The liberal world order was comfortable for the vast majority of states. That is why none of them has become the source of a global military catastrophe in the last 30 years, as happened twice with Germany in the 20th century. The fact that it is becoming a thing of the past is not a reason to rejoice, but the result of a historical development process that cannot be reversed, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
The global change in the balance of power, based on the peaceful growth of China, has caused all the fundamental processes and phenomena that have determined the course of international politics in 2020. The crisis of the liberal world order is the result of the inevitable contradiction that arises from the inextricable link between any order and the power on which it is based. It is hardly possible to overcome this crisis, since the era has ended in which the liberal order arose and existed. However, this does not mean that the new international rules and customs will be less democratic or more likely to result in threats of global conflict. Moreover, amid the new framework and conditions, it may become more likely that no significant state will be so dissatisfied with its position that it will push for revolutionary change.
The liberal world order was created after the end of the Cold War. It emerged from the liberal international order that existed in the second half of the 20th century within the United States and among its allies, the liberal market democracies, as well as due to the global balance of power established by the five nuclear powers. Thus, it combined the rules and customs of a community of countries that precluded the use of force in resolving disputes among themselves and the fully traditional power basis of any more or less stable international balance. These rules and customs included freedom of trade, the relative openness of societies to each other, and certain institutions which allowed it to address issues, given the aforementioned preclusion of military force. The United States was a leader among the Western countries because it possessed the greatest military power and could provide conditions under which the rest received political and economic benefits.
Moreover, the use of force was limited even at the global level, as conflict was hindered by the nuclear deterrence factor. Therefore, to some extent, the USSR was a victim of its own military power. The arsenals of Moscow and other nuclear powers made war between them irrational and did not leave space for the resolution of existing problems through force of arms. This, however, did not negate the decisive role of power and the balance of power in international politics. The USSR proved insufficiently competitive in these other, non-military aspects of power. It collapsed and lost the Cold War without firing a shot, simply because the liberal democracies were stronger in everything except their armies.
After China started to oppose the USSR, it also gained access to the benefits of a liberal order in the form of freedom of trade and investment. These have served as the basis of the People’s Republic’s economic power, followed by its desire for expansion, the first notable example of which was the Belt and Road initiative, put forward by President Xi Jinping in 2013. After this step, a conflict between the United States and China became inevitable – within the framework of one order, there cannot be two or more sources of economic benefits and resources necessary for the development of the rest. In addition, the requirements for the further development of China, approved by the National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2017, meant that the United States would have to yield its exclusive access to a significant proportion of the world’s resources and markets.T
The fact that this will happen sooner or later was already obvious 10 years after the end of the Cold War. The invasion of Iraq by the United States and its closest allies in 2003 was a US attempt to slow down the course of history and create advantages for itself in a future conflict with China. The EU’s eastward expansion and its predatory policy regarding the interests of Russia were also preparations for an era where the power advantage of the West isn’t absolute. In the mid-2010s, the United States and Europe faced Russia’s refusal to play according to the rules of the liberal order when its vital interests were jeopardised. The “sanctions” against Moscow launched by the Western countries were the first to be introduced on such a scale against a permanent member of the UN Security Council – signalling for the beginning of a new reality. Sanctions and trade wars over the past five years have reflected the first qualitative characteristics of what the new world order will be, when it replaces the liberal one. And while China and Russia sought an audit of the system that arose after the Cold War, then Western countries immediately began to eliminate it.
The liberal world order was comfortable for the vast majority of states. That is why none of them has become the source of a global military catastrophe in the last 30 years, as happened twice with Germany in the 20th century. The fact that it is becoming a thing of the past is not a reason to rejoice, but the result of a historical development process that cannot be reversed. The bad news is that the most important achievements of the past – international institutions and freedoms – are under attack.
Now it is the time to ponder what the basic processes and phenomena of international life will turn out to be characteristic of the new, illiberal world order. Most likely, trade wars and sanctions will be an inherent aspect of it, not as an exceptional measure, but as a norm of international interaction. Sanctions are becoming more and more total and aimed not at a specific regime, but at the entire population of the country that is considered an adversary. They are also the result of greater restraint in the use of traditional military instruments of force. Iran is unlikely to risk becoming a victim of US military aggression despite all its behaviour. The price of such aggression would become too high, because Tehran would receive the support of several other states. However, the economic war against it is becoming more total, not even taking into account humanitarian circumstances such as the coronavirus epidemic.
At the same time, medium and large powers will have the opportunity of greater flexibility in terms of their foreign policy decisions and deals. We already see that even such close US allies as European countries are in no hurry to join Washington’s pressure on Beijing “on all fronts”. On June 22, an online EU-China summit took place, at which the parties decided to prepare an agreement on the regulation of investments. Europe understands its attractiveness to Chinese business and will try to establish cooperation, despite the political discontent of the United States. An important indicator of the pressure limits from the senior ally will be the final decision on the completion of the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline. In the event that Europe succeeds in defending its interests (because unlike the USSR, Russia does not threaten its neighbours in the West with a takeover), it will be a convincing argument in favour of a democratic world order.
International institutions – the main achievement of world politics in the 20th century – are indeed under attack. They were historically based on a combination of the balance of the participants’ aggregate power capabilities and their understanding that relative justice is necessary. The fate of European integration, which is increasingly moving towards its sunset, remains an important confirmation of this unpleasant tendency. Even if order in the EU is temporarily restored through the actual dictatorship of the strongest (Germany and France), it will not be able to be long-lasting, since it will require the real restriction of the sovereignty of the weak in favour of the strong. This is already happening in the framework of the Euro zone; the individual participants of which are deprived of significant rights to determine their economic policies. Moreover, the balance of power is becoming more and more dynamic and, therefore, states within the institutions will need to constantly engage in bargaining over how these institutions reflect their interests and values.
One thing will remain unchanged – an insurmountable power gap between the five countries which are members of the “nuclear club” and the rest. This gap lies at the heart of the permanent Cold War, as defined by George Orwell, who formulated the concept in 1945. However, such exclusivity may allow the nuclear powers to agree on at least the most important rules and norms of international communication.