The return of international politics in a rather traditional form has inevitably been accompanied with a decrease in the importance and effectiveness of international institutions. The events of 2020 and the trends behind them have even compelled us to turn to the question of whether such institutions should exist as they are, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
Thirty years ago in Paris, the countries of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe signed a document called the Paris Charter for a New Europe. This large-scale declaration not only put a formal end to the Cold War, but also became one of the central documents of the new world order. This order was based on the principles and values which had formed after 1945 within the community of liberal democracies led by the United States and its closest allies, and based on the absolute military and political superiority of America among the countries of the West. The end of the Cold War made this superiority global, and for almost three decades it determined the image of foreign policy and interaction between the states of the world.
The presence of one world leader made it possible to speak of the emergence of the phenomenon of world politics — a special system of relations in which not only states, but also non-state players were included. And most importantly, a system that has, due to the ability of one power to act as a judge and distributor of the benefits of globalisation, the signs of social relations inherent to the internal structure of society. Within the framework of this order, there were institutions that were controlled by the victors in the Cold War and by the rules that were written by them. International politics, as a system in which states remain the central and only participants, and in which the balance of power and morality is regulated only by their goodwill, temporarily fell into the shadows, only to come back in 2020.
Now the international system is in a state of great stress caused by the consequences of the most extensive redistribution of power between the leading powers since the first half of the 20th century. The collapse of European empires during the First World War (1914—1918) led to the fact that Russia and the United States came to the fore, although not immediately, and China joined them a little later. Now the former two powers are still capable of exerting a decisive influence on the state of affairs in the world, but they are gradually weakening and saving their strength.
Chinese power, in turn, has entered a stage of expansion. The colossal growth of its economic opportunities have not only led to a conflict with the United States, which has seen such opportunities wane, but also led to the collapse of all institutions, rules and norms that arose after World War II. These institutional pillars of relative peace between powers were based on the balance of power that emerged during the Cold War and immediately after its end, and cannot be adapted to the new distribution of power capabilities without their own large-scale restructuring.
In Europe, changes in the balance of forces have led to a significant increase in the capabilities of Germany, which has fully taken advantage of the benefits that its economy had received from the Euro zone, and that its foreign policy has received from the shifting of almost all crucial factors affecting state hierarchy to the context of the institutions and legal mechanisms of the European Union. Britain’s exit from the EU was a reaction to the growth of German power, but, judging by its results, it finally destroyed the internal balance of power in European integration.
By the beginning of 2020, it took only a trigger for these changes to become irreversible. The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, which also began in China, rebooted the entire international order. Not surprisingly, most states have responded to this pandemic by closing borders and relying on their own forces. In almost all cases, the reaction of national governments has turned out to be the most archaic possible — the concentration of resources on fulfilling obligations to their citizens and the strengthening of state control. International traffic was stopped and international mobility has become, with a few exceptions, rather difficult. The first example of total quarantine and absolute closure to the outside world was set by China, which is traditionally reproached for its lack of democracy by the governments and media outlets of Western countries.
The return of international politics in a rather traditional form is inevitably accompanied by a decrease in the importance and effectiveness of international institutions. The events of 2020 and the trends behind them have even forced us to turn to the question of whether such institutions should exist as they are. These institutions were created not only as a reflection of the balance of power of the middle of the last century, but also as a way to solve the problems inherent in this historical period. In 2020, the main destroyer of international institutions was the systemic conflict between China and the United States. Beijing seeks to bring its influence in institutions in line with changed opportunities, and the United States — to retain the ability to determine its policies or to destroy them in cases where they cannot serve Washington’s nationalist interests. Even if the new Democrat administration in the United States regains formal support for certain international institutions, their fate has become increasingly uncertain.
It is obvious that the UN system is in a serious crisis. In 2020, we said goodbye to hopes that the Security Council can play the role of an effective generator of the common interests of the leading military powers. Therefore, the discussion about the composition of the permanent members of the Security Council and the right of veto is becoming more and more urgent. It happens in a time when the most important and only limiter of arbitrary activity on the part of the great powers acquires symbolic significance, as does the ability to block any UN decision if it does not meet national interests.
