Factors Influencing the World Order’s Structure


Study the historian before you begin to study the facts” – Edward H. Carr

International relations are unfolding against the backdrop of a war more than ever before. The collapse of US supremacy and Western efforts to consolidate a liberal order following the Cold War brought on a crisis in the globalized economy and the welfare state, making it hard to rely on the international order’s stabilization. This means identifying factors shaping the future world order. For each of the great powers – in our case Russia – the present-day situation requires a foreign policy adaptable to constantly emerging new challenges.

The new global order will not reflect Western countries’ underlying internal order

The emerging international order, in its very structure, shows no sign of a leading power capable of acting jointly as a dominant military and economic force. Great powers like the United States, Russia, China and India, are not cooperating. They never shared the same world order view (let alone their respective domestic ones). So far, the United States and several Western European countries are pursuing a revolutionary policy about the outside world and constitute the biggest challenge to the prospects of international order stability. Such states embarked on a disquieting path of breakthrough changes in fundamental issues that form the social, gender, and consequently political structure of societies. Due to the cultural and mental gap between the West and the Rest, other civilizations consider this path a challenge resulting in rejection.

We cannot claim that other great powers fully share an understanding of the basics of justice at the domestic level. Even if Russia and China seem to agree on principles underlying a “proper” world order, they do not see eye-to-eye on internal arrangements. This also holds true for India and Iran. While their conservative values are at odds with Western ones, they fail to build unity among themselves.

For the first time, the new international order will not reflect the underlying internal order in the leading countries. This is of vital importance since we have no way of knowing how relations between these countries will develop, or how new values will replace traditional ones. If the current unfolding internal order in the West requires expansion in addition to recognition, as was the case in revolutionary France, Bolshevik Russia, or Nazi Germany, the future will be very alarming.

We cannot expect either powerful countries sharing a similar world vision (albeit with conflicts of interest) will emerge, as was the case during the 18th to 19th centuries. Historical analogies are not appropriate here. The new international system will neither resemble the last European balance of power politics, nor the bipolar international order of the Cold War period, and even less so the unipolar liberal world order existing since 1991. This is all the more true given that Western countries have not demonstrated the required flexibility to put up with different ideas about values adopted in other states. Should they show greater signs of acceptance, it could form the basis for relative stability.

The disintegration of international institutions brings new alliance possibilities

The erasure of the West’s power monopoly in international politics will not only cause a change in leadership but a revision of global institutions and rules, with the post-WWII order ceasing to exist. Despite including the Soviet Union and China, the UN system remains a product of Western dominance in global politics based on unique military capabilities. The approaching era will be defined by a new order. Which actors will be a part of it, and to what extent, remains to be seen.
The most optimistic scenario is that there will be several opposing camps on the world stage, each capable of operating autonomously. A Sino-Russian alliance opposing the West is plausible but perhaps unlikely as it goes against the democratization of international politics. However, if this alliance does occur, it will require a long period of redefining borders of influence affecting economic relations, trade, finance, the high-tech industry and global health.

… as well as enhanced nuclear risks

The collapse of the international order’s formal and informal foundations is taking place in an environment where the driving principle between the great powers is not respect for norms, but the possibility of mutually guaranteed destruction (MAD). This supplants every historically known way of maintaining peace. The MAD doctrine is particularly visible between the United State and Russia. Identifying informal rules with the chance that nuclear weapons will be fired will be our era’s most challenging task. The emergence of such a relationship is already perceptible between Russia and the US, and China is likely to join practical efforts in this area. However, it remains to be seen if membership for countries with lower nuclear stockpile levels than Russia or the US should be included in the nuclear club. French or British nuclear weapons do not pose an existential threat to Russia, but can evidently cause significant damage and trigger escalations.

