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Crossing the Rubicon of International Order

Jun 16, 2022
  • Da Wei

    Director of Center for International Strategy and Security; Professor at Tsinghua University

Over two months after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a “special military operation” in eastern Ukraine on February 24, 2022, it is clear that the military progress on the Russian side is not going well. Ukraine’s resistance, backed by the West, has been extremely resilient. Up till now, the fighting has been going on for over 100 days, with the two warring sides still in an offensive and defensive stalemate. For how long will the war last? Will one side be completely defeated by the other? Will there be a spillover of the conflict? Will the situation undergo an escalation towards a third world war or even a nuclear war? Questions about this ongoing crisis can be listed in a long line, most of which no one can answer at this time. Yet among all the uncertainties, one thing is certain: what the Russian troops crossed on February 24 was not simply the land border between Russia and Ukraine, but rather more symbolically, the River Rubicon [1] of the post-cold war international order. 

The Bright and Dark Sides of the Old Order 

To begin with, let’s clarify what exactly we are discussing by sketching out a conceptual overview. An international order is a set of arrangements concerning the boundaries of state behavior in the international system. When states know of what they can and cannot do in the international system, of what behavior is more rewarding and what is by contrast more costly, and when they all accept this set of arrangements either by agreement or under coercion, we say that the world forms a relatively stable international order. In contemporary times, the international order is by and large set by international law, international rule, international norm, and not fair and justified of course, some imperious bullying of hegemonies over others. Another concept closely related to international rule is the international structure, which refers to the power dynamics between the major countries and their interactions, i.e. who is stronger and who is weaker, who is the friend of whom and who is the foe of whom. In this sense, the international structure is one of the main variables that defines the international rules. 

With the end of the Cold War, for the first time in human history, a truly global international order has emerged that envelops almost every country on the planet. Like it or hate it, the fact is that the post-Cold War international order is a set of arrangements with neoliberalism as the ideological foundation, globalization as the propellant, the United Nations system and international law as the primary arbiters, but sometimes with the military supremacy and dollar hegemony of the United States to play the “world’s police”. That the United States is the sole superpower in the world is the structural basis underpinning the post-Cold War international order. 

For many countries, this order has its benefits. By comparison, it was probably the most peaceful, open, and rule-based order in the history of humankind, with eased control across national borders and an unprecedented free flow of capital, technology, personnel and information around the world. Remained as the only superpower under this order, the United States not only leads the world with its economic dominance and science-tech superiority, but also often takes unchecked diplomatic and military actions as it pleases, with few countries able or willing to moderate such behaviors. Also under this order, China has enjoyed rapid economic growth, transforming from a poor, underdeveloped country to the world’s second largest economy over four decades. 

There is, however, a dark side of this order for many countries. As to the developed states in the West, they have been challenged with twofold problems. The first issue is the growing gap between rich and poor and class conflicts within developed countries, given the weakened power of state and government alongside the substantial capital flow worldwide. For the first time in the last 500 years, it seems that national borders are no longer the primary criterion for wealth distribution on a global scale, instead class and stratification have taken over as the most important metrics. While in the past, a newborn child’s future economic status was likely to be determined by which country the child was born in; today though, the most important factor is who his or her parents are. The second issue concerns the rapid rise of non-Western countries as represented by China, a trend that, if continued, would likely shake the centuries-old hegemony of the West. Moreover, that the domestic institutions of these rising countries are quite different from those of the West makes the Western world deeply anxious and uneasy. 

To countries like China and Russia, the main problem of this order is also twofold. For one thing, the principles of liberalism that this order proclaims purport not only inter-state free trade and international rule of law, but also, as assumed by the Western countries, this set of principles must as well permeate through the political life of all countries. Along this line, countries such as China and Russia, which have been labeled “illiberal” by the United States and the West, are not trusted as eligible builders of the international order, yet even have their political security at high risk the whole time. For another, the U.S. hegemony in foreign policy makes many non-Western countries very uncomfortable. Examples include the U.S.’s continued advancement on NATO’s eastward expansion, reinforcement of the Asia-Pacific alliance system, and arbitrary use of force in the Middle East, causing far more serious casualties than in Ukraine today. Russia’s sudden military operation on Ukraine can also be seen as a major outburst of its long-standing discontent with the United States. 

