Modern Diplomacy and the New World Order

There is no doubt that the international order is currently in a state of transition. The changes experienced seem to be the most significant in the past few hundred years. This assumption is predicated upon an objective fact — never before in the history of international politics has it included so many participants with different historical and cultural backgrounds. This means that we are not talking about another redistribution of power within a limited circle of states, but about a new distribution of power, capabilities and influence within a wider than ever circle of participants.

However, in practical terms, such large-scale changes result in a paradox: diplomacy is heavily influenced by tactical manoeuvring, rather than strategic considerations. This is especially noticeable in the example of the behaviour of Western countries; however, most of the rest are no exception. Even the actions of such powers as China or Russia, which by many indicators are truly examples of diplomatic conservatism, contain signs of not strategic, but contextual considerations. What can we say about small and medium-sized countries, some of which have even managed to become famous as skilful tacticians, making the most of the most ambiguous international situations?

Suffice it to say, the leading states will not determine the composition of the new world order alone; they have been joined by lesser-order predators, which are now in a state of constant manoeuvre. This, in turn, can lead us to one of two assumptions. Either this order is still very far from its ultimate form, or it is arising through a set of manoeuvres that seem insignificant from our aesthetic point of view, which are not the result of big decisions made by the wise and powers responsible for the fate of mankind.

Despite the fact that in popular literature, the ability to constantly manoeuvre is now, as a rule, one of the attributes of medium-sized states occupying an intermediate geopolitical position, it is precisely the large countries that have become true masters of this genre. Here we see that Europe, which despite its loyalty to transatlantic relations in the long term, certainly occupies first place. The main powers of the European Union, acting in an individual capacity or under the guise of European institutions obedient to them, are in a state of permanent manoeuvring, as the outer contour of the West. This is true in relations with China, Russia or other countries of the so-called world majority, and with their direct partners; they are constantly entering into bargaining relations with Europe’s powerful patron, the United States.

For the rest of the world, this creates the illusion that Europe can one day break away from America and embark on a relatively independent voyage. For the Americans themselves, it creates little additional opportunity or concern, but never leads to situations that threaten Washington’s monopoly on power.

For example, the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to Beijing in the first half of April was certainly an example of such manoeuvring. The French head of state tried in every possible way to strengthen the idea among his Chinese counterparts that continental Europe can, at least tactically, act as something other than a territorial base for the realisation of American interests. In part, this was facilitated by objective economic opportunities that make cooperation with the Europeans beneficial for Beijing and the Chinese economy. The Chinese side remains somewhat confident that Germany and France are behaving desperately regarding Russia, precisely because they won’t consider a conflict with Moscow that could lead to dramatic consequences for them.

The Europeans are being gently pushed by the UK and the US towards a confrontation with China. For the European Union, going along with this would be economic suicide, especially given the current not-too-cheerful state of the socio-economic systems of most of “old Europe”. Moreover, the Europeans’ reluctance to refuse the benefits of cooperation with the PRC could even be seen during German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to Beijing.

In addition, China quite rationally believes that the conflict between the West and Russia is more fundamental for Europe than the confrontation between the United States and China itself. Our Chinese friends are well aware of the history of relations between Russia and Western Europe, and understand that the hostility there emanates from the European states. Despite some positive experience of cooperation with Russia in the era when its behaviour was relatively convenient for the EU, the largest EU countries have always had their grievances with Moscow, perhaps even more serious than those of Japan, another American ally in the fight against the restoration of Russian influence and the destruction of American dominance in general. Russia objectively and historically is an adversary of Western Europe; this cannot be said about China, which simply due to its geopolitical position cannot cause serious concern. So the diplomatic manoeuvres of France and the EU as a whole will, of course, continue to be seen very positively by our Chinese friends.

Moreover, China itself manoeuvres in everything except for its strategic partnership with Russia, the true nature of which is hidden from outside observers by the exclusively trusting relations between our political leaders. Regarding all other issues, China is also advancing its long-term vision through decisions that may seem purely tactical. Moreover, as happened in the case of the historical rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, all the main features of international life are now contributing to the success of Chinese diplomacy. This will continue as long as Beijing can stay above the fight that the West and Russia are directly involved in over unfortunate Ukraine.

The United States is also conducting its own diplomatic manoeuvres, but, like Russia’s, they are more dangerous for global security simply because of the volumes of the deadliest weapons that the United States has at its disposal. Having proclaimed a decisive battle with Russia and an equally uncompromising confrontation with China, the US is also trying to play what enthusiastic observers call “subtle diplomacy.” However, if Europe relies here on its economic capabilities and certain charm of a sovereign player with a long history, then Washington manoeuvres in a deliberately brutal spirit, trying to play power games and pit everyone against everyone else. Of course, Washington succeeds less and less, but the resources accumulated over the past 50 years are still fantastically far from being exhausted.

Russia, in turn, is conducting its diplomatic manoeuvring by stubbornly refusing to “burn bridges” in relations with the West or damage the integrity of the world economic system. It has also demonstrates impressive tolerance towards those external partners that must take into account the wishes of the United States on the Russian issue, including even formally neutral countries that supply weapons to Kiev’s troops. In fact, only the diplomatic dialogue between Moscow and individual NATO countries has been completely stopped, and even there it was not done by Moscow, which emphasises that it is always open to resuming talks. Thus, almost no party involved is completely straightforward. In this regard, a relevant question that may confront experts of international politics is the following: are the general diplomatic manoeuvres simply part of the military activity that is growing on a global scale, or are they replacing the “big” negotiations about a new world order, about which theorists could dream of? It can be assumed that both are being done at the same time — to the particular chagrin of those of us who still believe that order in the world can be established through a single plan and rational, responsible calculations.

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