Are There Any Chances of a “Concert” Among the Leading States?

Despite the current concern among observers regarding the state of relations between the leading nations, the general development of international politics yields a relatively optimistic impression. First of all, because the question of how close the leading world powers are to a new interpretation of reality is acquiring not only speculative, but also practical dimensions.

This applies, of course, to the United States, which has yet to get used to the fact that the international order can be the product not of its own power capabilities, but in recognising the strength of other global players. However, even admitting the idea that the foreign policy behaviour of the Democratic administration is a form of a tactical game can lead to the development of a more adequate comparison between the US opinion of itself and the opinion of it around it. Despite the fact that US foreign policy rhetoric often remains based on illusions, the practical actions of the US government are often consistent with the demands of reality.

In the event that the new international order acquires a relatively stable form, its uniqueness, compared to all previous ones, will turn out to be that it won’t be the result of an agreement between the winners. At the same time, like the two previous orders – following the Yalta Conference and the post-Soviet liberal one – this order will exist “in the shadow” of a permanent cold war between the nuclear powers. In addition, it will also contain completely unique features inherited from the previous historical era or associated with new technological advances. First of all, we can talk about preserving the practice of permanent alliances and the division of the world along the lines of information and communication technology platforms. At the same time, as one might hope, both could become a tool for a soft dismantling of the globalisation that we have become accustomed to over the past 30 years.

Recently, the state of international politics has indeed given reason to think that the desire of the United States, and the West as a whole, to regain its dominance is beginning to wane. First of all, this is confirmed by the spread of measures of unilateral economic pressure (the so-called “sanctions”) and trade wars. The increasingly active use by the United States and its allies of its privileged position in the world economy as a power resource speaks to a loss of confidence in the prospects for their own leadership. This hegemony in relations with the powers, military victory over which is impossible due to the nuclear weapons factor, was possible only amid conditions of cooperation and the institutionalisation of relations. But the refusal to cooperate, like the destruction of the institutions of globalisation, means, first of all, the renunciation of the prospects for hegemony.

Therefore, an incredible amount of extremely qualified research on the problem and features of the so-called sanctions policy can be supplemented by an analysis of how it reflects the general development of international relations. In fact, measures that undermine globalisation indicate a willingness to sacrifice the chance to arrange it in a way that is advantageous to one party. Instead, the US and other Western countries are simply trying to gain unilateral advantages. This, for all the specific costs, can be considered a good sign; a movement towards an international policy of balance of power, which does not imply the unconditional domination of one group by force. It is this that Russian diplomacy has consistently insisted upon for many years, as it can become the basis for more working relations between the powers. In this regard, it already makes sense to speculate about what features the world’s structure may have in a few years.

First, the new international order cannot be a repetition of the “concert” of powers, known to us from the 19th century, even in an edited form. Because the independence of a number of large and important states will remain limited by the conditions of their relations with the United States, although these relations will weaken. If in the case of Europe it is still possible to speak of relative strategic autonomy, then for Japan the fear of China is so strong that it paralyses any ability Tokyo would otherwise have to play an intrinsic role in world politics. But even such countries as Germany or France, although they are now able to defend their private interests within the common chorus of US allies, in the near future will face such internal upheavals that they will have no time for independence in foreign policy.

In reality, only three powers are ready to deal with international balance of power politics – the United States, Russia and China. First of all, because their power capabilities in one way or another eliminate the need to have allies on whom their security would otherwise depend. Even China, which is still militarily weaker than Russia and the United States, is too big to have allies. Therefore, it is now very difficult to imagine which countries other than these three could form in the future a formal or informal structure of international governance.

Second, relations between the powers will probably never be spared from constant small and medium-sized clashes. These skirmishes will be the result of their constant desire to test the limits of their own power capabilities. Already now we can count several geographical zones where Russia, China and the United States can directly or indirectly come into conflict with each other, which each time will be fraught with escalation into a more serious conflict. In conditions where a conflict, mutual sanctions or local wars become part of diplomatic practice, it would be somewhat naive to assume the likelihood of permanent solutions. That is why we are already seeing very convincing attempts to draw the attention of the governments of the leading powers to the need for a more consistent approach toward the issue of managing conflicts between them and creating the rules of the game in an environment where competition and clashes are part of everyday relations.

Third, the dynamics of the importance of middling powers such as Turkey, Iran, Japan or Saudi Arabia remains uncertain. Against the background of the collapse of the liberal world order, these states were able to significantly increase their own importance in the politics of stronger players and practically left their shadows. But it is completely unknown how long their success will last amid the new conditions. We cannot rule out that as the new international order takes shape, the space of manoeuvre and the ability of such states to defend their own significance, interests and values ​​will gradually diminish.

Finally, an international order based on a balance of power will still be affected by ideological differences related to the internal development of its main participants. So far, these disagreements appear in a somewhat grotesque form, such as, for example, the idea of ​​an “alliance of democracies” promoted by the American administration. But in the future, differences on basic issues may turn out to be not only a factor in power politics, but also have a more fundamental character. So far, we can interpret the ideological plots according to which there is a discrepancy between the Western countries and the rest of the world in the categories of the struggle of powers, where each seeks to dominate, both by the force and with respect to ethis. However, if in the future the United States and Europe really experience a restructuring of societies comparable to the era of the Reformation, then the views on relations between people in the West and in the East may turn out to be completely opposite. So far it still looks like a by-product of the general crisis of the existing model of the market economy.

It is certainly very early now to speculate about what the new international order will look like. But the processes and phenomena that we observe convince us that it will be much more flexible, free and, at the same time, conflicting than we would like from the point of view of adherence to permanent statuses.

From our partner RIAC

Timofey Bordachev
Timofey Bordachev
PhD in Political Science, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club; Academic supervisor of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies, HSE University, RIAC Member