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Foreign Policy

War and International Order

Jun 07, 2022
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general, Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Chinese Association of Social Sciences

The war in Ukraine is the largest in Europe since the end of the Cold War. Russia was driven by multiple factors to launch the war. The first was faulty American policy toward Russia. The U.S. not only paid only loose attention to Russian military adventurism but also ignored for an extended period Russian appeals and the potential time advantage that Russia could gain in an international crisis from its highly centralized decision-making.

Second, Russia has not gotten rid of the negative influence of its traditional political culture on its modernization process. Before 1917, the Russian elite were more European and very close to their Western counterparts. Russia today lacks a clearly defined civilizational identity in politics and does not follow the protocols of modern politics. Russian neo-conservatism draws heavily on traditional political culture, combining orthodox nationalism with legacies of the Soviet model and strongly featuring a triad of status, revenge and honor.

The third factor involves countries in the middle, between East and West. With the end of the Cold War and the breakdown of the East camp, countries in-between appeared, such as Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Belarus. They are closely tied to the West in terms of language, religion and history and also to Russia as a former Soviet Republic. Societies in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are divided between the European and Soviet complexes, and the general public preference for a more European future has a direct impact on government decision-making.

All three factors bring our attention to different views of what constitutes international order — chosen by a state and its decision-makers in particular — on the basis of the international political environment and other countries’ reactions, and how they bear directly on the motivation for war.

A common concept in international relations, “international order” usually refers to the structural relationships formed through the interactions of state actors in a specific international system, with mutual influence on global and regional layers. But the international order is not a one-and-only paradigm. Some researchers suggest that there are four ideal types of international order: hegemonic (where order is intentional and power is concentrated); concentrated (where order is spontaneous but power is concentrated); negotiated (where order is intentional but power is dispersed); and decentralized (where order is spontaneous and power is dispersed).

Despite the existence of these different types, a review of the international system since 1648 shows that the hegemonic order has always had a decisive influence on the international system at different times, most notably in the Yalta system. Since 1945, the U.S. had pursued its global interests by creating and upholding the international economic system, bilateral and regional security mechanisms and norms of political freedom collectively known as the international order, the RAND Corporation wrote in its 2016 report Understanding the Current International Order. It is fair to say that the international order is established and maintained by the hegemon(s) — or by the hegemon in cooperation with other powers — to protect their perceived interests. 

Although a hegemonic international order is often opposed by many countries, it still exists in the international system in which we live, as attested by the existence and expansion of NATO. In a state-centric system, the same hegemonic order may be seen as malignant by some and benign by others at the same time. Russia, for example, has gone all out to secure Ukraine's “Soviet identity” and stop it from developing relations with NATO and the European Union. It was successful until 2014. Since the Crimean crisis, however, Ukraine has moved onto a clear and bumpy European path. For Ukraine, a Russia-led hegemonic international order is malignant, while a West-led hegemonic order is benign. In the same way, Russia sees the order dominated by Western countries as malignant, as it protects the interests of the U.S. and its NATO allies at the cost of Russia’s interests.

Every international order serves national rather than international interests first and foremost. In the wake of the war in Ukraine, the international order has been going through vehement realignment and regrouping, most notably in Europe. The divide in Europe caused by NATO expansion has been rapidly bridged, while Russia will be excluded from European development for a long time to come.

Of course, Europe will also realize that alienating Russia will not make the international order more stable, nor will Russia disappear as a result of the Ukraine war, but it will need to move out of the old power model of needlessly using force to punish the countries in-between for switching sides. In short, it is fair to conclude from the war in Ukraine that if a country faces a vicious international order, it should not only be good at living with it but more important should choose a development path closer to modern civilization and seek success without fighting a war.

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