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End of the Bipolar and Unipolar International Order


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International Society and World Orders

groet, Henk


Henry Kissinger argues that the vitality of an international order depends on the balance it strikes between legitimacy and power, with both subject to evolution and change, but ‘When that balance is destroyed, restraints disappear, and the field is open to the most expansive claims and most implacable actors; chaos follows until a new system of order is established’. [1] The Versailles settlement in his view placed excessive emphasis on the legitimacy component and appeals to shared principles, and by ignoring the element of power effectively provoked German revisionism.[2] The argument can be applied with equal force to the failure to establish an inclusive and an equitable peace after the end of the Cold War. Sergei Karaganov, Dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow and Honorary Chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy (SVOP), argues that a ‘Versailles peace’ was imposed on Russia, ‘albeit in velvet gloves, ... avoiding direct annexations and contributions but continuously limiting Russia’s freedom, spheres of influence and markets and at the same time expanding the area of its own political and military zone of control through NATO enlargement, and its political and economic zone of influence through EU expansion.[3] Karaganov calls this a ‘Weimar policy in velvet gloves’, which pushed ‘Russia off the political, security and economic stage’. Russia had at first been mainly concerned with NATO enlargement, but later it became clear that the European Union’s enlargement did not benefit Russia either as it was not accompanied, as had been promised and expected, by efforts to create a common and equal human and economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Western geopolitical expansion reduced possible gains for the Russian people from relations with Europe and weakened pro-European feelings in the political class. The logic that eventually prevailed was that the West used Russia’s weakness to take away its centuries-old gains and make it even weaker.[4]
This is going too far, since the ‘velvet gloves’ were real, and there was no intention to punish Russia after 1991. Instead, all sorts of measures were devised to bring Russia into the Atlantic and broader western community, although recognising the obstacles on the way to Russia’s full inclusion. The community was not opposed to Russia joining, but it wanted a different Russia to the one on offer; while Russia wanted to join the community, but on its own terms. The Soviet Union and Russia ended the Cold War in the belief that it would become part of a reconfigured Europe; instead, it was invited to join a Europe that remained embedded in an Atlantic security system that had largely been devised to keep the Soviet Union at bay. Equally, Russia wanted to join a historic West that by its membership would be transformed into a greater West, but the existing members understandably feared that Russian membership would provoke institutional incoherence and normative dilution. This only intensified Russia’s perception that it was trapped into a strategic impasse in which its only choices appeared to be to transform itself in a way that would undermine its historical specificity and geopolitical concerns, or to remain true to a certain vision of itself and hence remain an outsider to what it considered to be its natural home. The various shifts to the East were serious and in many ways long overdue, but ultimately Russia considered itself to be a European power and a core member of the western community. The failure to find a formula to achieve these aspirations provoked the present breakdown in the European security system.
What is the larger conceptual framework for this breakdown? Drawing on English School insights, in schematic terms I argue that world order today is effectively a binary system. There is a developing structure of international society, with the UN at its apex and accompanied by an increasingly ramified network of international law, normative expectations as well as the system of international financial governance, derived largely from the Bretton Woods system comprising the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. At the normative level, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) convention of 2005 marked an important step in establishing a framework for international normative governance. This and other developments erode classical principles of national sovereignty by establishing certain supra-national institutions and norms. This is the structure of universalism. However, for many non-western powers, international society remains deeply rooted in the structure of western hegemony, and hence for them the goal is to ‘universalize universalism’; in other words, to make international society work genuinely independently as the highest instance of the common aspiration of humanity and the nations of which it is comprised.
