Without Hegemon’s Support the Values-Based International Order Will Collapse.
“Winter is coming” is a catchphrase from the TV series Game of Thrones. It means “Good times will soon be over; it’s time to prepare for a long winter”.
One of the most thought-provoking books from last year was The Jungle Grows Back by Robert Kagan. Its core idea is that there is nothing inevitable about the benign world order of the past seven decades. On the contrary, it resulted from the coincidence of propitious circumstances and has stood the test of time thanks only to the constant attention of the US and its readiness to use force if needed to uphold it. A gardener has to weed their garden regularly, or the jungle will grow back. In the book, the jungle stands as a metaphor for an unregulated, values-less world order based entirely on power relations. This short book (160 pages) mentions the Baltic states as being, in the author’s opinion, the first countries to lose their independence should the jungle grow back.
There is an alternative to the US-led world order: a system based on a mutual test of strength between the great powers, in which small countries have the prerogative to line up behind those great powers and lose their own ability to make decisions or be independent. In this alternative, wars would again become an inseparable part of life, and not only “somewhere far out there”. The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides contains a famous dialogue between the Athenians and the Melians. That war took place 2,450 years ago. Dialogues like this might not remain merely a part of history books if the world order favouring small countries falls apart and the “strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.1
For the past 70 years, the world order has relied on American political will and US readiness to use political, economic and military force if necessary, to defend it. The US has not had complete freedom in doing so—after all, its hegemony has never been absolute. Of these 70 good years, Eastern part of Europe has participated in only the most recent quarter-century, having previously been chained to the rack of the Evil Empire. Without the hegemon’s efforts, values-based and international law would not be worth the paper they are written on. Those who disagree have probably never seen Vladimir Putin or Sergey Lavrov speak in public. A sentence spoken by the Athenians to the Melians sums up current Russian foreign policy perfectly: “Your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power”.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Western world was drunk with success. The internet would deliver democracy. The market economy would deliver peace. Everything seemed possible. The high spot for the European Union was 2004. It had just completed a major enlargement involving ten countries, and the Constitutional Treaty was signed in October. The future was bright, not to say spectacular. Then, French and Dutch voters rejected the treaty in referendums. Having recovered from the shock, Europe was struck by a global economic crisis. Then came the eurozone debt crisis. Then the refugee crisis. And then Brexit. There seems to be no end. The US was at the peak of its self-confidence when it took Baghdad in April 2003. Since then, it has all gone downhill.
Although on the global scale, mankind has never lived so well and so securely for such a long period, these worldwide statistics are of no help to the people who are struggling in their day-to-day lives in the West. They fear that their standard of living is below that of their parents’ generation and that their situation has not improved in the last few decades. It’s this disappointment that fuels the success of populist political forces. It’s why the migration crisis, anti-EU sentiment and other issues burn fast and brightly.
Periods in history have names. What do we call the period we are living in now? I would say that we are still living in the Cold War period. The Cold War simply took a break for a quarter of a century, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the invasion of Crimea. Alternatively, we could call it the New Cold War, or Cold War 2.0. The important thing is that there is again a sharp confrontation between the great powers, which has not—at least up to now—turned into armed conflict against each other.
What is a cold war and how is it different from a “hot” war? The fact that the confrontation between the great powers and their camps can be kept under control prevents the confrontation from escalating into a war. In the background, there is the fact that there are no winners in a nuclear war and that the damage would outweigh the benefits many times over.
Many readers may find themselves having a negative normative reaction: “I don’t want a new cold war, it’s too harsh to be true”. But let’s ask ourselves: what is so bad about a cold war? After all, it means that there is no actual major war. That’s good. It would be much worse if the US stopped bearing the burden of a hegemon and we had a number of hot wars.
The two world wars and the classic Cold War took place mainly in and for Europe. The current cold war is focused, from the US point of view, on managing the rise of China and the decline of Russia. The former is a much more important and complex task for the US than the latter. Of course, European countries facing Russia consider the latter as a priority.
