Over the past few weeks, the idea of an almost inevitable emergence of a new bipolarity in the form of a confrontation between China and the United States has turned from a bold assumption into a common assertion – the starting point of a lot of discussion about what the main content of international politics will be following the systemic crisis of 2020.
One can already find quite detailed discussions about what kind of world it will be and, most importantly, what Russia’s foreign policy should be under these conditions. Such is the nature of the information society – practically any significant phenomenon can within a very short period of time pass through all the stages of an open expert discussion.
Therefore, so far most of our reasoning, most likely, has little fundamental meaning. But we must not forget about the non-linearity factor, which is no less important. In this regard, what is happening now really contains a lot of analogies with the period of the beginning of the First World War, then known as the Great War. Just as then, the “suddenly” erupted crisis was the logical result of many contradictions that had accumulated in the global market economy and international politics. In almost the same way, most of the countries of the world have reacted to it – they are all tired of uncertainty, and with good reason, expect that shocks will align their own ideas of themselves with those of others.
This, in turn, will allow us to talk about moving towards a new global and regional balance of power; one that is more than just the Liberal world order, the end of which, it seems, nobody is particularly upset about, neither the leaders in the West nor the revisionist powers in the East.
But it would be an unforgivable analytical simplification to ignore the profound experience of the Great War – its nature, content and, most importantly, its results, which completely did not correspond to the linear ideas about the future of those who enthusiastically welcomed its first shots in Sarajevo.
However, even when taking into account the many uncertainties and open questions that exist, the likelihood that a peculiar bipolar scenario will emerge as the new international reality is equally great and alarming.
So far, China is very wary of the array of options as its disposal in light of the challenge that the US has openly thrown at it. In its first edition, the “moment of morality” in Chinese foreign policy was the willingness to help a world suffering from the misfortune of the pandemic, and at the same time to act from certain mentoring positions. It turned out to be quite short-lived. Impressed by the energetic, hysterical information pressure from the United States and its main allies in recent weeks, China has returned to its more restrained solidity and has begun to prepare a layered defence for years to come. It is already obvious that 2020 will bring, for example, an unprecedented revival of Sino-Russian relations, even when compared with the past few years, which were already very, very successful.
Moreover, a large-scale partnership with China may, unfortunately, be really crucial for the Russian economy.
But despite the efforts that China has initiated to “bring down” the degree of tension, the flywheel of struggle against it is already spinning up and becoming an almost new factor in the solidarity of the Western countries’ community in world affairs. Even if not now, the split of the world into two opposing poles is already becoming a foreseeable prospect.
This new version of bipolarity will threaten the main achievements of mankind in the field of international politics over the past 100 years. First of all, because it will in no way resemble the historical period of 1945 – 1990. In this sense, the new bipolar world is the most dangerous, though at the same time the most likely scenario for the development of international politics. The danger of this scenario is that this time the bipolarity will turn out to be real and in this connection it is possible that it could be quite short-lived. The reason is that it arises within the framework of a single international system and the global market economy, from which mankind was spared during the Cold War.
There is no serious reason to hope that the cosmetic restrictions on the freedom of movement of goods, capital and people, introduced now, will help to destroy the interdependence of states within the global market for a short period, acceptable for peace. We cannot expect that the nature of the behaviour of states will change. Now all the talk on the topic “the world will not be the same” comes down to calculations of who will earn more and who will “go belly up.” Yes, indeed, what else can we talk about when serious changes in the motives of political behaviour at the level of states, companies and other institutions are not expected? A pandemic and recession will inevitably change the balance of power even more. Those who become more powerful will seek expansion, those who will lose – will be compelled to defend themselves. But this will happen in a truly united world.
From 1945 to 1990, the world was divided into two economic zones that were practically isolated from each other. The USSR and its allies looked like huge North Korea, whose relations with the other part of the world were very limited. The leaders of the West – the United States and Europe, did not really suffer from this. They lived quietly in their own international community and, in principle, intersected little with the Eastern Bloc. During the Cold War, the United States and Europe achieved the greatest success in their development, with virtually no external competition – it was then that a modern social state in Europe arose, unique European integration institutions formed, and the foundation of American dominance in the global economy was formed.
The only area where the bipolarity of the USSR and the USA was more or less real was strategic nuclear weapons deterrence. But it was also the most rational and subject to strict control by the government.
For the rest, from 1945 – 1990, international politics lived not in a state of bipolarity, but amid conditions of confrontation between two unipolar and relatively independent worlds. The USSR and the USA did not act as competitors in global markets. In principle, the USSR enjoyed having its own self-sufficiency in terms of resources and it was the erroneous model of state management of the economy that ultimately led to its economic and political collapse. Armed conflicts between the Eastern and Western blocs occurred on the periphery of their geopolitical influence.
The only truly dangerous episode – the Caribbean crisis – was quickly resolved via an elegant diplomatic game. The Korean War of 1950-1953 was the most dangerous conflict at the dawn of the Cold War, since it took place in the immediate vicinity of the borders of the USSR, but it remained the only such example where Soviet and American troops came into direct contact. Thus, in the 1945 – 1990 period, the possibilities for escalating regional conflicts into a global one were minimal – this sphere was tightly controlled by Moscow and Washington.
This allowed international political scientists to create the myth that this order was the most stable. And, at the same time, it created confidence that any bipolar world order is stable.
China does not have its own significant natural resources, and its access to global markets is evident and is becoming more visible. At the same time, Chinese opportunities for influence are present everywhere, even inside America. In other words, the degree of interdependence of opposing powers is now incomparable with the period of the Cold War. Therefore, the main problem with the new bipolarity is that, in contrast to the era of 1945 – 1990, it can turn out to be a fairly quick prelude to a real military conflict.