The second level is made up of nation states and their various regional combinations, creating a ‘multi-order world’.[5] This is rather different from Russia’s cherished ambition for multipolarity, which suggests simply different poles in the framework of international society, whereas in the two-level system the various world orders interact with international society and each of them is relativised. The pre-eminent and most coherent of these is the Atlantic community and its broader appellation of ‘the West’. This is the one that has made the most powerful contribution to shaping contemporary modernity and in many respects retains hegemonic ambitions, although its classical age of imperial dominance is over. Russia is certainly of this west, but is only ambivalently in it. The collapse of the alternative model of modernity represented by the Soviet system was not followed by Russia’s anticipated seamless return to what Gorbachev-era intellectuals called ‘the main highway of history’.[6] Instead, Russia’s ambivalent position intensified the never-ending domestic debate about Russia’s place in the world, accompanied by its drift towards becoming part of a non-western world order.
The leading power in this alternative constellation is of course China. Russia’s relations with China today are better than they have ever been, yet there are points of tension in the bilateral relationship and in the various institutions and networks in which it is embedded. Nevertheless, the common aspirations of this second world order is to ensure that its voice is heard with equal effect in the management of global affairs, and that the structures of international society become a genuinely independent framework to deal with global problems, and thus become less an instrument for western hegemony. Thus western-led multilateralism is only one form of interaction, although multilateralism at the level of international society in this model has the potential to be decoupled from the hegemonic system, allowing it to operate with greater autonomy as a system in its own right. More ‘multipolarity’ from this perspective does not mean less multilateralism but a multilateralism freed from hegemonic subordination.
This vertical multi-level spatial concept is complemented by the emergence of at least three horizontal temporal models at the end of the Cold War. The first can be called ‘hegemonic’, which in effect means the continuation of accustomed practices despite the end not only of the Cold War but also of the long-term emancipatory challenge to capitalist hegemony, a challenge that was already signalled at the time of the French Revolution and intensified in the guise of Marxist and various workers’ movement in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The hegemonic model combines not only the apparent triumph of capitalist democracy but also incorporates an undertow of traditional western imperial ambition. The negative transcendence of the Cold War was far more than ‘business as usual’ but represented the radicalisation of hegemonic practices and ideology (the ‘end of history’) and attempts to reinforce the primacy of the West, now couched in the language of freedom and democracy. In international politics terms, after 1989 this took the form of American ‘leadership’ in the ‘unipolar moment’, and then attempts to maintain American pre-eminence in the more complex conditions of the rise of challengers, notably in Asia. By the late 2000s the discourse shifted to that of ‘new world disorder’, reflecting in particular Russia’s partial disincorporation from the western system after the hesitant years of adaptation in the 1990s.[7] This was accompanied by debates about American relative decline, the multiple crises of the EU and European weakness, and the ability to maintain a rule-based international order in what some call the ‘age of terror’.[8] The rise of others is judged in terms of the self.[9]
The second model is represented by various subaltern challenges. Although Russian resistance to the historic West has unique characteristics, it is part of a broader category of attempts by marginal and peripheral actors to revise global power structures. In the Cold War the Soviet Union and, in a different way, China, led the struggle against western dominance, while the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) sought to find a middle way. In the 1970s the struggle to create a New International Economic Order (NIEO) challenged the balance of global economic power, while the various peace movements warned of the danger of nuclear catastrophe. After 1991 the anti- and alter-globalisation movements tried to find a new idiom and new agents of resistance, but like their predecessors these movements ran into the sand. Only now, with the rise of China and Russia’s alienation from the West are serious new players in a position to challenge western dominance. In his speech to the UN General Assembly on 23 September 2016 the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, neatly encapsulated Russian anti-hegemonic thinking when he condemned ‘mentorship, superiority and exceptionalism’:
Humankind, in transitioning from a bipolar and unipolar international order to an objectively evolving polycentric, democratic system of international relations, is faced with challenges and threats that are common to all and that can only be overcome by joint efforts. … There is a pressing need to change the philosophy governing relations between states and do away with attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of states and impose development models on countries and nations.[10]
He also stressed the need for ‘indivisible security’ in the Euro-Atlantic region, the dangers of ‘double standards’ in combating terrorism, and the need to strengthen the ‘unifying agenda’ of the institutions of international society. The discourse is less on freedom and democracy than on state sovereignty, distinctive paths to modernity and escape from western tutelage.
