The main contradiction in the international politics of our time has more of a methodological than an essential nature. It lies in the fact that revisionism - the desire to adapt the rules that embody the world order to suit changing interests - is now an attribute of the behaviour of almost all powers that matter at the global and regional level. It is difficult to find those who would be completely satisfied with the rules of the game that arose in the previous historical era. If there are such players on the international stage, then their influence on the fate of humanity or even their own is rapidly declining.
The victims of general revisionism are the powers that built a strategy based on static methods to ensure their interests. Now these are, first of all, the countries of continental Europe, grouped within the European Union, and most of the states of Southeast Asia, united within the ASEAN community. It is difficult to say who will benefit most. It is very likely that the current generation of active observers of world politics will not even be able to see it in person; revisionism is likely to be the main content of the historical process in the field of international relations.
However, before explaining the essence of the emerging intellectual and practical conflict in detail, it is probably worth introducing some clarity with respect to the terminology. Moreover, in the context of the semantic cacophony provoked by the landslide democratisation of international politics in the last few years, questions that are obvious from an academic point of view remain not fully clear even to sophisticated observers.
The science of international relations knows three basic types of behaviour of states in relation to the existing international order: powers with permanent status (status quo), revisionist powers, and revolutionary powers. It is easiest to illustrate these types using the example of the situation that accompanied the start of World War II. The status quo powers were then the main victors of the First World War - Great Britain and France, who were completely satisfied with the existed order.
Revisionist behaviour was characteristic, first of all, of the United States, which also belonged to the victors, but wanted to get more at the expense of the Europeans. In this example, a revolutionary attitude to the international order was espoused by Germany and Japan, who wanted to completely destroy it and build a new one that would meet their interests and enormous capabilities. It is difficult to classify the USSR into any of these categories, but its behaviour in that era was more likely revisionist than aimed at total destruction.
Nowadays it is impossible to find a large or medium-sized state that would set as its goal the complete destruction of the world order that arose after the Second World War and received its main attributes in the second half of the 20th century. First, none of the big powers feels completely humiliated as far as its basic interests and values are concerned. Whether we like it or not, the Second World War led to a situation in which none of the major players remained outside the space for making major decisions.
Those who turned out to be revolutionaries in 1939 lost their sovereignty as punishment, i.e. the problem of their humiliation was solved radically. Just as the slaves of the ancient world could not demand respect for their rights because they were legally tools of labour, Germany and Japan cannot resent having their interests subordinated to the strategic considerations of another power: after 1945 they were not fully sovereign states and different rules apply to them.
Second, the fact that several great powers possess nuclear weapons renders completely futile any attempts to organise a decisive attack against the order that they generally support. Even if a country like India goes crazy and decides to fight those who lead the modern world, it would hardly be able to hold out for a relatively long time.
In this case, revisionism consists in the actual denial of the UN Charter and other universal documents as the legal basis for relations between states and the resolution of controversial situations. Previously, the United States, attracting some allies, had already made attempts to subject to revision the existing system of rules and norms: the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and indeed the entire practice of military interventions carried out in circumvention of UN decisions or contrary to the UN General Assembly.
No less obvious is the revisionism of powers such as Russia or China. It extends to those aspects of the modern international order that are better designed to serve the interests of the United States and its European allies: the UN system, international financial and economic institutions, and the accepted rules of the game in the field of global and regional security.
At the same time, Russia is, of course, in a more advantageous position than its Chinese ally, since the question for it is not a question of lack of control over part of its sovereign territory. While Moscow is clearly dissatisfied with the existing world order, it seeks to change it and move it in a direction where Russian security and development interests would be ensured better.
At the regional level, striking examples of revisionist behaviour are modern Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Republic of South Africa, Algeria, small countries in post-French Africa or Azerbaijan in the former USSR, North Korea, and Brazil. All these countries strive to correct specific and important elements of the international order at the local or global level, i.e. in one way or another they are trying to achieve its revision.
In general, the question of the Global South’s significance in world affairs is revisionist in nature, since it consists of revising and correcting the rules of the game on the world stage in favour of the interests of a certain group of states that previously did not have the internal and external resources to pose such a question. In general, to paraphrase Kissinger, we can say that revisionism in the modern world is not substantive, but procedural in nature: the point is not that a power wants to achieve some specific changes in its favour, but that it wants changes in principle.
Nowadays, the greatest difficulties in world affairs are experienced by associations of countries that built their strategy on preserving the existing order - in the West this is the European Union, in the East - the ASEAN economic bloc. In both cases, the very principle of the organisation of these groups and their philosophy do not allow for an energetic revisionist attitude towards the international order, and lead to attempts to maintain a status quo that no one needs anymore. Therefore, it is the fate and position of these two associations, as well as the countries that have relied on them in their national strategy, that is now causing the greatest concern.
However, we have no reason to think that the changes taking place in the world will be rapid and dramatic - revisionism by its nature does not imply sudden movements. We see how cautious Russia and the United States are about the likelihood of an escalation of their differences in Eastern Europe. China and the United States are also showing serious restraint and skilfully resolve their differences without bringing them into direct conflict. The fact that thousands of human lives become the price for general revisionism is a huge tragedy. But in conditions when a major conflict is impossible and irrational, and the contradictions between many powers aimed at revising the international order are great, it would be extremely difficult to avoid these losses.