New World Order – “oder nicht”

“If chaos comes knocking at your door, do let it in. Perhaps it will help you put your place in order.”

  • Confucius, Chinese philosopher

Referring to Confucius words, one may ask, can this worldwide chaos put everything back in order … or turn out into some new (dis)order? Apparently not just by itself. However, it seems to be unwise to cling to a world order that may sooner or later be gone forever. What may be the elementary bricks and functions of possible new world order … or are we falling into total disorder?

On this website, in the main section “IR Theory” there is a subsection “World order” presenting some definitions. The combination of power and political projects constitutes what is understood as the world order. In other words, the world order is defined as the combination of polarity and the respective coordinated measures (political projects) undertaken by the great powers that create the direction for political leadership and constitute the political agenda on the international scene.

The cornerstones of the US political projects have been liberal democracy and the free market. According to present understanding, majority of researchers and scholars see that the present position of international system, the American unipolarity, appears to be in flux and the present liberal world order that was initially established after WWII and spectacularly confirmed after the Cold War seems to be in peril.

Obviously, the old world order cannot be rescued. In today’s global world, characterized by accelerating pace of events and evolution, any policy aiming to preserve the status quo is doomed to fail, sooner or later, one way or another. The old structures may still be in place somehow, but they are not going to withstand the pressure of the problems of the 21st century for much longer. One cannot go forward while looking back. The chaos that has penetrated the common house of the humanity, is making new demands to great power relations and interactions.

The US point of view

America’s leaders have generally understood that one key to success in dealing with foreign adversaries is to operate from positions of strength, not weakness. This remains true today. According to Trump’s NSS 2018, now also agreed by Joe Biden, “experience suggests that the willingness of rivals to abandon or forgo aggression depends on their perception of the US strength and the vitality of our alliances.”

Both Republican and Democratic leaders also concur that the world has entered an extended period of great power competition, with a rising China and a revanchist Russia standing out as primary competitors. Both parties understand, however, that the era of unchallenged American global hegemony is over and share the concept, that despite a growing recognition of the need to extract the country from a set of “endless wars” in peripheral regions, the US must go on the offensive against chief foreign competitors. They argue that Russian aggression and Chinese wrongdoing have been a function of America’s misguided permissiveness, which can be revoked.

It is usual that there is a gap between declaratory foreign policy ambitions and what can be actually achieved in practice but right now, the distance between the US aspirations for dealing with great power rivals and the US capacity for reaching the goals looks more like a chasm. The assumption that a newly-empowered Biden can go on the offensive against both Russia and China seem to contradict with reality: America is currently in no condition to do so successfully and will not be for some time to come.

The main challenge looming before the Biden team of foreign policy officials is not how to employ US power to compel China and Russia but to get a breathing pause abroad that will allow the country to focus on desperately needed internal healing. The more the US will pursue a two-front offensive against great power rivals overseas, the more likely the domestic problems will grow.

There are numerous reasons for these problems, many of which are obscured by the fact that the United States still boasts the world’s most powerful military and largest economy. For one thing, the size of the US national debt exceeds the US GDP. Decades of relying on credit to pay for military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond, coupled with massive stimulus spending to cushion the blows of the 2008 financial crisis and now coronavirus shutdowns, are rapidly flooding the country. This will produce great downward pressure on defense budgets and leave the US poorly positioned to spend Russia and China “into oblivion” in a new strategic arms race, as Trump officials threatened.

However, national strength is much more than a military or economic capability. It is also rooted in such intangible factors as societal cohesion, dynamism, and self-confidence, in other words a political capability. The absence of these items in the US domestic politics today is obvious to all, including to both friends and rivals abroad. Especially the enlarging lack of societal cohesion among the country’s elite has been the key driver of empire collapsing in the history

This absence has real implications for the country’s ability to devise and implement a coherent foreign policy. The growing disconnectedness between the White House and the permanent foreign affairs bureaucracy and their allies, has created a slow-healing wounds in the core apparatus of US foreign policy and in the whole American society as well. These internal American divisions have important implications for how Russia and China might react to excessive US military, economic and diplomatic pressure.

Balancing great power politics in 2021 and beyond.

When considering the world through great power point of view, some prominent features can be noticed. The hype of Fukuyama’s “end of history” and the triumph of Western system have faded away, with the Covid-pandemic at the latest. The present liberal world order, created and maintained by the US since the beginning of US unipolarity, requires obviously the existence of some “great threat view”. The recent US strategy reports name Russia and China as the two biggest revisionist powers of the contemporary world and likewise the most dangerous threats to the liberal world order.

