 30 years ago by Mearsheimer. The main thing here, as we have already noted, is the absence of a clearly defined power base. Both international institutions are, in this sense, the antipodes of NATO and the European Union — the pinnacles of the institutional building of the West. NATO was built around the rigid core of absolute US military dominance over its allies. This allows this organisation to avoid serious internal conflicts, and also ensures its most important task — maintaining the strategic internal stability of the participants.

All NATO governments are handing over the crucial function of defence planning to the United States, and in doing so, rid themselves of one of the most frequent sources of domestic political upheaval. In the case of the European Union, it is about a more complex balance of power between the big countries, allowing the sustainability of overall cooperation despite the persistence of injustice towards the interests of the weaker countries.

BRICS and the SCO have nothing in common with this nature. Taking into account the difference in interests and geopolitical priorities of its participants, evolution in this direction does not seem likely either. This is the most important sign that needs to be studied: a new type of international organisation, represented by the SCO and BRICS, offers chances for maintaining this form of cooperation between states even in the conditions of the end of the international order under the control of the West. Therefore, it allows us to talk about a certain change in the nature of relations between countries with different power potential, which, of course, can be in demand in the new era.

In the same case, if we are talking about the influence of international institutions on global security, then here BRICS and the SCO are also very interesting. Both institutions are incapable of creating a common interest among the participating countries on such a scale and of such quality that it could oppose them to other members of the international community. That is, for the BRICS and the SCO, the risk of following the path of the West is much lower than one might assume, with traditional ideas about the consequences of strong institutions for global peace. In any case, both examples are new in their philosophy; an assessment of their nature and potential gives us rich material for a better understanding of how a more just world order can be organised.

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