In order to understand the economic depth (or lack of it) of the challenge posed by Russia to the West, let’s look at the figures: The US GDP is about 19 trillion dollars. The economies of US allies—the EU (17 trillion), Japan (5 trillion), Canada (1.6 trillion), South Korea (1.5 trillion) and Australia (1.4 trillion)—total 45.5 trillion dollars. If we compare this to the size of the Russian economy—which, at 1.5 trillion dollars, is on a par with that of South Korea or Australia—we see that the confrontation is not economic. At 30 times larger, the West can simply crush Russia in economic terms.
Neither does this mean that Russia has any military advantage over the West; far from it. However, Russia has demonstrated its ability to use war as a political tool and has shown its shrewdness and flexibility in the manner and form of using it. International relations are pursued on a field of influences and counteractions; it is therefore appropriate to mention at this point that Putin’s Russia has been able to do what it has because the US has allowed it to.
The current US administration led by Donald Trump gives very conflicting signals over NATO; in fact, the president’s signals contradict those of his administration. We can argue endlessly about whether the progress in strengthening NATO’s eastern wing is due to Trump or in spite of him, but it is certainly too early to say that the US has quit and crawled back into its cocoon. Trump is certainly not an isolationist, but he is a unilateralist.
At the same time, there is a considerable risk in Europe that the antipathy stemming from a single person –Donald Trump – is extended to a whole nation. Europe has witnessed waves of anti-Americanism before: in the early 1980s as a reaction to the arms race during Reagan’s time, and in 2003 in opposition to the Iraq War started by the US under George W Bush. Some of the reaction was about Reagan or Bush, but it was the policies implemented by them that triggered the opposition. It was the policies that painted the picture of the people. The current situation is entirely different: no matter what Trump’s administration does, it will bear the shadow of his personality. If anti-Americanism grows out of control in Europe, the biggest loser will not be the US or the West European countries where anti-American feeling is traditionally the strongest, but the countries on NATO’s eastern flank that continue to rely on the US military protection.
We must also admit that we have not been able to predict the next foreign-policy moves by the Putin regime. By “we” I mean the international public, or simply the “Western world”. We could not predict that Crimea would be the response to Maidan. We could not predict that Russia would take advantage of US weakness in the Syrian Civil War and use military intervention to protect the forces under its influence. We could not predict Russia’s intervention in the US elections. We couldn’t have expected the brazen attempt to organise a coup in Montenegro. And yes, the chemical attack in Salisbury came completely out of the blue. The way the adversary uses multiple attack vectors distinguishes the current cold war from the “traditional” one. The situation was much more anxious back then, but the world was much simpler and better compartmentalised. Forty years ago, people close to the Kremlin’s tsar did not buy houses in London; leaders of Western oil companies did not fly to an economics conference in Leningrad every year; and the Kremlin’s propaganda was believed only by its useful idiots. The intertwining of economic relations, especially compared to the Cold War period, should be a great advantage to the West. However, it must be admitted once again that the West is weak. And increasingly fragmented.
Here we are, then: Russia is fighting a war against Ukraine for a fifth year; the UK is caught up in chaotic domestic politics; Germany voluntarily submits to Russian gas enslavement; Rome and Paris are at loggerheads and the effective leader of Italy is a big fan of Putin; the US political system is paralysed nd its impulsive president treats his friends as enemies and his enemies as friends. If the United States ignored a call for help by a NATO ally under military attack, this would mean the end of NATO. It would mean the loss of US influence in Europe and the Far East. It would mean that Russia and China would have freedom of action in their immediate neighbourhoods. It would mean the collapse of the world order of the past 70 years and an advent of new age of wars.
In Game of Thrones, it was the Northern people in the realms of the Starks who had the strongest sense of the approach of a long winter. For the southern kingdoms, it seemed like a distant and strange problem. Until the wall between good and evil eventually came down.
1 Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 5 chapters 84–116. perseus.uchicago.edu/perseus-cgi/citequery3.pl?dbn…
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.