However, neither Russia nor China are classic Westphalian states (if such a category exists), since their commitment to international society (and its regional manifestations) means that they are profoundly engaged in its internationalising structures. Russia remains a member of the Council of Europe and other institutions of European international society.[11] China has become part of the US-led neo-liberal global division of labour, and its plans to revive the various Silk Roads and create the One Belt One Road (OBOR) can be interpreted as classic moves to overcome domestic over-accumulation. Its model of state capitalism, like Russia’s, deviates from classic Anglo-Saxon model to create a dual structure combining statist and market strategies. The Russian version is less developmental, and instead its state bureaucratic capitalism tends to reinforce Russia’s peripheral capitalist status. This undermines Putin’s drive to overcome the country’s political marginalisation. Neither Russia nor China are direct challengers to US hegemony, but both promote the development of parallel structures with the potential to complement and ultimately to supplant the dominant order. As Giovanni Arrighi argues, each cycle of accumulation is led by a hegemonic power accompanied by new ways to organise capital.[12] The Sino-American hegemonic competition could lead to capital transformation, and indeed, governance transformation.[13]
The contemporary subaltern challenge is therefore an ambivalent phenomenon. Russia, and probably China as well, are not revisionist powers but neo-revisionist: they challenge not the foundations of international society but seek to universalize its practices by limiting the predominance of the traditional hegemonic powers and strengthening its ability to resist the genuinely rejectionist challenge from the likes of Islamic State. Russian jargon calls this the ‘democratisation of international relations’, by which is meant the equalisation of power in the system. Neither Russia nor China are committed to the creation of an alternative normative world order, but contingently come together to defend their interests while cooperating at the level of international society to balance the power of the hegemonic order. The Russian strategy to achieve this is inconsistent, since the stress on strengthening the UN and the structures of international law is undermined by the particularistic interpretations that serve short-term Russian interests. Officials argue that Russia has been forced to breach the agreed norms of international behaviour (for example, during the Russo-Georgian war in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014) because of the dead-end into which it has been driven, leaving it with little choice but to fight back with the ‘weapons of the weak’, even if it means repudiating the normative stance which it proclaims in its various foreign, security and defence policy doctrines. From this perspective, one can argue that Russia sometimes adopts revisionist tactics, but does not pursue a revisionist strategy. This does little to imbue Russian foreign policy with consistency and predictability.
The subaltern proto-order is an intermediate category, and it is too early to talk of a multi-order world, although in time it may arise. Neither is it ‘no one’s world’, since the displacement of hegemonic domination of international society is precisely intended to make it ‘everyone’s world’. This a more pluralistic vision of world order where no single constellation predominates, representing not a power shift of the type described in realist theory but a transformation of the sort that was anticipated by Russia at the end of the Cold War.[14] Russia’s goal is to return to a transformed western and European fold, while China’s enormous imbrication in the western financial and economic system means that its potential defection from an anti-hegemonic bloc is unlikely in the near future, and not only because such a bloc has not yet formed. Conservatives and even non-radical liberals in Russia and China argue that partnership does not mean assimilation, and assert their independent political subjectivity.[15] Lanxin Xiang, the head of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation think tank, argues that even couching the issue in terms of ‘the rise of China’ is misleading because it focuses on how far China would be willing to ‘accommodate’ to the existing international order by undergoing an internal transformation of its regime, or whether (the theory advanced by neoconservatives) that China could be a destructive force by ‘attempting a global power grab by altering the rules of the game of existing political order to enhance its political legitimacy’. Instead, like Russia, there is no reason for China to destroy the current international order, ‘but would be certainly prepared to alter some rules of the game according to Chinese tradition, culture, and national interest’. The struggle for transformation would be based on China’s civilisational rather than nation-state identity. In words that are deeply resonant with the Russian conservative critique of the hegemonic system, Lanxin warned that ‘China is prepared for an ideological battle with the West, but unlike a Cold War, it will not be launched as a battle of good versus evil, but as a serious cultural debate’.[16]