How the Rubicon Was Crossed 

The Russia-Ukraine war was not the one and only major blow to the post-Cold War international order. In other words, the River Rubicon was not crossed in one step. Nor was it Russia or Vladimir Putin that first crossed the Rubicon. As a matter of fact, for the past six years, this order has been suffering a heavy blow every two years, like the Rubicon being crossed step by step. 

In 2016, people in Britain decided to leave the European Union by referendum, and American voters chose Donald Trump as president of the United States. The signal thereof could not have been clearer. That is, the key builders and defenders of the post-Cold War international order have opted to turn their backs on the neoliberalism that has prevailed for the past four decades. The British wanted to rebuild the national borders that the European Union once removed; while Trump, who made his way to the White House under the banner of “America First”, is a super “wall builder”. These walls, in various forms and implications, include the physical walls erected on the U.S.-Mexico border, the walls of trade barriers between countries, the walls of racial divisions within the United States, and the walls of psychological distances among societies. 

In 2018, the Trump administration launched rounds of trade and technology wars against China. Two of the world’s largest economies, once referred to by scholars as Chimerica, embarked on a long and painful process of divorce. Relations between the two countries began a free-fall, with public sentiment toward each other slipping to an all-time low. On the eastern side of the Eurasian continent, the great geopolitical divide plunged other countries unwilling to take sides into a dilemma. 

In 2020, the post-Cold War international order suffered its third major blow. First reported in China, novel coronavirus swiftly took cities and regions, and soon swept the world. The pandemic inflicted enormous losses in human lives and economic well-being, with countries around the world being forced to close their doors to each other. For the vast majority of the world’s population, this was probably once-in-a-lifetime experience where the entire world came to a standstill. The post-Cold War international order, once featured as “open and free”, fell into complete shutdown. 

Following the above ordeals when the world, be it the United States, Sino-U.S. relations, or global people-to-people contacts, could no longer possibly return to the past, Russia-Ukraine war gave the old international order a fourth dreadfully severe blow. What we are witnessing is the largest ground conflict in Europe since the end of World War II. While it is difficult to predict the final outcome of the war, Russia’s relations with the entire Western world have come to an irreparable breakdown. The geopolitical plates on the western side of Eurasia are undergoing a significantly profound breaking and shifting. Europe is drifting westward, with transatlantic ties growing ever closer. The NATO, once described by French President Emmanuel Macron as “brain dead”, is back to life and may take in new members. Russia is heading inevitably east and south, meanwhile China, India, South Africa and others abstained from voting on the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s “invasion”. 

How We Roll the Dice 

The Russia-Ukraine war has raised many concerns, as to whether the world is moving toward a confrontation between two camps, one camp being the U.S.-led West, while the other camp being China, Russia and a number of other small and medium-sized countries. If the international landscape were to literally evolve into two camps following the Russia-Ukraine war, it would signify the curtain-up of a second Cold War in human society. Much as World War II was quite different from World War I, the second Cold War would definitely differ from the first one. The two sides could still maintain a fair amount of interactions, for example, but at the end of the day, it is never a blessing for anyone to have two blocs of countries intensely confronting each other in a non-war form, as opposed to the vision of openness and cooperation we once shared. 