Another basic institution of a bygone world order — the World Trade Organisation — is paralysed by the crisis of its arbitration system. As a result, the entire system for resolving trade disputes in the WTO has lost its meaning, and even if countries violate the rules of international trade, none of the disputes between them can be resolved. We observe that a wide variety of states are increasingly turning to other mechanisms for the bilateral settlement of trade disputes and the end of trade wars, which have become a common international practice in 2020.
We have already mentioned above that European integration, despite its success as an institution of regional cooperation, now faces a crisis. The reason for this crisis is also the sharp strengthening of its largest participant (Germany), while the second-most-important one (France) has weakened. The fussy and inconsistent policy of Paris with regard to most domestic and international issues began to bear fruit. In most cases, France must now follow in line with German policy, and it is seriously alarming that when Berlin gets a new chancellor, this policy risks becoming less wise and sophisticated. The decisions that were taken to overcome the crisis associated with the impact of the pandemic on national economies have significantly increased the influence of states on pan-European institutions. In the last weeks of 2020, a new crisis within the EU was triggered by the behaviour of Hungary and Poland — they refused to approve a new EU budgetary outlook, which includes funds for recovery from the pandemic — in response to claims from Brussels and Berlin regarding the internal political processes in both countries. Most likely, the budget will “hang” indefinitely, and even after the problem is resolved in one way or another, the European Union has already entered a new crisis, now at the level of interstate relations. The next test will be the departure of Angela Merkel from the role of Federal Chancellor of Germany. During the years of Merkel’s rule, this country has acquired a disproportionate amount of influence on the development of all of Europe, and when a less experienced politician, prone to compromise, becomes the leader, we should expect a full-fledged crisis of integration and the strengthening of centrifugal tendencies. That is why it is now important for Berlin to adopt the budget — then it will retain the economic levers of governance of the European Union through its “proxies” in Austria and the Netherlands.
Towards the end of 2020, on November 22, the existence of one of the most important instruments for building mutual trust after the end of the Cold War in Europe, the Open Skies Treaty, actually ended. The United States completed the procedures necessary for a unilateral withdrawal from this agreement. The event became deeply symbolic despite the fact that the official Russian reaction was ultimately very calm. The Open Skies Treaty system was created not just as a way to increase the mutual transparency of military preparations, but as a confirmation that the OSCE countries are not going to even make such preparations in relation to each other in the future. The withdrawal of the United States from the Open Skies Treaty system means a full-fledged return of the Cold War in Europe.
In the conditions of complete crisis of international institutions, the most important associations for Russia — the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) — entered a difficult stage. The accession of India and Pakistan to the SCO significantly limited the effectiveness of this organisation in the traditional institutional sense. At the same time, there is still the possibility that the SCO will play the role of a macro-regional negotiating platform for a large group of Eurasian countries, where not the solution of problems, but the opportunity to constantly discuss them at a round table will be considered an achievement.
The prospects for the BRICS seem to be much more interesting. Over the years, this group has cooperated in more and more areas and with regards to a variety of issues. National diplomacy strove at the same time to give the BRICS the character of a traditional international institution — to increase the number of spheres of practical interaction — and to implement their purely national agendas. The BRICS, unlike other institutions of the Liberal World Order, are not in crisis. Moreover, the impossibility of the emergence of claims of one country for sole leadership in this organisation has provided a chance that the BRICS will become the prototype of the institution of international governance of a new era, in which the power and value hegemony of one power or a narrow group of states dominated by one power will be impossible.
Against this crumbling backdrop of the post-Cold War international order, Russia’s most important foreign policy priorities were related to stabilising friendly relations with China, restoring order in its immediate periphery, curbing the negative manifestations of the US struggle to maintain global influence, and, finally, getting used to a new format of relations with its most important economic partner, neighbouring Europe. And if relations with the United States and China are of fundamental importance for Russia’s survival from a strategic perspective, then Europe and its neighbours in the space of the former USSR are its highest tactical priority.