Towards a New World Order

September 9, 2015
Towards a New World Order
Richard Sakwa
Richard Sakwa Non-Resident Fellow Russian Politics and International Relations

Soon after the breaching of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, President H. W. Bush declared the onset of a ‘new world order’. The term has a long provenance, being first used in the contemporary era by President Woodrow Wilson in his Fourteen Points, when he called for the creation of a League of Nations. The term is thus associated with the idea of multilateral global governance to deal with problems that are beyond the capacity of a single nation state. It was in this spirit that H. G. Wells in 1940 published his book New World Order, at a time, like ours, which would hardly be thought propitious for the implementation of ideas for global governance. In practice, the meeting between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill that resulted in the Atlantic Charter of 14 August 1941 established the framework for the creation of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods system at the end of the Second World, complemented in 1949 by the creation of NATO.

These institutions remain the foundation of the Atlantic world order to this day. Not surprisingly, the term was revived in the waning days of the Cold War. In his speech to the UN on 7 December 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev effectively announced the end of superpower confrontation and appealed for an enhanced role of the UN to manage global affairs. The Malta summit between Bush and Gorbachev in December 1989 signalled the shape that this new world would take, with Germany to be united and the initiative for managing global affairs passing to the United States. This has become the standard formulation, confirmed at the time of the first Gulf War in the form of great power cooperation against Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait. Bush’s speech to a joint session of Congress on 11 September 1990 provided the fullest expression of his idea of the ‘new world order’, and tied his name to the concept. His interpretation turned out to be very different from Wilson’s and Gorbachev’s earlier formulations. Now American leadership was defined as the fulcrum of the system of global governance, in partnership with the UN and other powers, but indisputably the keystone in the arch of the post-Cold War system.

A signal feature of the speech was the view that with the end of the Cold War, a united Europe would be able to take control of its own destiny. The long period of superpower overlay had come to an end, the European Community was strengthening, Germany was uniting, and the occupying forces could finally go home. It was at this time that Gorbachev proposed the establishment of an all-European security council to supersede the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and what he anticipated would soon be a redundant NATO.

How different the world looks today. Instead of the multilateral end to the Cold War, we ended up with the asymmetries of the cold peace in which none of the fundamental problems of European security were resolved. Instead, after 1989 we endured a 25 years’ crisis, which finally exploded into conflict over Ukraine in 2014. NATO enlarged to Russia’s borders, what has since become the European Union remained embedded in the Atlantic security system and there was no ‘Europeanisation’ of the European security order, and a type of ‘Versailles’ peace was imposed on Russia, which found itself either excluded or marginalised from the great processes of European order formation.

This new European order is undoubtedly benign in intention and based on the rule of law and international conventions. Yet the ‘Russian problem’ was not resolved, provoking severe distortions in the domestic development of democracy and institutionalised political pluralism. Both the EU and NATO genuinely tried to find ways to engage Russia as they enlarged and, in the case of the former, deepened. However, this only accentuated Russia’s status as the ‘other’ to the European core, with the country once again becoming a semi-periphery to the metropolitan centre.

For this reason Russia has once again returned to Gorbachevian interpretations of the new world order. Pride of place in this is the idea of a common European home, outlined in Gorbachev’s speech to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg on 6 July 1989, which called for the unification of the continent on the basis of a shared commitment to peace and development. In his view, there would be room in this new Europe for normative and geopolitical pluralism. In the 1990s and into the mid-2000s the focus of Kremlin politics was on integrating into or accommodating one way or another to the world order based on American leadership. There had been sins of resistance, notably when Yevgeny Primakov in the second half of the 1990s challenged Russia’s Atlantic integration strategy by calling for a multipolar world order and a counter-balance in the form of the Russia-India-China strategic triangle.

By the mid-2000s Vladimir Putin was thoroughly disillusioned with the Bush version of the new world order, especially when it was implemented with such violence by his son, George W. Bush, after the 9/11 events. Instead, Russia pursued two core strategies from the alternative vision of world order. The first was the strengthening of ‘non-West’ alliances and groupings, through BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and other bodies. The aim was not to overthrow the existing system of global governance but to create a force that could help reshape its institution, including re-assigned voting weights in the IMF to reflect the changed global balance of power. If this looked like a challenge to American ‘leadership’, as defined by Bush senior and endlessly proclaimed thereafter, then so be it was the rather dismissive Russian view.

The second was a rediscovered enthusiasm for pan-European aspirations, notably the Gaullist and Gorbachevian vision of a Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok. This is now formulated as the programme for a Greater Europe, by contrast with the Brussels-centred model of a Wider Europe. This is accompanied by an emphasis on Eurasian integration, which on 1 January 2015 gave birth to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), now consisting of five countries: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia. This was not intended to act as a rival to the EU but as its complement. The overall strategic concept was that the development of the EEU would be a way of creating a pillar on which pan-European integration could take place. Equally, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) would be the counterpart of NATO, allowing in due course the creation of a mutually satisfactory security regime in which Russia would no longer be the guest but the co-host.