Formalizing the boundaries of the mutual damage inflicted by nuclear superpowers is extremely difficult. The global economic interdependence and the exposure of technology to possible cyber-attacks may be used as a weapon without entering traditional military actions. In the early weeks of the Ukrainian crisis, experts feared Western economic sanctions against Russia would trigger an escalation of the highest magnitude. Another high-risk alternative was the use of cyber weapons on a scale potentially leading to nuclear escalation. Thankfully this has been avoided. Parties are trying to gradually determine a course of action that does not involve threatening mankind’s survival.

Hopes that these rules will stabilize the new international order are far-fetched. It would moreover be wishful thinking to believe that leading states will manage to formally set boundaries. This will greatly reduce the power of diplomacy. It is also worth underlining that Western countries – the most militarily and economically advanced part of the international community – are connected by mutual obligations. Such reliability in times of conflict is subject to interpretation, yet the following question remains unanswered: “Will the US sacrifice Washington for Paris (not to say Warsaw)?” If, for instance, nuclear powers formally agreed that the only reason to strike is because of a direct threat to other’s territory, NATO would lose much of its rationale.

Great powers, inevitably, could potentially be drawn by their junior allies into an escalation as a result. Incidentally, this also applies to bilateral relations between allies. What scale of a military clash between the US and China would prompt Russian intervention? The same question applies to potential conflicts between Russia and America’s European allies, or China and Japan. Not to mention that, over time, Russia and China may also have binding ally obligations. The coming years may show increased regional crises including the great powers on the one hand, and medium-sized powers on the other.

The permissible use of force between nuclear powers and middle-sized states is another complicated matter to consider. US-Iran relations traditionally teetered on the brink of conflict. Fifteen years ago, the United States could defeat Iran militarily, but today, the latter has Russian and Chinese support. Victory with the use of conventional weapons alone is hence very doubtful. Furthermore, the complex relationship between Moscow and Ankara should be considered. Relations so far have been friendly, but should a major military conflict arise, it is unclear whether Moscow can comfortably win without resorting to its unique military capabilities. As the West is becoming less capable of controlling the rest of the world, these conflicts will become more widespread. Especially since Russia or China are not able to offer an alternative in terms of authority and, most importantly, effectiveness comparable to the American one.

The admissible limit of use of force, as the principal condition for a relatively sustainable international order, is quite hard to define, however clear it may be that mutual destruction is both contradictory to human nature and irrational to achieve political objectives. This is the main paradox of international politics with which we will have to deal in the years to come as great powers will have to balance their political ambitions with the possibility of fulfilling them without the risk of mutual destruction. The Russia-NATO clash over Ukraine is one of many including this choice.

The Global South’s interests will be a weighing geopolitical factor in the years to come

In all other aspects, our world’s future looks less daunting than the various concerns so prominent in our time. Most relate to problems of primary importance for the developed Western states but have little effect on the rest of the world when compared to the development objectives of non-Western countries.

First, the continuing democratization of the global political environment inspires optimism. In the future, great powers will need to move beyond the habit of authoritarian governance and its inherent arrogance towards medium and even small countries. The fact that, in the context of the conflict between Russia and the West, the vast majority of developing countries chose to act based on their selfish aspirations is indicative of their confidence in their government’s stability. Participation or non-participation in an ongoing conflict is now determined by countries’ stakes should they choose to weaken one of the opposing sides. For US allies, weakening or defeating Russia is objectively a rational choice. For the rest of the world, the war’s unfolding will mean a shift in the global balance of power rather than a personal bet.

By avoiding conflict with Russia, many countries believe its success will not weaken the West to the point where its actions will become unpredictable and cause direct military clashes between the West and Russia, endangering mankind’s survival. It is unlikely that the West suffers a defeat. However, the fact that the West’s weakening is not a threat for some already indicates internal expectations for such a turn of events and, in some cases, the desirability of such a turn of events.

Restoring Western countries’ ability to partially determine the actions of other states without direct pressure no longer stands. This begs the question of how sufficient the effect of repressive measures can be compared to the goals they pursue.

