In this week’s A View From Afar podcast Selwyn Maninng and I explore the longer transitional moment that has brought the international system to where it is today, and where it might be headed in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Early this year I was asked by a media outlet to appear and offer predictions on what will happen in world affairs in 2022. That was a nice gesture but I wound up not doing the show. However, as readers may remember from previous commentary about the time and effort put into (most often unpaid) media preparation, I engaged in some focused reading on international relations and comparative foreign policy before I decided to pull the plug on the interview. Rather than let that research go to waste I figured that I would briefly outline my thoughts about that may happen this year. They are not so much predictions as they are informal futures forecasting over the near term horizon.
The year is going to see an intensification of the competition over the nature of the framework governing International relations. If not dead, the liberal institutional order that dominated global affairs for the better part of the post-Cold War period is under severe stress. New and resurgent great powers like the PRC and Russia are asserting their anti-liberal preferences and authoritarian middle powers such as Turkey, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran are defying long-held conventions and norms in order to assert their interests on the regional and world stages. The liberal democratic world, in whose image the liberal international order was ostensibly made, is in decline and disarray. In this the US leads by example, polarized and fractured at home and a weakened, retreating, shrinking presence on the world stage. It is not alone, as European democracies all have versions of this malaise, but it is a shining example of what happens when a superpower over-extends itself abroad while treating domestic politics as a centrifugal zero sum game.
While democracies have weakened from within, modern authoritarians have adapted to the advanced telecommunications and social media age and modified their style of rule (such as holding legitimating elections that are neither fair or free and re-writing constitutions that perpetuate their political control) while keeping the repressive essence of it. They challenge or manipulate the rule of law and muscle their way into consolidating power and influence at home and abroad. In a number of countries democratically elected leaders have turned increasingly authoritarian. Viktor Orban In Hungary, Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Narendra Modi in India (whose Hindutva vision of India as an ethno-State poses serious risks for ethnic and religious minorities), all evidence the pathology of authoritarianism “from within.”
Abroad, authoritarians are on the move. China continues its aggressive maritime expansion in the East and South China Seas and into the Pacific while pushing its land borders outwards, including annexing territory in the Kingdom of Bhutan and clashing with Indian troops for territorial control on the Indian side of their Himalayan border. Along with military interventions in Syria, Libya and recently Kazakstan, Russia has annexed parts of Georgia and the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, taken control of Crimea, and is now massing troops on the Ukrainian border while it demands concessions from NATO with regard to what the Russians consider to be unacceptable military activity in the post-Soviet buffer zone on its Western flank. The short term objective of the latest move is to promote fractures within NATO over its collective response, including the separation of US security interests from those of its continental partners. The long term intention is to “Findlandize” countries like Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania so that they remain neutral, or at least neutralized, in the event of major conflict between Russia and Western Europe. As Churchill is quoted as saying, but now applied to Vladimir Putin, “he may not want war. He just wants the fruits of war.”
>>Aside about Russia’s threat to the Ukraine: The Russians are now in full threat mode but not in immediate invasion mode. To do that they need to position water and fuel tankers up front among the armoured columns that will be needed to overcome Ukrainian defences, and the 150,000 Russian troops massed on the eastern Ukrainian border are not sufficient to occupy the entire country for any length of time given Ukrainian resistance capabilities, including fighting a protracted guerrilla war on home soil (at least outside Russian ethnic dominant areas in eastern Ukraine). The Russians know that they are being watched, and satellite imagery shows no forward positioning of the logistical assets needs to seize and hold Ukrainian territory for any length of time. Paratroops and light infantry cannot do that, and while the Russians can rapidly deploy support for the heavier forces that can seize and hold hostile territory, this Russian threat appears to be directed, at best, at a limited incursion into Russian-friendly (read ethnic) parts of eastern Ukraine. That gives the Ukrainians and their international supporters room for negotiation and military response, both of which may be essential to deter Russian ambitions vis a vis the fundamental structure and logic of European security.<<
Rather than detail all the ways in which authoritarians are ascendent and democrats descendent in world affairs, let us look at the systemic dynamics at play. What is occurring is a shift in the global balance of power. That balance is more than the rise and decline of great powers and the constellations aggregated around them. It is more than about uni-, bi-, and multipolarity. It refers to the institutional frameworks, norms, practices and laws that govern the contest of States and other international actors. That arrangement—the liberal international order–is what is now under siege. The redrawing of lines now underway is not one of maps but of mores.
