A Regime With no Hegemon? Lessons from the West and Cooperation in Eurasia

This summer, the US Congress approved, and President Donald J. Trump signed a bill that made economic warfare against Russia, Iran and the DPRK an integral part of US foreign policy. This time, however, not only companies from these listed countries can be hit by punitive action, but also economic actors from third countries cooperating with opponents of the US. In Russia’s case, this could primarily affect industrial corporations from EU countries engaged in joint energy and production projects with Russia.

Of course, the Europeans will have to come to terms with the US. But, through its own actions, the dominant power is showing that a freewheeling approach to strategic matters that replaced attempts to achieve world domination could go as far as undermine the unity of the Western community. Against this backdrop, China and Russia have to be particularly diligent in promoting their relations in Eurasia and drawing other regional actors into this cooperation framework.

The new Russia sanctions bill, and especially the harsh response by the Europeans to this initiative highlight a major issue from the theory of international relations that has to do with the self-preserving capabilities of regimes when there is no hegemon or the hegemon acts irresponsibly, which is currently the case.

Active interaction among the new centers of power together with their smaller partners becomes increasingly important and makes the issue of international regimes increasingly relevant. The theoretical underpinning of the emergence and development of these international regimes was set forth in the works by Stephen D. Krasner and representatives of the so-called “English school.” China, Russia and their neighbors have been successfully promoting bilateral and multilateral cooperation in Asia and Eurasia. Russia views this as a step towards the emergence of a Greater Eurasia, while China regards this as an abstract “community of common destiny.” Greater Eurasia is clearly a regime with a low level of institutionalization. The community of a common destiny can be more easily described as an international regime based on common values and existing within a larger international community. In both cases, the relations within these frameworks should be based on more perfect principles than those with other.

For decades now, the relations between the US and its key European and Asian partners exemplified this interaction. In fact, NATO and G7 are international regimes in their purest form. As such, G7 aims to coordinate policies of its members or implement them. NATO, in turn, focuses on defense and security policies. In a larger sense, Russia has always had to deal with the notion of the “West,” which embodies a larger group of countries than NATO or G7, even though these two remain at its core. Countries like Australia, New Zealand and to some extent the Republic of Korea and Singapore are also part of the Western international community.

After the end of the Cold War, many people in Russia and beyond wondered whether Russia should or ever could become part of the West. There were in fact quite a few respectable colleagues who regarded this idea as a way to align Russia’s national development to that of its most successful and promising partners. This could be achieved by enabling Russia to become part of the collective governance institutions of the West, promoting market democracy within its borders following specific criteria, as well as showing solidarity with the US and its allies on foreign policy matters. The last attempt to fulfil this vision came on the heels of a universal, albeit short-lived, mobilization of the international community in the fight against international terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Attempts to merge Russia into the Western international regime stopped in 2007, when the Russian President made his famous speech at the Munich Security Conference. What followed was Georgia’s military provocation in August 2008, which forced Russia to choose between conflict, or surrender. When Russia opted for conflict, the very idea of integrating Russia into the Western fold became completely irrelevant, even from an intellectual perspective. Russia focused on reforming its military and re-arming its land forces and the navy. It has to be noted here that this initiative de facto mirrored similar activity carried out by China at that time.

Nevertheless, right up until 2014 there were sporadic attempts to breathe new life into Russia’s relations with the West. For example, the European Union came up with a somewhat perplexing idea of a Partnership for Modernization as a response to the modernization rhetoric that was so popular in Russia between 2008 and 2012. However, this initiative was doomed to failure from the very beginning. Even then European businesses and officials well-versed in this matter acknowledged that Russia’s legal framework and its technical regulations could be improved without the use of any sort of partnership. Russia would need qualified translators and effective government organizations within Russia. There is little, or even nothing, the EU can do when it comes to this. It would be in the interest of both Brussels and other European capitals to use the partnership as a way for restraining Russia’s independence and legalize interference into its domestic affairs. It is for this reason that values should be at the heart of the whole initiative. Russia, in turn, was not at all interested in a dialogue that went beyond stating good intentions.

All this came to an abrupt end in 2014, when the US and the EU placed their bets on staging a government coup in Ukraine and tearing away that country from Russia. The agreement on enhanced trade and cooperation, also known as the Association Agreement, was to serve as a tool for achieving this goal. The initiative resulted in a bitter diplomatic standoff, after which the relations took on a new dimension in the form of an economic war. Even the most audacious optimists could no longer ponder the possibility of Russia joining the West.