There is a nascent non-western power constellation, but it is far from consistently anti-western. There are also divergences in Russian and Chinese views (and the two at the same time are far from monolithic). The official Chinese line has been supportive of Russia in its confrontation with the historical West, but many Chinese scholars are critical of Russia’s failure to adopt a sustained developmental strategy and to have allowed itself to become trapped in the strategic impasse imposed by the West. China was able to maintain sustained growth and smooth leadership succession, and had a strategic vision to reform the multilateral trade system while advancing the OBOR project in partnership with the Eurasian Economic Union.[17] The Chinese found themselves in a similar strategic position, but by modernising the economy and transforming the society, the strategic question – although far from resolved – has been transformed by China’s global rise and what is argued to be its flexible win-win strategy in diplomacy.[18] Equally, Russia’s status as a subaltern is tempered by its great power ambitions, rendering it both subaltern and imperial.[19] This complex ‘postcolonial’ identity reprises the broader problem of Russia being both victim and perpetrator in the Soviet period. Multiple and conflicting identities necessarily imbue Russian foreign policy with profound contradictions. In particular, Russia has long had an ambivalent relationship with Europe, and this has intensified in recent years. In strategic and institutional terms Russia is an outsider, but in cultural orientations and social aspirations, Russia is very much an insider.
The third temporal model of world order is profoundly anti-western, as well as being highly critical of the subaltern challengers – namely, various forms of militant Islam. The armed wing of the jihadist challenge took shape, with western support, in the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s, and then morphed into Al-Qaeda internationally. The Al-Qaeda bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 was followed by the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 9/11. The Taliban consolidated its power in Afghanistan after 1996, before it was overthrown by the West after 9/11, followed by a fifteen-year NATO war which ended in stalemate. The Taliban controls large parts of the country while the elected government in Kabul hangs on precariously with western support. The western ‘war of aggression’ against Iraq in 2003 fostered a whole slew of jihadi and fundamentalist movements, while strengthening the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the end this resistance became the Sunni insurgency of ISIL (Islamic State), which conquered swathes of northern Iraq and Syria in 2014, repudiating the Sykes-Picot borders outlined in 1916, and declared the restoration of the caliphate.[20] Russia perceived ISIL as a mortal threat to its security, with thousands of its citizens joining the insurgency and threatening to return to unleash terror across the North Caucasus and the Moslem Volga republics. The Caucasian Emirate in the North Caucasus became an affiliate of Islamic State. The inability of the western powers and Russia to work together prolonged the agony of the Syrian civil war. In Xinjiang and in Central Asia various Islamic insurgency movements threaten to destabilise the whole region.
NATO expansion and the EU’s enlargement in the event did not confirm the liberal belief that international institutions and organisations foster greater interdependence and ultimately generate self-sustaining structures of international society. Instead, international society is generated by a complex mix of state concerns tempered by international norms and law. International politics today is characterised by the struggle to ‘democratise’ international society; in other words, to render it more independent of the hegemonic system while avoiding capture by the subaltern powers. Equally, mainstream realist accounts are well aware that non-state actors are also an important part of the story. For example, after leaving the Soviet presidency Gorbachev remained committed to finding a path towards the positive transcendence of the end of the Cold War, and devoted his years to fostering social movements for peace and dialogue.[21] This was an attempt to shift the terms of the debate, and thus to change identities. The constructivist argument whereby identity is forged though engagement with others is self-evidently true, but the framework for substantive interaction remains mediated by the state. Despite the diversity of forms of government and differences in ideology, states tend to behave in similar ways. The system structure is determined by anarchy, the absence of a central authority in international politics. Insecurity, the unequal distribution of power and uncertainty about the intentions of others limit cooperation in the international system, but at the same time these factors generate alignments and alliances. It is these interactions, in Waltzian terms Russia’s struggle for survival, which shape its future today.
