The global ideological confrontation between the two most powerful powers will finally become part of our historical experience, and attempts to reproduce it will be replaced by a balance of power in its classical understanding: ever-changing and never stable, but still the only relatively long-term international order, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
In addition to the ongoing drama of the coronavirus pandemic, the emotional state of modern relations between Russia and China on the one side, and the United States, on the other, is now the main informational and eventful background of international politics. Over the course of several weeks, the intensity of hostile actions against the basic interests and values of the opposing side has increased manifold. This also applies to public accusations the sides have lobbed at each other, and steps aimed at a mutual limitation of power capabilities.
Russia has shown quite decisively its readiness to use force on a serious scale, if Kiev resorts to provocations and relies on US help. China has conducted military manoeuvres off the coast of Taiwan. Western countries have introduced new sanctions against Russia and China and, at the same time, spoken about dialogue. At the same time, of course, no one is reassured by the respective sides’ almost-daily statements about their readiness to improve relations, even despite the ongoing meetings and communication between leaders. We understand that from the point of view of each of the parties, the dialogue should always entail a concession from the other side.
The fact that right now events are acquiring such a dynamic character, and the United States is becoming the main source of this dynamic provocative behaviour, is quite understandable. The international reality that everyone became used to over the past 30 years was based on one-power domination, which was not authoritarian and therefore created opportunities for the continuation of relatively acceptable world politics for all. We hardly need to be surprised that the destruction of this order has evoked such intense passions and resulted in government decisions that convey a sense of the catastrophic nature of what is happening. Now the erosion of the Liberal World Order — which was based on US leadership in almost all areas — has reached the stage where the main features of the outgoing era are being destroyed.
Therefore, the United States still acts from the position of the most significant participant in international communication, but at the same time, it operates in conditions where the restoration of the previous order is impossible. The countless sanctions against Russia or China are only a confirmation that the return of leadership for the United States is already no longer within the realm of realpolitik. The result of such chaotic actions has only been an even greater destabilisation of international politics and the paralysis of institutions.
We can talk indefinitely about the fundamental reasons for this development, and how to achieve stability in international relations. But for the most part, such discussions are based on the hypothetic possibility of a return to the reality of international politics after the end of the Cold War. This, however, is impossible and the more obvious it becomes, the more frightening the new reality and the new normal of international relations appear.
International politics based on a balance of power is indeed the least comfortable outcome from the point of view of public perception. It requires the recognition that peace is no more than an interval between active phases of power confrontation, and that making it permanent is generally impossible. That is, it rejects the entire system of interstate interaction that developed in the second half of the 20th century. Under such an international order, institutions become nothing more than instruments for solving particular problems and cannot pretend to regulate the behaviour of states. Military force and the threat of its use are becoming a permanent aspect of international relations. In other words, world politics develops “in the shadow of war”, to quote Raymond Aron’s definition. Such circumstances, we must admit, are neither familiar nor convenient.
That is why, during expert discussions, comparisons between the current situation and the state of affairs during the Cold War era (1948-1990) appear more and more often and seem more plausible. This is not surprising at all, since those events remain the closest historical experience of a large-scale military confrontation between the great powers. From the point of view of public opinion and politicians, it is quite difficult to make convincing analogies to the experiences of two or three hundred years ago. None of the current politicians lived in those days and therefore they are at a loss to find analogies there to their modern experiences. In terms of the degree of mutual hostility between states and their readiness to create risky situations, modern international politics really resembles most of the second half of the 20th century.
At the same time, from the point of view of the science of international relations, we, of course, have no right to follow such a simple path and equate the new reality with the Cold War period. First of all, because the Cold War was indeed a unique experience in which the power confrontation was not only supplemented by antagonism on the ethical field, but was, in many ways, predicated on this very antagonism. The USSR and the Western countries professed different ideas about the just internal structure of the state, although in all other respects their confrontation was indeed imperialist in nature.
Indeed, the opposing powers today also share differing values, but the differences that exist between them are by no means as existential as those that prevailed during the struggle between the communist and liberal ideologies. The main content of the ideological factor in modern international politics is associated with those internal transformations that Western societies are experiencing, the consequences of which look frightening from the point of view of more traditional social and gender relations. However, such disagreements may become more serious in the future. Russia, as part of the non-Western world that is most historically and civilisationally close to the West, could find itself in the most difficult and vulnerable position.
So far things look, at first glance, much simpler. Russia and China, like the United States, are market economies and the differences between all three consist only in the forms of government intervention in the activities of the free market. China, of course, proclaims that it is building socialism. However, this official task of the PRC government reflects a vision of an ideal for itself, and not an intention to spread such an ideal everywhere.
We are gradually beginning to write the history of a new stage in the development of the international order. The Cold War, which ended 30 years ago, left such a deep imprint on the consciousness and structure of the international political system that it is still impossible to overcome its legacy. However, modern processes in relations between great powers have left hope that the laws of international politics are unchanged and everything will gradually return to normal. The global ideological confrontation between the two most powerful powers will finally become part of our historical experience, and attempts to reproduce it will be replaced by a balance of power in its classical understanding: ever-changing and never stable, but still the only relatively long-term international order.