The Dangers of Total Opportunism

In practice, any discussion of international governance is always a discussion of how to make workable "political changes" within the existing international order, to prevent a revolutionary trajectory from emerging. The crisis in international politics - the main reason the issue has been placed on the agenda - is the result of a redistribution of power.

Now a large-scale redistribution is taking place from West to East, led by China. And it does not matter at all that the other Asian countries are not allies or, as in rare cases, satellites of the Celestial Empire. With the exception of Japan, which is firmly incorporated into the Western community, Asian countries are also within the sphere of influence of the Eastern Pole of Power. That is why they are in no hurry to support the United States in its fight against Beijing. This, in particular, was discussed by the participants of the "international politics" session of the Annual conference of the Valdai Club, which this time was devoted to the growing Sino-American conflict.
Cold War 2.0. The Third Session of the 17th Annual Meeting

The phenomena of revolutionary or revisionist behaviour arose within the framework of the so-called Westphalian system of international relations. This system was the first convincing attempt to achieve relatively lasting peace through the creation of rules of the game - an order that everyone agreed in general terms to obey. A speculative ideal order is one that does not equally suit all participants. However, if someone is completely satisfied with the existing state of affairs, while others are almost completely dissatisfied with it, the order cannot last long. The first, most striking example of revolutionary behaviour was French foreign policy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This policy ended in military disaster and the country's successful integration by the victors in the Napoleonic Wars at the Vienna Congress of 1815. Another example is Germany, which twice in the 20th century (in 1914 and 1939) challenged the international order, and suffered defeat both times. Until a certain stage, Soviet Russia and the USSR pursued a revolutionary foreign policy, and only in 1975 finally switched to the defence of the status quo.
Now in the world, there is not a single power that could demonstrate revolutionary behaviour and would have the capabilities to do so.

First of all, the insurance against this is the unique military superiority of the "nuclear club" over all others. But no less important is the general focus on own development goals, which requires fairly selfish behaviour in the framework of international politics.

The most striking example is India: the exact model of a revisionist power opportunistically seeking to take advantage of the Sino-US conflict. If at an earlier stage of its recent history India pursued a policy of an independent centre of power and was perceived as such, as one of the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement, now its foreign policy positions are a component of the struggle between Washington and Beijing. It’s difficult to explain such a transformation by merely citing the colossal fortitude of these centres of power - during the Cold War, the USSR and the USA were no less great, comparatively, in their capabilities. But this did not prevent India from pursuing its own strategy in its foreign policy decisions, rather than merely one that was derivative of the conflicting strategies of other great powers. It is possible that the reason stems from the rather nationalistic internal course of the Indian government. A state whose development is based on nationalism, by definition, cannot act as an independent centre to which small and medium powers are attracted. In this regard, it is difficult to find a fundamental difference between India and the much smaller Indonesia, which is at the same time the largest country in ASEAN. The official policy of this country, like that of India, is focused on not making a choice between the United States and China. In the same way, it does not pursue completely independent goals, based on a unique vision of its own role in world affairs.

Within the framework of international politics, where the main process is the struggle between Beijing and Washington, Indonesia's foreign policy for a long time still will be an opportunistic use of the resources of both conflicting opponents. This makes the policy of Indonesia, like that of the ASEAN group, fairly predictable amid the new international conditions.
Russia, for all its colossal importance for international security, is also in no hurry to put forward an original concept of international order.

This is largely due to its experience throughout the 20th century, when Russia, like the United States, was one of two centres of power competing in a game where the fate of all humanity was at stake. This policy was extremely costly and even severely weakened Russia's ability o defend its own basic values ​​and interests. In part, it led to the collapse of the USSR, which was no longer able to ensure the survival and development of the Russian state itself.

And it is not surprising that now in the Russian discussion there is an idea, sometimes dominant, that the country should just get rid of the excessive geostrategic burden.

Moreover, Moscow's military capabilities are sufficient to ensure its own security without relying on allies and the direct physical control of its perimeter. However, Russia's presence among the 5 most important powers in international politics, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, and its strong relationship with China mean that opportunism, while seemingly universal among all nations, is absent from Russian foreign policy.

The United States also ended a period of revolutionary behaviour, the most striking manifestation of which after the end of the Cold War was its attempt to ‘export’ democracy, even using military means. The election of Donald Trump as President a few years ago under the slogan "America First" marked the decisive rejection of revolutionary foreign policy by American society. It is unlikely that the Democratic administration will be able to return to the footing of 1991-2008 politics, which nearly led to the collapse of American global power.
Trump is a grotesque opportunist, but his policy will be replaced with a policy that will be different in form, but absolutely the same in content.

The main US adversary on the world stage, China, is extremely reticent about its intentions regarding the international order. The Chinese leadership has consistently said that it has no intention of rebuilding the world in accordance with its own holistic vision. Of course, China has initiatives that can be viewed as revolutionary. First of all, we should talk here about the Belt and Road project, which offered developing countries an alternative source of funds to the existing institutions controlled by the United States and its allies. However, this financial alternative does not reflect a clearly articulated geostrategic objective or a worldview that is fundamentally different from the main features of the Liberal World Order. 

China, in keeping with its strategic culture, seeks to fight in isolated areas such as cyberspace or finance. This behaviour is natural for China, and the foreign policy intentions of the times of Mao Zedong are only a deviation, as the Chinese authors admit. And so it also puts China among the maximum of revisionist, though not opportunist powers. Other participants in international politics, even if they like Europeans have modern military capabilities, may not even be considered as candidates for the role of global troublemakers.

In these conditions, we, apparently, must critically revise one of the most important theoretical postulates of international politics, formulated by Henry Kissinger back in 1956. The revolutionary or revisionist behaviour of the powers is, of course, a product of the international system. However, the conditions that we will observe in the coming years or decades do not support radicalism or clarity in defining goals and strategies, even among the great powers.
The existing international order, even in a crisis, does not contain the main reason for general war - the complete dissatisfaction of one of the great powers.

To some extent, it does not suit everyone equally, which means that the situation is quite stable. Therefore, when assessing the most important challenges, we also should not look for a source of general conflict at the level of the foreign policy of one of the significant states.

Then what is the main threat? The absence of the danger that one of the most militarily powerful states will use its capabilities in order to win a place in the sun makes the search for a "political change" meaningless. We can agree with Edward Carr that leaders' failure to acknowledge new developments is the most important cause of conflict. But amid conditions of general relative satisfaction, this inability is objective - no one asks the UNSC’s permanent members whether war could be a suitable alternative to change.

In practical terms, the most threatening aspect of today’s status quo, no matter how trivial it may sound, is the established “habit of peace”. All great powers are quite confident that the interests of their dependents in controversial issues are not vital. The United States will not be drawn into a nuclear conflict over a “suburb of St. Petersburg,” as one American politician defined Estonia. They are unlikely to decide on a full-scale military conflict with China, even if Beijing does decide on a military resolution of the Taiwan problem. Russia has already shown that it will not get into conflict with NATO over Ukraine and, moreover, that it had the ability to eliminate the advantage the West gained after the 2014 coup in Kiev.

However, as the discussion during the annual Valdai Club meeting confirmed, in such conditions, the great powers always risk giving the threat of armed conflict too little consideration, even not counting those fleeting casus belli which necessitate a response that is much more pronounced than expected or desirable from the point of view of maintaining peace on the planet. In 1914, the great powers began a war amongst themselves that led to the collapse of the entire international order, confident that a controlled armed conflict could become the basis for long-lasting peace. Now, of course, there is no such confidence, and this is the fundamental difference. But no less dangerous can be the hope that an armed conflict is impossible in principle.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.