The Guns of April, or the Return of Strategic Frivolity

The spring of 2017 was marked by rather abrupt US interventions in the two most sensitive areas of world politics, Syria and North Korea. The new administration fired 59 cruise missiles into Syria in a show of force, and has made unequivocal threats against North Korea. In both cases, Russia and China, the top nuclear powers alongside the United States, saw their vital interests affected. 

These developments confirm that the world is entering an even more complex and explosive period, possibly the most explosive since the early 1900s, when the European powers unleashed a world war. That war was caused by recklessness borne of a “habit of peace,” a belief in the power of economic interdependence, and strategic frivolity – or the willingness to create risky situations to advance short-term interests – which is even more pronounced in our day and age given the clear lack of mutual respect in the world.

The most important feature of the international situation today is the absence of both of the primary stabilizers in relations between states: generally recognized rules of the game and dominant players. Before 1991, there were two powers that imposed their will on the majority of other countries except China and, to some extent, India. After the bipolar system finally disappeared, there was a chance that international relations would come to be characterized by fair play based on generally accepted institutions. But the de facto winners of the Cold War decided to structure the world in their own interests and create a unipolar system.

This system was known as the “liberal world order” and hinged on one incontrovertible rule: international law can be violated only by the United States, which is also the primary author of global political and economic rules. Other major states were invited to either join the Western community as junior partners or stay on the sidelines while enjoying the benefits of economic globalization and free trade. The West was also certain that economic factors would sooner or later force China to adapt to the West’s rules of the game and its political system.

But this plan did not work. Russia has grown strong enough to defend its national interests. China insists that global governance institutions be reformed and the international order made fairer. But new rules followed by all failed to emerge. The United States seems to be adopting a strategy that it’s better to have no rules than any other rules if they are not American. As a result, the world has been plunged into a much more chaotic and risky state than even after the end of the Second Thirty Years War of 1914-1945. The order created by the winners in 1945 amounted to the most sweeping reform of the Westphalian System since its inception, but it has broken down.  

Drawing historical analogies and analyzing past experience has always been the best way to conceptualize modern circumstances and foster ideas on how to surmount contradictions. The history of relations between nations is probed for specific models and the key factors determining the stability of the existing order. If we look for analogies in the past, the period most closely related to present circumstances would be the one that began after German unification in 1871 and lasted until the Great War of 1914-1918. Its essential features were irreconcilable contradictions between the core West European powers, France and Germany, universal militarization, numerous small clashes on the periphery caused by diverging interests of major players, and globalization in trade and human contacts.

In 1913, for example, the strongest trading relationship was between Britain and Germany, who would be mortal enemies just a year later. Germany was also the biggest foreign investor in Russia, with 378 million in gold rubles invested in the Russian economy. There were no visas or borders in the modern sense of these concepts. The European aristocrats were a global elite and the majority of ruling dynasties were one big extended family. The leading global powers had not been at war with each other for 40 years and the last conflict that involved more than three powers was the Crimean War (1853-1856). There had been no truly large-scale, bloody war since 1815 (the suffering of peoples subjected to colonial aggression was not counted, of course). At the same time, suspicion reigned supreme in relations between states. The result was a military and diplomatic conflict that lasted for 30 years and included two world wars that cost tens of millions of lives.

Today we are witnessing something similar. The ongoing globalization of trade is accompanied by increasingly tangled and thorny political relations. Like in the early 20th century, many believe that economic interdependence will forestall the descent into all-out war, and so they can afford to take a frivolous approach to sources of conflict. The new US government is openly disregarding international law and says it is concerned only with its own interests. Washington’s behavior is erratic and risky, and it is eroding international security. The international system has been knocked off balance. Europe is rapidly losing its ability to advance the cause of peace. China and Russia are urging fair play, respect for international institutions and preserving the gains of globalization. But they, too, frequently have to react symmetrically to what their partners in the West do. At the same time, there is a new “habit of peace” and a certainty that nuclear weapons guarantee that a big war cannot happen. In other words, the circumstances are the same as in 1871-1914, and by studying them we can back away from the slippery slope toward major conflict. We can even figure out what it will take to build a more or less stable world order.

Past experience teaches us that the international order has both a material basis (military force) and immaterial basis (respect, rules and recognition of partners’ legitimacy). One has outweighed the other at certain stages in history. The balance of power in 1871-1914 and 1945-1991 was material in nature. But in both cases, balance of power and direct military containment were the precursors to all-out conflict, not part of an effort to avert one. The result in both cases was the defeat of one or several players – in a direct military conflict in 1914-1918, and in the hybrid warfare conducted on the periphery during the Cold War, which nevertheless threatened to erupt into a big war between the superpowers at any moment.