The liberal international order was essentially a post-colonial creation made by and for Western imperialist states after the war- and Depression-marked interregnum of the early 20th century. It did not take full hold until the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Cold War logics led to a tight bipolar international system in which the supposed advantages of free trade and liberal democracy were subordinated to the military deterrence imperatives of the times. This led to misadventures and aberrations like the domino theory and support for rightwing dictators on the part of Western Powers and the crushing of domestic political uprisings by the Soviets in Eastern Europe, none of which were remotely “liberal” in origin or intent.
After the Cold War liberal internationalists rose to positions of prominence in many national capitals and international organizations. Bound together by elite schooling and shared perspectives gained thereof, these foreign policy-makers saw in the combination of democracy and markets the best possible political-economic combine. They consequently framed much of their decision-making around promoting the twin pillars of liberal internationalism in the form of political democratization at the national level and trade opening on a global scale via the erection of a latticework of bi- and multilateral “free” trade agreements (complete with reductions in tariffs and taxes on goods and services but mostly focused on investor guarantee clauses) around the world.
The belief in liberal internationalism was such that it was widely assumed that inviting the PRC, Russia and other authoritarian regimes into the community of nations via trade linkages would lead to their eventual democratization once domestic polities began to experience the material advantages of free market capitalism on their soil. This was the same erroneous assumption made by Western modernization theorists in the 1950s, who saw the rising middle classes as “carriers” of democratic values even in countries with no historical or cultural experience with that political regime type or the egalitarian principles underbidding it. Apparently unwilling to read the literature on why modernization theory did not work in practice, in the 1990s neo-modernization theorists re-invented the wheel under the guise of the Washington Consensus and other such pro-market institutional arrangements regulating international commerce.
Like the military-bureaucratic authoritarians of the 1960s and 1970s who embraced and benefited from the application of modernization theory to their local circumstances (including sub-sets such as the Chicago School of macroeconomics that posited that finance capital should be the leader of national investment decisions in an economic environment being restructured via the privatization of public assets), in the 1990s the PRC and Russia welcomed Western investment and expansion of trade without engaging in the parallel path of liberalizing, then democratizing their internal politics. In fact, the opposite has occurred: as both countries became more capitalistic they became increasingly authoritarian even if they differ in their specifics (Russia is a oligopolistic kleptocracy whereas the PRC is a one party authoritarian, state capitalist system). Similarly, Turkey has enjoyed the fruits of capitalism while dismantling the post-Kemalist legacy of democratic secularism, and the Sunni Arab petroleum oligarchies have modernized out of pre-capitalist fossil fuel extraction enclaves into diversified service hubs without significantly liberalizing their forms of rule. A number of countries such as Brazil, South Africa and the Philippines have backslid at a political level when compared to the 1990s while deepening their ties to international capital. Likewise, after a period of optimism bracketed by events like the the move to majority rule in South Africa and the “Arab Spring,” both Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa have in large measure reverted to the rule of strongmen and despots.
As it turns out, as the critics of modernisation theory noted long ago, capitalism has no elective affinity for democracy as a political form (based on historical experience one might argue to the contrary) and democracy is no guarantee that capitalism will moderate its profit orientation in the interest of the common good.
Countries like the PRC, Russia, Turkey and the Arab oligarchies engage in the suppression and even murder of dissidents at home and abroad, flouting international conventions when doing so. But that is a consequence, not a cause of the erosion of the liberal international order. The problem lies in that whatever the lip service paid to it, from a post-colonial perspective liberal internationalism was an elite concept with little trickle down practical effect. With global income inequalities increasing within and between States and the many flaws of the contemporary international trade regime exposed by the structural dislocations caused by Covid, the (neo-)Ricardian notions of comparative and competitive advantage have declined in popularity, replaced by more protectionist or self-sufficient economic doctrines.
