The authors of the 2018 Valdai Annual Report, Living in a Crumbling World, chose a wonderful metaphor to describe how the old world order is coming apart in the absence of a major war. It is true that over the past few years the world has been going through troubled and chaotic times.
The universal, liberal, rule-based and institutionalized world order that the United States attempted to build and which lead in the aftermath of the Cold War has failed to materialize. Moreover, even the regional iteration of the “liberal international order” created by the US and its allies after the Second World War is also weakening and changing, despite the failed attempts by Washington to spread it to the entire world. These developments are exemplified by Donald Trump’s America First policy and the strain in the relations between the US and many of its allies and partners, primarily in Europe.
The multipolar world order has not come into being either, at least for now. It was supposed to be based on multilateral and equitable interactions (a Concert of Nations, of sorts) between a number of global powers recognizing each other’s legitimacy and vital interests. This is exactly the world order Russia has been calling for since the early 1990s. So far, the US has been adamant in its refusal to recognize Russia and China as legitimate and independent world powers outside of the US world order following a development model at odds with the American vision.
A bipolar world order structured around the global standoff between the US and China has failed to take shape as well. Despite Washington’s confrontational stance regarding Beijing and its attempts to frame the world as a clash between a free and liberal order led by the US and an authoritarian block of China, Russia, as well as Iran, Venezuela and a number of other regional adversaries to the US, most countries are not willing to choose whether to side with the US or China.
At the same time, the world is not what Thomas Hobbes described as “the war of all against all” either. After all, the end of the Cold War-era confrontational bipolar world order and the failure of the US-centered order did not require a major war. In addition, a number of rules, frameworks and institutions were inherited from the preceding eras, including the UN, the WTO, international law, etc. In fact, they form the carcass of what is usually referred to as the international order, preventing international relations from sliding into complete chaos. Since the world order lacks a centerpiece in the form of a structure (distribution of power) or rules of interaction that would be recognized by all major powers, the frail fabric of the rules, frameworks and institutions inherited from the past seems lifeless, just like a preserved mammoth in a natural history museum. In the absence of a major war and taking into consideration that most countries do not want to bring about total chaos, this fabric will not self-destruct in an instant, but will crumble gradually.
The crumbling of the old world order can be seen with the gradual breakdown of old rules, while new ones are not established (arms control is a case in point), institutions such as the WTO are weakening, and selfishness and unilateralism are spreading among countries large and small. This prevailing sense of egoism is reinforced by the generally accepted rules regarding relations between great powers, as well as the emergence of countries focused on safeguarding their sovereignty and denouncing the universal norms and values in their domestic policy (Russia, China, India, Iran, Turkey, etc.) as trendsetters in global politics. Selfishness in international relations is also driven by a natural response by states to the cross-border challenges related to globalization considering that an effective system of global governance has not come into being.
The authors of the Annual Valdai Report rightfully argue that the ongoing crumbling of the world order will be a lengthy process. They went even further by framing this process not as a transition, no matter how lengthy, from one order to another, but as a new state of the world in general, that will remain in place for an indefinite period leading to some kind of a “war of all against all” system once all the rules and institutions cease to exist. The resulting picture is the complete opposite of the situation described by Francis Fukuyama shortly after the end of the Cold War. While he dreamt of the universality of the Western ideological model and a US-centered world order, the Valdai Report argued that the system in which one international order succeeds the preceding one will disappear, and the world will be plunged into an indefinitely long period of disorder, a global dark age of sorts, where only the crumbling remainders of former orders will keep the system from sinking into complete chaos.
It is impossible to agree with this idea, and this refusal is driven not so much by a natural propensity of a human brain to see light at the end of the tunnel, as by the counter-historical and biased idea that the current world order is here to stay forever. Even the political and cultural chaos in Western Europe following the demise of the Western Roman Empire in 476 (even though the remainders of Roman political institutions and lifestyle could be found in barbarian kingdoms for a long time) was soon replaced by a new, medieval, order, which was in turn replaced by a system of nation states, and so on.
The system-wide conflict between the US, on the one hand, and Russia and China, on the other, is proof that the ongoing period of protracted unrest is a lengthy transition to a new order instead of a world that would have been the opposite of what Francis Fukuyama called the end of history. In fact, this conflict is underpinned by numerous questions related to the world order. What and whose institutions and coalitions will play a defining role in ensuring security in the key regions? Who can take decisions regarding sovereignty, territorial integrity of countries and legitimacy of their governments? Based on what principles? Who can decide on the use of force? What growth models should developing countries follow? This standoff evolved into an open conflict for Russia in 2014, and for China in late 2017.