Second, due to internal and external factors, there has been a reduction in the quantity of the resources available to the West on which it depended to maintain its dominance in the global system. A core reason why most developing countries are showing restraint about Russia’s actions in Ukraine is the West’s inability to respond to these countries’ resource demands for development challenges. The power of resources in the geopolitical competition was notably seen in the success of US relations with China in the 1970s. It was the only country able to offer China economic opportunities giving the green light to Deng Xiaoping’s ambitious economic reforms. Today, in contrast, the West is not able to offer developing countries alternatives. What’s more, in the Indian case, development targets have either been reached or do not pose threats to the survival of the political system.

Are alternatives possible? Which ones?

In the last decade, China began acting as a development player with both the Belt and Road Initiative and the Community of Common Destiny of 2013. The sustainability of these models remains unclear, but proposals are boosting small and medium-sized countries’ level of confidence. As the most populous countries on the planet, China and India reached relatively sustainable growth levels linked to their foreign policy independence. Others now follow that path.

Under a new international order, no single great power will be resourceful enough to use foreign policy as a tool to promote medium and small economies. The ability of countries to engage in development-oriented partnerships and overcome the earlier-mentioned challenges will be the strongest factor in determining their significance on the new global stage. Most likely, Europe will be the only region with clear piding lines and institutional control over medium and small countries. Despite this, however, the future of the European Union can face hurdles, which is now Germany and France’s most important tool of control over their weaker partners. In other world regions, competition will be more democratic and will not predetermine political choices. Western countries, along with China, India and Russia will be on a relatively level playing field, enabling them to maximize their independence from other countries’ ideological positions.

The accelerated degradation of international institutions will be another marker of the post-Western world, perceivable in the global economic shock following the wide-scale economic sanctions on Russia by the West. As economic impact measures keep expanding, governments and companies will lose faith in the very rules and institutions created to maintain and preserve the liberal world order. As a result, the entire global economic infrastructure will be in a dynamic state.

Western countries are likely to rely on direct pressure and sanctions to influence other states, underscoring how economic wars have become a new reality in the same way conventional wars used to be. A country’s ability to manage economic wars to safeguard national stability will soften these wars’ impact.

A collective solution to our climate crisis looks unlikely. In recent years European measures to limit the man-made impact on climate raised doubts as to how they can serve other economic interests of the West. The climate agenda was already combining measures of coercion and goodwill. Now the political basis for cooperation in this area is vanishing. This does not imply actions will not be taken at the national level but will no longer benefit a “common” agenda for self-serving interests. The most pressing issues likely are addressed through national actions and equal benefits going forward.

Smaller countries (which emerged during the decolonization era and the collapse of the bipolar system in 1991) will be key going forward. Their future relied on a US-led liberal world order and the benefits provided by globalization. But they have now come under pressure.

First, over the past decades, many were unable to create sociopolitical systems resistant to internal challenges. Having reaped liberal world order benefits enabled them to hide problems behind a façade of reform and confidence. But such opportunities are drying up. The developing countries in Asia, where political regimes were less susceptible to the disease of imitating Western institutions, are in a more privileged position. This problem is more acute in Africa, some regions of Latin America and the former Soviet space. Middle Eastern countries will face the problem of continued religious revival, for instance in Afghanistan if the Taliban succeeds in stabilizing the domestic situation.

Second, pressure on small countries will come from outside. Superpower competition will benefit them as a result of maneuvering and receiving resources from multiple sources, but will also create political and military risks. Since nuclear powers will want to avoid confrontation, they will likely operate via the territories of small countries to deal with one another. Finally, small countries will become an object of pressure from medium-sized countries, which will find this necessary due to their survival concerns. Under these circumstances, only a few small countries can expect to survive by piggybacking on their strong ties with the great powers.

The future international order will be the least integral of anything we have ever seen. Its integrity will stem from new factors, the specific content of which we are already beginning to see now and will be studying during the tumultuous years to come.

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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