Dean of the Department of World Economics and World Politics of the National Research University-Higher School of Economics
A few days ago I spoke at a seminar attended by renowned and unorthodox scholars from Russia and the West. The topic of my presentation was “What Will There Be after the ‘Liberal Global Order?’” I think this should be interesting for the public at large as well. So let me begin with the obvious.
Russia has been accused of destroying the post-war liberal world order. This is fundamentally wrong in many respects. There were two world orders after the war. One was liberal-democratic and capitalist, led by the United States. The other one was socialist, led by the Soviet Union. Russia led the way in destroying the latter, certainly not the former, even though its disappearance as a counterbalance eventually started eroding the former as well. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, “a liberal global order” was proclaimed and upheld for a short while. And it is true that Russia had a hand in ruining it with its independent policy and actions in Ukraine and Syria. But it did the right thing.
What was that “liberal order” like? It was a brief period of U.S. and Western hegemony in the world, and there was nothing liberal, i.e. free, about it. It was stated, and forced upon dissenters, that the world should be governed exclusively by the Western political templates and Western values. The West had assumed the right to speak on behalf of the international community. If this is freedom, then what is unfreedom? World communism professed a similar doctrine in the twentieth century. Prior to that, crusaders and colonizers had tried to impose Christianity, now half-forgotten in the West, plundering along the way, of course.
It was not an “order” but rather the law of the jungle in its worst form. International law and norms of interstate relations were viciously trampled upon. In 1991, Germany and then the European Union as a whole recognized the independence of Croatia and Slovenia which had broken away from Yugoslavia. Such unilateral recognition was completely against international law and became one of the factors that triggered a civil war in Yugoslavia. In 1999, NATO bombed defenseless remains of the country for 78 days. The West then recognized the independence of Kosovo, which had been torn away from the country and where no one bothered even to hold a referendum on separation. In 2003, most NATO countries invaded Iraq under false pretext, killing hundreds of thousands of people and ultimately destabilizing the entire region for decades. In 2009, the aggression against Libya plunged it into chaos which it has been unsuccessfully trying to overcome ever since.
All this was accompanied and followed by numerous escapades to support and provoke color revolutions, most of which caused turmoil and suffering among people. Ukraine is the latest example. Europe tried to cement the “liberal order” through constant enlargement of Western alliances, especially NATO, which would inevitably have led to a big war on the continent, as many had repeatedly warned, if it had continued a bit longer into the territories which Russia considered vitally important for its security and survival.
The most outrageous actions occurred when Russia’s weakness impaired the deterring role of its nuclear potential. Russia was no longer reckoned with. The situation has changed since then. Having provoked a crisis in Ukraine, the West did not dare go further, as it quickly realized that Russia was now able to “dominate in escalation” and it would inevitably lose if Russia started raising the stakes.
But the West’s attempts to establish its hegemony were doomed without any steps on the part of Russia which had stopped the expansion of Western alliances in Ukraine and a series of “color” regime changes in Syria. Its actions only highlighted (which made them especially frustrating) the loss of dominant positions in the world political and economic system the West had held for the last five hundred years.
There were many reasons for that. I will only name the most profound one, which, as far as I know, has almost never been mentioned before.
The dominance of Europe and the West in general was based mainly on its military superiority achieved around the sixteenth century. Using their supremacy, Europeans started a global colonial and neocolonial expansion, imposing Christianity, their political rules and free trade along the way. But it was they themselves who became the main beneficiaries of their free trade. The most vivid example of this policy was the “opening up” of China, at gunpoint, to opium trade from the British Raj. In exchange for the opium Europeans received silk, porcelain ware, and other goods. Millions of Chinese subsequently died from opium.
When England, which had commanded the seas for centuries, lost leadership to the United States, the latter led the way in advancing “free trade,” based on its own rules, using not only its economic power but also military supremacy in the non-socialist world. When the Soviet Union ceased to exist, it seemed that the liberal economic order would spread to the rest of the world, ushering in a splendid end of history for the West.
The main reason why this illusion collapsed is that the hitherto hidden tendency came to the surface the foundation upon which the global liberal economic order ― military supremacy ― began to crumble.