On the one hand, what we are seeing is a global confrontation between the US and two great powers that do not fit into the American model of the world and seek to challenge it. The confrontation is expected to either force Russia and China to give up their independence and recognize US leadership or force Washington to recognize the multipolar and pluralistic nature of today’s world. On the other hand, the Valdai Report rightly pinpoints the emergence of countries with a non-Western strategic culture on the forefront of global politics, the overall strengthening of egocentrism and unilateralism in foreign policy and international trade, the lack of effective global governance and the consolidation of regional and plurilateral regulatory frameworks.
These two dimensions are intertwined. The fact that a new world order struggles to emerge while global governance is in crisis is mainly caused by the system-wide rift between the US, on one side, and Russia and China, on the other. Washington refused to come to terms with the failure to spread its US-oriented order across the world. However, unable to recognize its adversaries as legitimate and independent powers and build an equitable world order on this foundation, the US switched to containment as the only alternative. This effort is designed to weaken Russia and China to a state that will force them to give up on their current development models and foreign policy so that they can be integrated into the US-led order as junior actors.
Moreover, the challenge posed by China and Russia has become one of the main triggers that pushed the US to what is now often referred to as revisionist policy, framed as the America First policy by the current US President. (Tectonic shifts in the US domestic policy is the second factor). For instance, the US openly states that its trade war with China is not so much about improving the trade balance as it is about containing China’s technological development, among other things. Facing challenges from Russia and China, the US also reviewed its relations with its allies. Washington realized that keeping the old status quo in place would lead to a shift in the global balance of power that will not be in America’s favor, accelerating its relative weakening, while its opponents, primarily China, are rapidly getting stronger. It is already clear that the Trump administration is not seeking to destroy the system of US alliances but to turn the system to its political and economic advantage in order to get a better chance of winning in the new global standoff.
By being selfish and preferring unilateral approaches the US is seeking to be less restrained in its ability to use its dominance to defeat some countries, while calling others to order. This also relates to the withdrawal of the US from multilateral structures and agreements. The US has also been increasingly active in its use and threat of force, as well as imposing unilateral sanctions on a mass scale.
This conflict cannot go on forever. Sooner or later it will either grow into a new world war, in which case the world order will fall instead of gradually crumbling as it is right now, and the victors will shape a new one, or will lead the US, China, Russia, India and a number of other countries to adopt rules regulating relations among great powers. Although the latter option is preferable, the risk of a direct military encounter between Russia and the US or between the US and China cannot be excluded. This confrontation may unfold regardless of the will of the two sides, resulting from an increasingly freewheeling strategic landscape against the backdrop of weakening institutions and rules of military conduct, and the lack of any new regulatory frameworks. For example, this could result from a cyber conflict, an area deprived of any rules of conduct or confidence building measures.
In the absence of an actual war, the conflict between US, on the one side, and China or Russia, on the other, could unfold in two ways. The defeat for China and Russia and the recovery of US global leadership is the first option. The second and more probable option is the recognition by the US of the new rules for interacting with other great powers based on mutual legitimacy and equality, making the US part of the multipolar world order, which would be a first for the US and at odds with its ideological view of the world.
The same arguments that the authors of the Annual Valdai Report rightly used to support their idea of a crumbling world order speak in favor of the second option: medium and small actors are becoming increasingly powerful, great powers are unable to govern global processes using old methods, the world is becoming decentralized and non-Western countries are emerging as proactive global and regional actors. These factors place the global confrontation between the US and Russia with China into a restrained geographical and functional space, preventing Washington from reproducing a Cold War-like situation of a confrontation between two worlds. A vast majority of countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, and even some European countries do not want the confrontation to deepen any further and are adamant in their refusal to choose whether to side with the US or with China and Russia.
Taking into consideration the independent position of medium and small actors, and the fact that the new world order will be shaped with active input from non-Western countries, it will definitely be more diverse, pluralistic and decentralized compared to the 20th and early 21st century. The main mechanisms for managing political and economic processes will be focused at the regional and macroregional levels. New geo-economic and geopolitical spaces such as the Greater Eurasia will emerge. And no single set of rules will be applied to domestic policy or socioeconomic development.
At the same time, there is no reason to believe that the main centers of power will not be able to shape common rules for foreign policy and interactions among great powers, or fail to abide by them. If world history is any guide, countries with different and even incompatible political systems, belonging to different cultures and civilizations can well agree on common rules as long as they focus on foreign policy, instead of domestic affairs. Just as in 1648, 1815 and 1945, new international rules and norms will emerge, providing a foundation for new regimes and institutions. The crumbling and troubled world order will then be replaced by the advent of a new, multipolar and diverse world order. At the end of the day, this is something the vast majority of countries that are seeking to distance themselves from the confrontation unfolding between the US and China and Russia aspire to.