The uniqueness and drama of the current state of affairs in international politics lies in the fact that we cannot count on the ability of one state, or a group of sufficiently powerful countries, to play the role of leaders in the future. This means that it will be quite difficult for us to imagine who will be able to force states to comply with the rules of conduct in their foreign policy, and how, writes Programme director Timofei Bordachev for the 19 Annual Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club.
Indeed, the question of why individuals (in our case, individual states) must abide by rules is the most fundamental one in political philosophy. Despite all its imperfection, mankind has not yet invented a way to achieve this, even in minimal volumes, other than to use force.
Over the past 500 years, the rules of international communication have been created within a narrow community of Western countries - in Europe. In the 20th century, the United States joined, which provided the force necessary to ensure compliance with the rules. At first, this happened through a balance of power among the leading European states, which Russia had joined in 1762. After the European international order that emerged in the mid-17th century was attacked by revolutionary France, enforcement of the rules became a matter for a small group of large empires. They, led by Russia and Britain, defeated Napoleon and created in 1815 an order centred on the general agreement that revolution was inadmissible in international affairs.
At the end of the 19th century, politics became global, but the European powers, including Russia, were still able to control the rest through brute force and their colossal military-industrial superiority. The dramatic events of 1914 - 1945 brought the United States to the forefront of world politics, where it became the leader of the community of Western countries at the global level. International institutions were created, starting with the UN, whose main goal was to preserve the monopoly position of the West. However, this required the appearance of formal signs of justice in the form of international law as well as participation in the highest body of the UN, the Security Council (UNSC), of Russia and China, which are immanently hostile to the interests of the USA and Europe.
The institutional form of Western dominance by force has become its final incarnation, and now the main question is whether it is possible to preserve the form following the inevitable disappearance of its content and main function. Therefore, the collapse of the power positions of the US and Europe in international politics entails not just a change of leadership, but a revision of the institutions and rules which exist at the global level. In other words, the entire formal international order that emerged after the Second World War, but in reality over the past few centuries, will cease to exist.
It was based on a special system of rights and privileges for a limited group of great powers, and the illusion of fairness which was created by international institutions led by the UN. It was this system that served as the main legitimising principle of the existing world order, although in practice it was often replaced by the ability of the West to exert a decisive influence on world affairs. Thus, the collapse of international political institutions will very likely be the result of the disappearance of their power base, the presence of which was undeniable for several centuries. As a result, we are currently witnessing the destruction of both the formal and real foundations of the international order. In all likelihood, this process can no longer be stopped.
We also do not know how much the internal development of the West needs to carry out expansion, as it was in previous periods. If, like revolutionary France, the Bolshevik regime or Nazi Germany, the internal orders that are being formed in the West demand not only recognition but expansion, the future will become very troubling. We already see that the conflict between the value expansion of the West and the foundations of internal legitimacy in a number of countries is becoming the basis for exacerbating political relations.
However, it would be a mistake to hope that the rest of the great and middle powers opposing the West are completely united among themselves in understanding the foundations of justice at the domestic level. Even if Russia, India, China or Brazil now demonstrate a common understanding of the basic principles of a “proper” world order, this does not mean that they share a common vision of a better internal arrangement. This is especially true for the states of the Islamic world and other large developing countries. Their conservative values often conflict with those of the West, but this does not mean that they can embrace unity among themselves.
In other words, for the first time the new international order will not be able to have a reliable connection with the domestic order in the leading powers, and thisis really a qualitative change compared to all historical eras well known to us. Such a phenomenon seems to be very important, since we have no experience of understanding how relations between powers develop in such conditions. Brute force becomes the only relatively tangible basis for order, but this may not be enough to ensure that the imposed conditions of relations are sustainable, even in the short term.
Another unique feature of the current revolutionary situation is that the revision of the international order is not being carried out by one or a few powers - it has now become the business of the World Majority. Countries with a population of about 85 percent of the inhabitants of the Earth, one way or another, are no longer ready to live in conditions created without their direct participation. Their revolutionary actions are often expressed without direct intention and depending on the power capabilities of a particular power.
What, from the point of view of Russia or Iran, in relations with the United States is a manifestation of insufficient decisiveness, for Kazakhstan or another young sovereign country can be a great feat - after all, their entire socio-economic system was created with the possibilities presented by the Liberal world order. The fledgling sovereign states of Africa or the ex-Soviet space are much less capable of behaving consistently than the flourishing monarchies of the Persian Gulf. China, although it is now the second most powerful economic power, also understands its weaknesses. But all this does not change the most important thing - even if the destruction of the existing order takes the form of soft sabotage, and not decisive military action, it does not simply reflect the general dissatisfaction with Western authoritarianism, but already creates a new order, the main signs of which are still vague.
In the coming years, most of the world's countries will strive to take full advantage of the weakening of the force base of international politics in their own selfish interests. So far, these actions represent a constructive conflict, since they objectively undermine a system based on fantastic injustice. However, with the passage of time, the United States, and Europe even more so, will be weakened and concentrated into themselves, and Russia or China will never become strong enough to take their place. And in the next 10-15 years, the international community will face the problem of replacing the West's power monopoly with new universal instruments of coercion, the nature and content of which are still unknown to us.