Known as the Concert of Vienna, the European order of 1648-1871 was of a different nature. Like the entire Westphalian System, the Concert was based on (monarchic) legitimacy, mutual respect and agreed upon rules of the game. The creators of the Westphalian System and participants in the Congress of Vienna certainly respected each other and recognized each other’s legitimacy despite the difference in political systems. Some earlier examples of this order can be found in the ancient history of the East and relations between ancient Chinese dynasties in the Spring and Autumn period. In the 14th century BC, rulers of the five states that formed the Club of Great Powers called each other “brother” and state-sponsored peace summits in ancient China were predecessors of the 19th-century European peace congresses. In Europe, mutual respect and recognition of legitimacy persisted until the 1917 Russian revolution, and both have been lacking in international relations in the intervening 100 years.

Today, mutual respect is probably the scarcest commodity in relations between great or even just major powers. This is particularly clear in the divide between the West and the Rest. In some cases, the loss of respect is due to a subjective assessment of a partner’s internal stability and legitimacy. This is how the United States and the majority of its allies look at Russia and China. Judging by their statements and estimates, the US generals and most experts believe that China will not be able to muster sufficient resolve when the time comes. They think that China, despite its economic might and growing military capabilities, is not prepared to face serious pressure and military provocations. Nevertheless, the US calls China one of the two world superpowers. The majority of experts and decision-makers in Washington and Europe are also confident that Russia has “feet of clay” – that its economy cannot withstand a protracted confrontation and its political regime will inevitably give way to an order more congenial to the West. This was the point of view held by the previous administration, and it is increasingly shared by most new Republican leaders.

Europe, for its part, is betting on internal changes in Russia. But this creates a fundamental problem. The notion that seeking to transform a country is the most reliable way to settle differences with it inevitably makes it impossible to recognize a partner’s legitimacy and demonstrate mutual respect. Is there any respect in the West’s attitude, say, to North Korea or India-Pakistan relations?

In other cases, lack of respect results from a no less subjective view of opponents’ intentions and, most importantly, their ability to match words with deeds. Russia and China are increasingly of the opinion that the new American administration cannot be taken seriously. The threatening, contradictory and irresponsible statements by the US president and members of his inner circle do not translate into practice, and their erratic, borderline insane and intentionally scandalous policies go a long way towards confirming this conclusion. As a result, the world is beginning to view the new administration as a paper tiger. Regrettably, certain decisions by EU leaders and heads of major EU countries have not engendered a great deal of respect in Russia and China either. This is particularly true in next-door neighbor Russia, where many do not understand the nature of what they see as Europe’s contradictory foreign policy. Russians see the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the EU migration crisis and wonder if the Europeans are able to see the cause-and-effect link between political decisions and subsequent developments. And this is driving relations into an intellectual and political impasse.

Russia-China relations are much more respectful. Both countries’ leaders meet regularly and, by all appearances, listen attentively to each other’s views on the most varied issues of foreign policy and governance. And this is quite natural. Russia has much to learn from its great partner about economic development or the fight against corruption. The Chinese leaders have achieved impressive results on this front in recent years. China, in turn, can borrow a lot from Russia in such areas as maintaining a harmonious multi-ethnic state or staunch defense of foreign policy interests. So far, China has not faced the same tough challenges from the West as Russia has. But, given the radicalism of the new US administration, a harsh test is just round the bend.

Thus, respect and mutual recognition can hardly be regarded at this juncture as a factor in relations between the main international competitors. This was not so strongly pronounced at the turn of the 19th century and underscores the danger of another similarity of the epochs – the willingness to risk confrontation for the sake of a tactical success or domestic political popularity. This is particularly true of US policies. The new administration’s strategic frivolity may at some point lead to a war with unpredictable potential for escalation in the Middle East or Northeast Asia. Europe is less reckless only insofar as it has fewer military capabilities. But the European powers did spark a military and diplomatic conflict in Ukraine by casually supporting the 2014 coup and then blaming Russia for interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs. What prevailed in both cases was the desire to gain a short-term advantage and the need for internal consolidation in the face of an external threat. But Russia and China also have to take decisions in response to tactical attacks by their opponents rather than on the basis of their long-term strategies. Let me repeat, however, that responsible behavior in Moscow and Beijing is encouraged by its political organizations.

One hundred years ago, the great powers’ strategic frivolity led to a world war despite the fact that they respected each other and recognized each other’s legitimacy. To avoid getting dragged closer to a conflict, it is not enough to recognize each other’s right to abide by their respective values, as the new US administration is trying to do with respect to Russia and China. What is needed is to renounce the use or threat of force to achieve foreign policy objectives when the interests of an important military power are involved. World politics will remain the sum of “small deals” until conditions are ripe to create new global rules of the game. I would hazard to guess that the United States and its allies are basically incapable of any “final solutions” that aren’t guaranteed to make them the undeniable winners. The best we can hope for is that they will strengthen the safeguards that prevent reckless gamblers from leading the world to the brink of war. This is why making deals should be the work of diplomats at international organizations and forums – the only achievement of the 20th century. 

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.