Mutual nuclear deterrence between Russia and the United States, and now with China, India, Pakistan, Israel, France, and Great Britain, coupled with other factors, makes big wars almost impossible as they threaten to obliterate mankind as such. It also precludes wars against the leaders of the new world ― former colonies or semi-colonies ― with not only their own nuclear arsenals but also a major nuclear and military power, Russia, standing invisibly behind them and quite palpably behind China.
With the foundation destroyed, countries have to compete at higher political and economic levels where the newcomers get more and more competitive advantages. Europe is obviously losing the race and so is America. This largely explains the Trump phenomenon. The forces behind him are seeking to get out of the system their own country created, because it is no longer as beneficial as it used to be. This leads to new protectionism, the politicization of economic relations and attempts to foil positive economic interdependence in Europe, based on Russian natural gas supplies in exchange for European goods. Sanctions become a new norm in Western politics.
The world is living through an exciting and frightening period when three world orders are tumbling down at the same time.
The system of two bloc confrontation is about to crumble despite attempts, unsuccessful so far, to revive it in Europe and build a new one along China’s eastern perimeter. The “liberal global order” of the 1990s and early 2000s is agonizing. The liberal global economic order, which no longer satisfies its creators, is in jeopardy, even though many other new leading players find it beneficial and do not want to give it up.
The future is unpredictable as it has always been. But let me try to fantasize about what it may look like in fifteen years from now, unless the current convulsions push the world into a global nuclear catastrophe, of course.
Many things will change, not only technologies as everyone guesses. Changes will also take place in the military-political foundation upon which a new world order will stand. North Korea is acquiring, quite predictably, a nuclear status in front of our very eyes. This had to be expected after Iraq and Libya had abandoned their nuclear programs and had been laid to waste. South Korea and Japan will also seek to obtain this status and will most likely get it in several years’ time not only because of the North Korean factor and an objective decline in the reliability of their main ally, the United States, but also in order to make up for the growing power of China. If the policy of constant threats and pressure against Iran persists, it, too, will obtain nuclear weapons sooner or later. In addition to nuclear weapons, some countries will also acquire, if they have not done it yet, cyber weapons that can cause damage comparable to that from nuclear weapons and ability to destroy entire societies.
One can wring his hands and stubbornly say that this should not happen. But the odds are it will happen for many reasons, including mistakes made when nuclear powers attacked countries that had abandoned nuclear weapons.
But we can also look at this reality from a different angle. The history of the last seventy years is, inter alia, the history of the proliferation of nuclear weapons: the United States was first, followed by the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and now North Korea. Mankind has survived mainly because mutual nuclear deterrence kept it from self-destructive wars which were so common in its history. Let me use a metaphor that is not related to geostrategic analysis. Apparently, appalled by the doings of His children who had started two world wars within the lifespan of one generation, God gave mankind the weapon of Armageddon in order to keep it from total self-destruction.
If cyber weapons are indeed as fatal as many suspect, they may strengthen mutual multilateral deterrence after a period of instability and fears. And then mankind will continue moving towards a new world order.
Most countries do not want to give up liberalism in trade. In fact now that the United States has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it initiated several years ago, other countries are trying to recreate it without America.
This world order will be much freer than the present one, which is already much freer than the previous ones. It becomes increasingly difficult to impose political systems or cultural and human values, and this deeply frustrates the West.
It will be a dangerous and long journey over the next fifteen years or so. It would be much better to start building a new world order model based on the Greater Eurasian Partnership, which also incorporates Europe, proposed by Russia and supported by China, and on China’s One Belt – One Road initiative supported by Russia. Nothing new is likely to be conceived in the old Atlantic community.
All nuclear (and probably other major and sovereign) powers should urgently start discussing in earnest how to maintain international strategic stability during the long transition to a new world order. New powers, primarily Eurasian ones, will have to lead the way in this dialogue. The old Russia has collapsed but a new one has emerged and should take its place among them, too.
However nothing can be achieved without the United States. We can only hope that it will break out of its collective madness sooner or later. Until then it will have to be contained most rigorously.
If consensus is reached on a new military-political foundation, the future world order may be much better than most of the previous ones. And it may also be beautiful just like my beloved Congress of Vienna of two hundred years ago.