This paper is a draft extract from the forthcoming book, Richard Sakwa, Russia against the Rest: Pluralism and Post-Cold War Order (Cambridge University Press, 2017). 


[1] Henry Kissinger, World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History (London, Allen Lane, 2014), p. 66.
[2] Kissinger, World Order, p. 83. 
[3] Sergei Karaganov, ‘2014: Predvaritel’nye itogi’, Rossiiskaya gazeta, 28 November 2014, p. 11.
[4] Sergei Karaganov, ‘Novaya ideologicheskaya bor’ba’, Izvestiya, 21 April 2016, p. 6. 
[5] Trine Flockhart, ‘The Coming Multi-Order World’, Contemporary Security Policy, Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 3-30. This is a sophisticated analysis applying a similar two-level model, and although I draw on Flockhart’s insights, I operationalise the model rather differently.
[6] For a classic discussion, see Yurii N. Afanas’ev (ed.), Inogo ne dano (Moscow, Progress, 1988). 
[7] Bobo Lo, Russia and the New World Disorder (Washington, DC, Brookings, 2015).
[8] For a critique, see Martin Kramer, The War on Error: Israel, Islam and the Middle East (London, Transaction, 2016). 
[9] John Heathershaw and Catherine Owen, ‘Some Postcolonial Aspects of Post-Western IR: Mimicry and Mētis in Central Asia’, paper presented to the 7th East Asian Conference on Slavic-Eurasian Studies, Shanghai, 24 September 2016.
[10] ‘Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s Remarks at the 71st Session of the UN General Assembly’, New York, 23 September 2016,
[11] Richard Sakwa, ‘Russia and Europe: Whose Society?’, special issue, Ioannis Stivachtis and Mark Webber (eds), ‘Europe After Enlargement’, The Journal of European Integration, Vol. 33, No. 2, March 2011, pp. 197-214.
[12] Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of our Time (London, Verso, 2009). 
[13] This is explored by Zhang Xin, ‘Cyclical Changes in the Capitalist World System and China-Russia-EU Competition’, Fourteenth Annual Conference (Youth Forum) of the Shanghai Federation of Social Science Associations, 22 September 2016, from which this paragraph draws.
[14] Charles A. Kupchan, No One’s World: The West, The Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn (New York, Oxford University Press, 2012). 
[15] For Russia, see Elena Chebankova, ‘Contemporary Russian Conservatism’, Post-Soviet Affairs, Vol. 32, No. 1, 2016, pp. 28-54.
[16] Lanxin Xiang, ‘China and the International “Liberal” (Western) Order’, in Liberal Order in a Post-Western World (Washington, DC, Transatlantic Academy, May 2014), p. 109. 
[17] Feng Shaolei, ‘The Background and Prospects of the Evolution of China’s Foreign Strategies in the New Century, Russia in Global Affairs, 15 December 2015,
[18] This is broadly the view of Yang Cheng, Professor of Russian Studies at East China Normal University, outlined in discussions with the author. 
[19] Viatcheslav Morozov, Russia’s Postcolonial Identity: a Subaltern Empire in a Eurocentric World (London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
[20] Mohammed Nuruzzaman, ‘The Challenge of the Islamic State’, Global Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 3, 2015, pp. 297-304; James Fromson and Steven Simon, ‘ISIS: The Dubious Paradise of Apocalypse Now’, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, Vol. 57, No. 3, June-July 2017, pp. 7-56. 
[21] For the philosophy underlying his thinking, see Mikhail Gorbachev and Daisaku Ikeda, Moral Lessons of the Twentieth Century: Gorbachev and Ikeda on Buddhism and Communism (London, I. B. Tauris, 2005). For his political activities, see Mikhail Gorbachev, Posle Kremlya (Moscow, Ves’ Mir, 2014), translated with a new afterword as The New Russia (Cambridge, Polity, 2016).


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