When considering the present US position, it is a well-established principle that what a person (or a country) does, is a much more reliable indicator of future behavior than what they say. Since becoming president, Trump has withdrawn from, or announced the United States’ intention of withdrawing from, a significant number of major treaties JPCOA, INF Treaty, IPU, Paris climate agreement, TPP, UNESCO etc.). Now it seems that Biden is making an U-turn to some extent. In addition, the key tool in the diplomatic portfolio of the US has been a sanction regime towards all political adversaries, especially China and Russia.

These moves are not the actions of a country committed to solving international problems in a multinational format but rather to go on with unipolar hegemony. Given this track record over the past 4 years there is no basis for believing that they are temporary measures designed only by Trump administration. Given also the lack of any serious opposition to these moves in the US Senate, it is safe to assume that these moves reflect a broader US approach to multilateral relations, although Biden may soften somewhat the biased Trumpian view. Biden has underlined the need of restoring the US leadership worldwide and confidence of the allies and friends to America’s capability to manage the liberal world order.

Considering now the political-military cooperation between Russia and China in the great power triangle game and the systemic consequences it has caused, the transformation took place in years 2014-2016 and the new emerged polarity may be called the twinpolarity. The present positioning of players in this game indicate that China-Russia partnership is the real transforming power in the today’s triangle game.

Ideological contradictions

In former days, the geopolitical conflict took place amid the ideological confrontation between communism and capitalism. Ideologues have nostalgia for the Cold War, when the bipolar power distribution was supported by a clear and comfortable ideological division. The Western bloc represented capitalism, Christianity and democracy, while the Eastern bloc represented communism, atheism and authoritarianism. This ideological division supported internal cohesion within the Western bloc and drew clear borders with the adversary.

Now, as the aftermath of the Covid-pandemic at the latest, the ideological schism has again come to the fore, to some extent. This time between spiritual and religious values of Russian conservatism and Chinese Confucian traditions vs. Western democracy and liberalism.

The liberal international order has attempted to recast the former capitalist-communist discrepancy with a liberal-authoritarian contradiction. However, the ideological incompatibility between American liberalism and Russian conservatism is less convincing. For example, Michael McFaul (President Obama’s ambassador to Russia) cautions, in his recent article, against Putin’s nefarious conservative ideology committed to “Christian, traditional family values” that threatens the liberal international order, supported by the US.

McFaul warns against what he refers to as “Putin’s ideological project” as a threat to the liberal international order. Yet he does not realize that the liberal world order is the American political (ideological) project for the post-Cold War era, just as theoretically defined in the section of “World order” on this website.

After the Cold War, liberal ideologues suggested that liberal democracy should be at the center of security strategies but by linking liberal norms to the US leadership, liberalism became an international hegemonic norm. In this context, NATO is presented as a community of liberal values but without mentioning that its second largest and militarily strong member, Turkey, is very conservative and very authoritarian society representing fully other kind of values than Europe or the US.

Very interesting! All the ideologies and values upside-down in full mishmash. “O tempora, o mores!”

Pursuers of new world order

History has taught that transition from one world order to another has been always driven by the accumulation of new ideologies / technologies or with major wars and revolutions usually acting as a catalyst. Today, a critical mass of new technologies has been accumulated but new cycles of wars and revolutions may prove deadly not only for individual countries but for overall humanity.

In these new conditions, the traditional centers of global politics are unable to play a leading role in establishing a new world order. The US is deeply politically, economically and socially polarized as well heavily indebted and no one can reliably predict when or how that chasm will be bridged.

The European Union is struggling with fundamental internal crisis of its own (whole set of structural, financial, economic, political and even value crises). A decisive political change, a vanguard in European scale, will take place in autumn 2021 in Germany when the country gets a new Bundeskanzler, after Angela Merkel. Thus, Brussels will most likely continue to focus on resolving its multiple internal issues for a long time to come, rather than on building a new world order.

Other possible global political players (the UN, Japan, India etc.) are either too weak globally or have their own problems that are preventing them from taking charge of designing new rules of the game for the modern world.

In this framework, China and Russia insist enjoying a substantial advantage over the other global centers of power. Nevertheless, it seems that there still lacks a coherent joint strategic perspective in this relation. A joint strategic approach of two partners needs to include more than coordinated voting in the UN Security Council and even the joint efforts to combine the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Russian plans for the development of the Eurasian Economic Union. If the partners go for the joint strategic approach of the desired future world order and coordinate efforts to create it, they may manage to design such a formula and process, which will reach the worldwide momentum.

