Are Rules of the Game Possible in the Era of Nuclear Weapons?


Despite the fact that power competition has historically been the most familiar way of interaction between states, for several centuries there has been a search for a more disciplined order. Moreover, such a task became urgent after the emergence of the “nuclear world order”, the central systemic feature of which is the insurmountable military superiority of a narrow group of states over the rest. It is insurance against the outbreak of destructive wars, but at the same time it guarantees that the conflict between the nuclear powers will be the last in the history of mankind. This makes it necessary to search and establish relatively stable rules, at least at the highest level, regulating the inevitable competition. The question is, to what extent are such rules really necessary for the survival of those who can create them?

The official Russian doctrine is based on an unquestionably positive answer to this question and regards the UN Charter as a set of general “laws” for the world of sovereign states. China and most countries in the world follow the same approach. The United States and its allies in the West believe that the UN is, of course, the main international institution, but in addition to formal equality of rights in world politics, there is a system that gives primacy to the strong. This approach promotes a “rules-based international order” and has often received legitimate criticism from Russia. However, if we take a close look at the modern world order, we see that at the centre are laws that are far more powerful than any formal or informal rules that are under discussion.

The inglorious end of the US military intervention in Afghanistan (and in the Middle East) made it possible to speculate that the end of the domination of the Western powers in world affairs has finally come. The only problem standing in the way of a more just international order is America’s inability to recognise the new balance of power in world politics and economics. That is why most modern foreign assessments of American foreign policy are based on the basic hypothesis that this power has lost touch with reality.

We must admit that such an assumption is based on a significant amount of empirical experience that it is difficult to argue with. Moreover, it makes no practical sense to enumerate evidence that the most powerful military and economic power in the world, represented by its elite, is unable to recognise the irreversible nature of changes in the balance of power among the leading states.

There is little doubt that such a failure is objective, since it is impossible to detect even small signs that the foreign policy strategy and culture of that country may change, especially if we take into account that none of the military adventures of the West after the end of the Cold War were connected with its vital interests. Unlike European states after World War II, the United States has not yet suffered a defeat that could have a significant impact on the assessment of its place in the world. And it is unlikely to face this, if we take into account the nuclear weapons factor.

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


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