Russia’s revived ambitions ran into the brick wall of the Atlantic system, triggering the present crisis. This is the subject of an important new book by Bobo Lo, called Russia and the New World Disorder (Washington, DC, Brookings, 2015). The title refers not to the long tradition of ‘new world order’ thinking outlined above, but takes its cue from Ken Jowitt’s book New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction, published as early as 1992 by University of California Press. This is basically a collection of essays written between 1974 and 1990, but the last three chapters took issue with the triumphalism of the ‘end of history’ school of historiosophy. Jowitt took a pessimistic view of the ability of the post-communist states to reconstitute themselves on the basis of market democracy and peace with their neighbours. However, in a later article he tempered some of his pessimism in recognising the way that the EU helped integrate the Central and East European states into European international society. This still left Russia out, an issue that he did not address. In later years Jowitt adopted a staunchly anti-Wilsonian realist view of international affairs, and thus came to oppose the endless ‘war on terror’ and its presumption of American leadership.

Very little of this is reflected in Lo’s book. For him, the disorder is characterised, inter alia, by ‘the changing nature of power, the demise of international leadership, the diminishing relevance of collusive great power arrangements, and the growing inclusiveness, but also fragmentation, of international politics’ (p. 53). He is right to stress that international politics is becoming messier, with no over-arching structural order of the Concert of Europe sort, or the relative stability of the bipolarity of the Cold War years, and thus ‘established hierarchies and “truths” are breaking down’ (p. 55).

This is not placed into any sustained theoretical or conceptual framework, and instead the breakdown is minutely examined with the experienced eye of one of the acute observers of Russian foreign policy. He examines with forensic precision the institutions, processes and dynamics of Russian international strategy and policy of the Putin years, with only a cursory examination of what had come before. There is some historical context, notably in a perceptive analysis of political culture and some of the psychological drivers of Russian policy, but the book is overwhelmingly ‘presentist’. In his concern to avoid exculpation, Lo studiously avoids contextualisation. His aim is to be impartial, and to a great extent he succeeds in providing a notably balanced and fair assessment of what has driven Russian international behaviour over the last few years, including its behaviour in Ukraine. Given the hysterical atmosphere of the present time, Lo’s achievement in this respect is greatly to be lauded.

The sheer mass of empirical detail makes this a useful read for anyone interested in the nitty-gritty of Russian policy. Lo covers Russia and global governance, the idea that it is some sort of ‘postmodern empire’, relations with its post-Soviet Eurasian neighbours, the so-called ‘turn’ to the East (where his long-standing pessimism about the viability of an effective alliance between Russia and China is once again in evidence), and relations with the West. Lo does not stop there, and in a brave third section he explores the possibilities of escaping the present impasse. Here the emphasis is on what Russia must do, reflected in the chapter title ‘a new foreign policy for a new Russia’.

There is nothing here, unfortunately, about what a ‘new world order’ could look like. And this brings us to the fundamental lacunae of the book. Lo provides a brilliant analysis of Russian foreign policy, but the effect is that of one hand clapping. There is no real sense of the dynamic interaction of Russian concerns and the actions of others, notably the western powers. The present structure of international politics, stabilised by American leadership (or as others would put it, hegemony) is taken to be the normal, and it is the slow dissolution of that system that is assumed to create the present disorder. But what if the structure of the Atlantic and global order that took shape in the post-Cold War years is itself the cause of disorder and conflict? In other words, instead of the Gorbachevian model of an open, equal, plural and inclusive world order, we instead saw the consolidation of an Atlantic system accompanied by global American leadership. Even Bush senior’s envisaged Europeanisation of Europe failed to take place, exacerbated by growing polarisation of the continent, forcing the countries in between to choose.

Thus the long-standing debate over NATO enlargement is summarily dismissed, the problem of ballistic missile defence, which so exercises Moscow, is barely mentioned, and in general there is little sense of conflict and contradiction. Attention is relentlessly focused on Russian policy, and there are fewer better guides, yet there is no analysis of the fundamental dynamics of the broader situation. What is lacking is ‘critique’, in the broadest sense of the term, accompanied by structural analysis. The work is a curious mix of a realist analysis of Russian policy and the assumptions of the liberal internationalist international order. The weakening the latter in Lo’s views open the door to disorder, but the very structures of that order have worked to alienate Russia and increasingly China. Neither wishes to overthrow the structures of global governance and the liberal institutionalism on which they are based, and from which China has so substantively benefitted, hence neither is fully revisionist. But problems of structural imbalance remain, exacerbated by the logic of partial exclusion that is an essential component of the world order based on structures of hegemonic leadership.

The fundamental challenge that faces the world today is to devise a new world order that does not repudiate the achievements of the last seventy years, including the responsibility assumed by the United States in the post-Cold War years to act as the stabiliser in a period of what some still call the era of globalisation, but which can build on what has been achieved to overcome the undoubted dysfunctional elements in that system. In the European context, the continent could do worse than return to the agenda outlined by Gorbachev not only for a common European home but for a global order based on a new concert of powers, the reform of the Bretton Woods institutions, an Atlanticism that moves towards unification with Eurasian institutions and processes, and a strengthening of the autonomy of the institutions of global governance.

Tension between Westphalian sovereignty aspirations and the cosmopolitanism of the institutions of global governance and processes of civil society will not disappear, but an acceptance of normative and geopolitical pluralism will allow the restoration of traditional patterns of diplomacy and respect for the political subjectivity of others. Dialogue and engagement have become dirty words and the starkest expression of the new world disorder. At the heart of a new world order would be the rehabilitation of these terms and an acceptance that the full expression of self can only be achieved in dialogue with others.