China-Russia in tandem

The discussion of the future of China-Russia relations both in the East and the West often comes down to one question: Will Moscow and Beijing become allies? It does not seem to be the correct question to ask. In fact, it is not entirely clear what “allied relations” means in the 21st century.

If Russia and China want to play decisive roles in shaping a new world order in the future, it is more important for them to arrive at a common understanding of the fundamental rules of the game in the new system of international relations. It was this understanding that enabled the great world powers in 1945 to lay the foundations of the new world order, which have served all the nations quite well for the past seven decades.

China has passed the United States as the world’s largest economy in terms of parity purchasing power and highly likely passes the US in nominal terms as well before 2030. It has formed a close and growing relationship with Russia, not only in bilateral dimension but in multilateral dimension as well (BRI, EAEU, SCO and ASEAN etc.). In addition, China’s triumph in the trade politics was The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a 15-member Asian trade pact that was signed in November 2020 leaving out both India and the US.

This “Chinese threat” to the United States’ self-defined role as the world’s dominant power did not commence during Trump’s presidency and the US reaction to it will not cease with the ending of that presidency. Anyway, it would be naïve to anticipate any significant change in the United States foreign policy in the short or medium term. The whole US sanction regime has been based on the legislation (CAATSA and others), which is not possible to change any time soon due to extreme toxic atmosphere in the US Congress.

From the Eastern point of view (Russia & China), Western democracies do not know how to exist without an enemy, either Russian or Chinese threat. China “as led by the Chinese Communist Party,” is to be faced as a threat to “Western values” – the old triad of democracy, human rights and neoliberalism. The paranoia embodied in the dual Russia-China “threat” is nothing but a classic illustration of the prime Grand Chessboard clash: NATO vs Eurasian integration, à la Brzezinski and Kissinger. Herethe bottom line is that the Russian “pivot to the East” since 2012 and the strategic entente with China favored Russia in the Grand Chessboard.That is the concept of Greater Eurasian Partnership: “a multilateral, integrated partnership with China playing the role of primus inter pares.”

An interesting comparison to late 1960s political situation may shed light to a possible solution in the present world order dilemma; “ex oriente lux” may turn out to be again ominously prophetic.

Nixon & Kissinger formula

In 1968, Richard Nixon faced a situation reminiscent of the current circumstances in his first presidential victory. The US was sharply divided over Vietnam, civil rights and anti-war protesting and assassinations, which all shook the country and rioting burned numerous cities. Nixon’s campaign promised a return to law and order at home and an end to the Vietnam War abroad, but America’s maneuvering room was sharply constrained. An increasing power of Soviet Union was on course to push past parity with the US in nuclear weapons, besides an overwhelming numerical advantage in conventional forces in Europe.

How could the United States extract itself from Vietnam and focus on domestic healing, yet still prevent the Soviet Union from intimidating Western Europe and spreading communism around the world?

Nixon’s answer, together with National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, was a masterwork in defensive realist strategy. Perceiving an opportunity to exploit rising tensions between the USSR and China, Nixon reached out to Mao’s China and began a process leading to formal diplomatic relations, helping to counterbalance Soviet power and complicate the Kremlin’s foreign policy outlook.

In parallel,the US pursued détente with Moscow, producing a set of trade, arms control, human rights and confidence-building agreements that helped to constrain the Soviet military build-up and made the superpower rivalry more manageable and predictable. Nixon “bought” badly needed time for mending the country’s domestic wounds and rebuilding the strength that later served Reagan so well. Statesmen of Kissinger’s caliber seem to be in short supply.

Could the United States pursue a similar approach today? By comparison to 1968, the US present domestic injuries appear more severe, the American middle class more estranged, societal cohesion severely disturbed and the Administration’s ability to produce a coherent foreign policy strategy more limited and even the foundational American Idea itself being blurred.

The vital first step in the recovery of the country is openly to acknowledge that the US have real problems.

Closing words

In the present circumstances of the affairs on the international scene, between great powers, how can a peaceful solution or a process of new world order be initiated.

It seems more and more obvious that, “ex oriente lux”, the light comes from east again.

As described above, the Grand Chessboard, Chinese BRI, Russia’s Great Eurasian Partnership, all together may create that momentum, which step-by-step will wring the power-political global trends towards this direction, new “Eastphalian” world order.