But to what extent is China integrated in this system? The degree of integration is obviously immense. Chinese companies have long gained a stable foothold in the US market, and play by its rules. At the same time, China has no say in the main institutions that are essential for the development of the US-led regime. China is not and cannot be a market democracy, so it is unlikely that it would ever be recognized as an equal member of what we call the West. That said, this is not something China is going after. Fully conscious of the fact that time is on its side, China will do its very best to defer a direct conflict with the West. However, its conflict with the West is existential in nature for the very simple reason that the rise of China will definitely reshape global consumption patterns. Are the US and Europe willing to accept any limitations for the sake of making China their equal as a distributor and beneficiary of global goods?

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Moscow and Beijing should indeed not be in a hurry to formalize their allied relations at this historical stage. This would have made the international system dangerously inflexible and, as a consequence, vulnerable to conflict. And this is particularly threatening, given the present-day quality of foreign policies of states and the system characteristics of world politics.

Between the 1990s and early 2000s, the West became pretty much synonymous to the international community. The US and its closest partners were quite assertive in controlling the agenda of the leading international institutions. When this control faltered, they bypassed these institutions, just as in NATO’s military aggression against Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999. Back then, the interests of the US fully coincided with those of the leading European powers which welcomed the bombing of Yugoslavia. But this did not prevent them from protesting against the US intervention in Iraq three years later.

It has to be noted that the US has always showed more consistency compared to the Europeans when it came to violating international law or adopting excessively broad interpretations of UN Security Council resolutions. The US was consistent in violating international law, while their European allies did so selectively. Bombing Yugoslavia was the right thing to do for Berlin and Paris, but not to occupy Iraq. At the same time, there was nothing wrong with interfering in Libya’s civil war. In any case, until the mid or even late 2000s, the convergence of the terms “Western” and “international” was not questioned. It was only during the last decade that the dichotomy between the West and everyone else emerged.

Until recently, no one challenged the unity of the West or its institutionalized regimes. Despite various statements under George W. Bush and especially Barack Obama, even though the tactics used by the US in its relations with the allies changed, it was a relatively painless process whereby a way could always be found to perpetuate the mutually beneficial patron-client relationship without infringing upon the dignity or for that matter the basic economic interests of the Europeans, the Koreans or the Japanese.

Now, however, the new US sanctions law could pose a greater threat for the EU’s energy security than any transit-related issues. The same applies to the long-term plans to supply natural gas to Japan. The deployment of a US missile defense system in South Korea has already brought trouble to Seoul and South Korean companies on the Chinese market. This is not empty words, unlike what Washington has been telling its allies for the last fifteen years, especially for Europe, which found itself at the crossroads and has to make a choice. It is well known that this is not something Europe was looking for.

Many years ago, prominent European philosopher and international relations theorist Raymond Aron wrote that Europe had to make several bets at the same time. This applies primarily to major European powers, especially on the continent: Germany, France and Italy, but also a number of other major economic players like Austria and the Netherlands that lack such geostrategic weight. At the same time, smaller Eastern European and Scandinavian countries that are inferior in terms of their international standing or economies welcomed the new US strategy. Just a few days after US Congress adopted the bill to counter Russia, their representatives, for example, former NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen called on Europe to support Washington. It should be also noted here that Washington’s partners in Asia have been thinking lately of adopting a more nuanced and multifaceted approach when it comes to their foreign economic policy. The contribution made by both South Korea and Japan to enforcing the sanctions regime against Russia remains symbolic at best despite the fact that the US is shielding them from any external threats.

Baltic states and some Eastern European countries seem to be more receptive to this new trend, and are even ready to sacrifice real benefits in order to meet the expectations of the US towards its allies. However, these countries cannot influence the West, its regime and institutions in any meaningful way.

What matters at this stage is that the discord is becoming apparent within the regime’s core, not its periphery. It can be argued, albeit cautiously, that judging by the US foreign policy and its relations with its European allies, the Western unity is no longer a sure thing, nor is its future foreordained. It does not matter whether the troublemaker, Donald Trump, stays in office or not. The odds are that anyone who replaces him would adopt a similar stance toward Europe anyway, even if it is less eccentric.