Couple this with disenchantment with democracy as an equitable deliverer of social opportunity, justice and freedom in both advanced and newer democratic states, and what has emerged throughout the liberal democratic world is variants of national-populism that stress economic nationalism, ethnocentric homogeneity and traditional cultural values as the main organizing principles of society. The Trumpian slogan “America First” encapsulates the perspective well, but support for Brexit in the UK and the rising popularity of rightwing nationalist parties throughout Europe, some parts of Latin America and even Japan and South Korea indicates that all is not well in the liberal world (Australia and New Zealand remain as exceptions to the general rule).
That is where the redrawing comes in. Led by Russia and the PRC, an authoritarian coalition is slowly coalescing around the belief that the liberal international order is a post-colonial relic that was never intended to benefit the developing world but instead to lock in place an international institutional edifice that benefitted the former colonial/imperialist powers at the expense of the people that they directly subjugated up until 30-40 years ago. What the PRC and Russia propose is a redrawing of the framework in which international relations and foreign affairs is conducted, leading to one that is more bound by realist principles rooted in power and interest rather than hypocritically idealist notions about the perfectibility of humankind. It is the raw understanding of the anarchic nature of the international system that gives the alternative perspective credence in the eyes of the global South.
Phrased differently, there is truth to the claims that the liberal international order was a post-colonial invention that disproportionally benefitted Western powers. Because the PRC and USSR were major supporters of national liberation and revolutionary movements throughout the so-called “Third World” ranging from the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Central and SE Asia to Central and South America, they have the anti-Western credentials to promote a plausible alternative cloaked not in the mantle of purported multilateral ideals but grounded in self-interested transactions mediated by power relationships. China’s Belt and Road initiative is one example in the economic sphere, and Russian military support for authoritarians in Syria, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela shows that even in times of change it remains steadfast in its pragmatic commitment to its international partners.
With this in mind I believe that 2022 will be a year where the transition from the liberal international order to something else will begin to pick up speed and as a result lead to various types of conflict between the old and new guards. What with hybrid or grey area conflict, disinformation campaigns, electoral meddling and cyberwarfare all now part of the psychological operations mix along with conventional air, land, sea and space-based kinetic military operations involving multi-domain command, control, communications, computing, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and robotics (C4ISR2) systems, the ways in which conflict can be engaged covertly or overtly have multiplied. That technological fact means that it is easier for international actors, or at least some of them, to act as disruptors of the global status quo by using conflict as a systemic re-alignment vehicle.
Absent a hegemonic power or Leviathan, a power vacuum has opened in which the world is open to the machinations of (dare I say it?) “charismatic men of destiny.” Putin, Xi Jingpin and other authoritarians see themselves as such men. Conflict will be the tool with which they attempt to impose their will on international society.
For them, the time is now. With the US divided, weakened and isolated after the Trump presidency and unable to recover quickly because of Covid, supply chain blockages, partisan gridlock and military exhaustion, with Europe also rendered by unprecedented divisions and most of the rest of the world adopting“wait and see” or hedging strategies, the strategic moment is opportune for Russia, China and lesser authoritarian powers to make decisive moves to alter the international status quo and present the liberal democratic world with a fait accompli that is more amenable to their geopolitical interests.
If what I propose is correct, the emerging world system dominated by authoritarian States led by the PRC and Russia will be less regulated (in the sense that power politics will replace norms, rules and laws as the basic framework governing inter-state relations), more fragmented (in that the thrust of foreign policies will be come more bilateral or unilateral rather than multilateral in nature), more coercive and dissuasive in its diplomatic exchanges and increasingly driven by basic calculations about power asymmetries (think “might makes right” and “possession is two thirds of the law”). International organisations and multilateral institutions will continue to exist as covers for State collusion on specific issues or as lip service purveyors of diplomatic platitudes, but in practice will be increasingly neutralised as deliberative, arbitrating-mediating and/or conflict-resolution bodies. Even if not a full descent into international anarchy, there will be a return to a Hobbesian state of nature.
2022 could well be the year that this begins to happen.
Update: For an audio short take on what 20022 may bring, please feel free to listen to the first episode of season three of “A View from Afar,” a podcast that offers a South Pacific perspective on geopolitical and strategic affairs co-hosted by Selwyn Manning and me.