As Russia is now basically locked into a position of hostility with the West, it depends largely on the choices of the United States, Europe and China whether the world will be on the path to two blocs unfolding a new Cold War. Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, the U.S. has been pulling its European allies more closely to its side in a common hardline policy towards Russia. On China, many in the U.S. have meant to “Russianize” China’s image, constantly tying China to Russia via unverifiable “intelligence”. U.S. officials have repeatedly claimed that China may have been informed before the war and could provide military assistance to Russia after the outbreak. By spreading such baseless and cost-free words, what the United States is doing is facilitating the formation of two blocs. This seems to be in line with the strategic intent of the U.S. government. Both administrations, from Trump to Biden, be it Republican or Democratic, share a Manichean worldview that portrays the world as a battle between “democracy” and “autocracy”, with the United States as leader of the former camp while China and Russia as symbols of the latter. But the U.S. policymakers also need to realize that pushing China and Russia to the position of enemies at the same time will result in serious strategic overdraft for themselves; tearing apart the otherwise interconnected world into two camps will also do great damage to the U.S. own interests. Using the hegemony of dollar to impose sanctions on other countries is practically undermining the dollar’s status as international trade and reserve currency. In addition, in the mid to long term, the unclear picture of where the U.S. domestic politics is heading will also cast great uncertainty on its external strategy. 

As to Europe’s choice, given the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that it is still suffering, there seems to be very little room for Europe to maneuver, except for siding with the U.S. to assist Ukraine and defeat Russia. But in the mid to long term, a divided world of two camps will not serve Europe’s interests. First, Europe’s “strategic autonomy” will no longer be viable; second, unlike the acute geopolitical conflict between China and America, no geopolitical problems exist between China and Europe, so there is no need for Europe to confront China fiercely; third, Russia is, after all, a neighbor that Europe cannot move away from. Long-term tensions in Europe-Russia relations will not do Europe any good. Strategically in the medium and long term, the European countries are the key variables that determine the international structure. Whether Europe’s “strategic autonomy” can be truly achieved aside from the China-U.S.-Russia complexity, or Europe gets locked in a new dichotomy of confrontation in the shock waves of war, European leaders need to make a thoughtful and careful choice. 

China’s choice, in turn, will probably matter most. Over the past 40 years, China has developed and emerged by connecting with the world, not by disconnecting from it. China certainly has no intension nor reason to sever this interconnectedness. However, the consistent U.S. suppression of China over the past few years has provoked widespread indignation at all levels of the Chinese public. Were China to be led by such sentiment, it should do whatever is detrimental to the United States. Yet the result of so doing would be an accelerated decoupling from the West, which would probably in the end do great harm to China’s cause of national rejuvenation. Therefore, on the road ahead, the one and only strategic yardstick that China can use is whether it is conducive to its own development and rejuvenation. Meanwhile, for Europe and China, choices over the international order should not have the only two, as if destined to choose one on the southern bank or the other on the northern bank of the Rubicon. Europe will of course long remain an ally of the United States, while China and Russia are also the most important neighbors and partners. Nonetheless, this does not mean that China, the United States, Europe and Russia have no other choices but only to form two diametrically opposed blocs, divided by the Chu River and the Han Border, a valley separated the two ancient Chinese regimes once fought side by side against Tyrannical Qin Dynasty [2]

When Julius Caesar led his army across the Rubicon more than 2,000 years ago, the great founder of the Roman Empire left his famous saying: “alea iacta est” or “the die is cast.” Indeed, the course of human history is at times like a spinning dice -- we cannot predict when it will stop and what face it will eventually take. But human history is not entirely fatalistic and agnostic. Decision-makers make their decisions in a given historical time and space, and these decisions, when colliding with each other, will constitute history. Therefore, as we ask ourselves where do we go from here and wonder, the choices of key figures are crucial. Over 2000 years after Julius Caesar, Albert Einstein the great physicist proclaimed that “God does not play dice with the universe.” Yes, the Rubicon has been crossed, but it remains the responsibility of the countries and their leaders to choose each step forward with care. 

[1] In 49 B.C., Julius Caesar, the Roman consul over Gaul, was called back to Rome by the Senate. According to Roman law, any consul returning to Rome was forbidden to lead any army across the Rubicon, the river north of Rome, or else it would be considered treason. On January 10, Caesar led the Legio XIII Gemina across the Rubicon, and the Roman Civil War broke out. Caesar’s political opponent Pompey and some of the senators fled in haste. Thence the Roman Republic entered the age of the Empire. 

[2] The Chu River and the Han Border, is also literally referred to as the distinct middle line between two competing players on the Chinese chessboard.


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