It is worth noting that the US President, whom Europe views as a dangerous character, was not the one who initiated the sanctions bill. In fact, it came from the legislators, i.e. the entire US establishment. So when European leaders criticize this decision, they are basically targeting the US ruling class. Expectedly, this primarily affected German politicians and business circles. As the current EU powerhouse, Germany succeeded at the height of the Euro crisis and in the midst of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014 and early 2015 in uniting other partners in order to impose its own vision.

It is quite likely that the relations between the transatlantic partners are approaching a point of no return. In any case, the US will remain the dominant partner in this couple, while the nature of this domination and ways to execute it will change. The US is scaling back its commitment and responsibility, while insisting that its partners do more.

It is not that the Europeans never called for more independence or shunned responsibility. However, they did not expect the situation to evolve in the way it did. The ideal for them could be described as “give us money (protection), but don’t teach us how to live.” Some 20 or 25 years ago, shaping a European identity in security and defense was one of the key topics in Europe. The purpose of creating this identity, together with a common currency, was to achieve near independence from the US.

A series of statements and projects then followed, but the achievements failed to materialize. In 2009, the French President asked his Russian colleague to provide transport aircraft for the EU peacekeeping mission in Chad, since the Europeans lacked this kind of aircraft. But turning an EU mission into a joint initiative was not an option due to the Eastern European members who would have opposed this. All in all, the Europeans were unable to do it themselves. By the end of the 2000s, responsible politicians in Brussels acknowledged that Europe “would never be an important global player,” while “always remaining an important partner for Russia.” The developments in Ukraine showed that neighborly relations of this sort could bring blood and suffering, not only economic benefits. Nevertheless, even this did not help transform Europe into an independent actor in international politics either. Consequently, it can be argued that the Western regime and its institutions are unlikely to erode. Readjusting relations within this community appears to be a more likely outcome.

Therefore, it has to be asked how the US intends to control Europe, since there seems to be no other option. After all, Europe cannot be left alone facing Russia. So there will be some kind of control, and most likely it would be less Russia-friendly than before. It is not a coincidence that while perorating about letting Europe do its part of the job, the US has been expanding its military presence in Europe. Judging by the available information, even military equipment delivered to Poland and the Baltic states was repainted from desert sand colors to the standard camouflage tones. In other words, the presence of the US in Europe is becoming increasingly negative, while its positive contribution is rapidly fading.

The way US-led regimes and communities impact international security will also change. The widespread notion that the US has grown tired of its role as a global leader and wants to focus on itself creates opportunities, as well as threats. Seeking to establish itself as a global hegemon in the aftermath of the Cold War, the US had to actively invest in creating and distributing global wealth. Washington remains a threat, but it seems that it is no longer eager to be a source of benefits.

Finally, what should the other countries of the world, and especially those aspiring to the role of alternative centers of power, make out of the evolution of the Western regimes and institutions? As simplistic as it may seem, lessons have to be learned, and mistakes from the past avoided. Coming back to the question or hypothesis that underpins the regime theory, we can say that for the West the answer is negative. A regime cannot exist without a hegemon, no matter how irresponsibly it may act. This situation is, by and large, attributable to the fact that the Western society with its shared values gave birth to a strict unipolar model of relations. Calling this system into question proved impossible.

What makes the Eurasian space unique is that in this new international environment the emergence of an unrivaled hegemon is impossible, let alone needed. This space includes at least three major powers, India, China and Russia, as well as a number of important countries of a smaller scale, including Iran, Pakistan, Vietnam and Korea. While harsh competition is not to be excluded in the region, it could also facilitate the emergence of a unique international regime. This means that the mega-regional international community created and operating in this framework can do a better job as far as democracy and sustainability are concerned.

It is therefore important to focus on comparing the approaches and representations of the regional players, and transforming these approaches into regimes and institutions. Specifically, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is going through hard times. However, it provides an international diplomatic platform for the key countries affecting Eurasia’s regional security and economy. The key issues the SCO is facing is that the relations between China, India and Pakistan are rife with conflict, and that their interests regarding smaller regional players may clash.

The main takeaway from the diplomatic efforts within the SCO in terms of improving relations between Russia, China and their neighbors, is that they do not have any major differences. It is for this reason that it may now be high time to use the SCO as a platform for settling the abovementioned contradictions through diplomatic dialogue. The potential participants also share views on a number of guiding principles in international relations, which is also essential for creating an international regime at the regional level.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.