The degradation of governance within the international system is a hot topic nowadays – and for good reason. The underpinnings of the rules-based world order are crumbling, and basic norms of international behavior and decency are in decay. By almost any definition, we seem to be living in a dangerous – even prewar – type of world.
Relations between Russia and the European Union, and with the EU’s close ally the United States, are increasingly fragile. There has been an effort to cope with shifting power dynamics in Europe by restoring the military-political divide between NATO and Russia – this time, some 600 miles (965 kilometers) east of where it was during the Cold War. But that approach has created new dangers, particularly given the EU’s own fragility, and is unlikely to succeed.
More broadly, the unipolar world order, with the US as hegemon, is withering away. Of course, that order was far from perfect. On the contrary, it was a source of large-scale disorder, not least through American support of regime change in countries near and far. Mounting chaos in the Middle East exemplifies the flaws in this approach.
Nonetheless, there are concerns about what will replace that US-led order, not to mention how the transition will be managed. These concerns are intensified by the political tumult facing many developed countries, including the US itself. The failure of moderate establishment forces to grasp and respond to the forces now moving the world, from digitization to globalization, led to a governance vacuum, which has now given way to a moral and intellectual vacuum.
But there is reason to believe that a new global order may be on the horizon – one with the potential to be more stable and orderly than Pax Americana ever was. One key pillar of that order will be Russia.
Having lost whatever hope it may have held that it could build amicably a fair and stable world order, Russia has lately restored its hard power. It has used that power, first, to stop NATO’s expansion into territories that Russia considers vital to its own security, thereby averting the large-scale war that expansion would inevitably have brought; and, second, to forestall yet another illegitimate Western effort to bring about regime change, this time in Syria (where Russia has demonstrated both military might and diplomatic prowess).
With these actions, Russia has diminished the sense of invincibility that, since the end of the Cold War, has driven the West to pursue policies that provoked international conflict and undermined its own moral authority and soft power. In this sense, Russia has reestablished itself as a balancing influence within the global order. (Whether true or not, the allegation that Russia may have managed, using cyber tactics and propaganda, to undermine Western institutions, and even American democracy, merely reinforces this interpretation.)
Of course, the West’s sense of invincibility was already under siege at home, exemplified in the proliferating political challenges to the establishment elites who have advanced the post-Cold War strategic agenda. The ideological victory that they achieved with the Soviet Union’s demise was not permanent.
This should serve as a warning to Russia today. While the country may seem to be on the “right side of history” – something that the Soviet Union could never claim – triumphalism is a mistake. There is no “end of history.” And not even the most resolute actor can build a stable, peaceful, and sustainable global order alone.
That is why it is good news that Russia and China have been working lately to build an increasingly robust partnership. And it is also why the deep distrust between Russia and the US – which, despite its lost hegemony, remains an essential geopolitical actor – will have to be addressed.
The world’s three largest powers – the “big troika” – must come together to create the conditions for a peaceful transition to a new, more stable world order. The idea is not new; in one way or another, a big troika has been proposed by the likes of Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. For one thing, a trilateral arrangement can help to defuse the tensions of bilateral relationships.
The key to success today will be to drop the obsession with arms-control agreements, which have proved impotent time and again, and instead initiate a difficult but crucial three-way dialogue on how to enhance international strategic stability. All of the elements of security – from nuclear weapons to cyber-security to politics – must be considered, in the service of the overarching goal of strengthening mutual multilateral deterrence.
Eventually, the troika could be expanded to include other real and sovereign actors in a new “concert of nations.” Despite its eventual failure, the last such concert, created in the nineteenth century, ensured relative peace and supported impressive progress for almost a century. A twenty-first-century concert of nations could have a similar impact, though it would need to be underpinned by multilateral mutual nuclear deterrence.
A new world order is beginning to evolve. But the process has so far proved slow, chaotic, and laden with risk. During this dangerous time, we should remember how we survived another dangerous time. Today, as during the Cold War, mutual deterrence can save the world.