The breakdown of the international order

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By GILBERTO LOPES*

The key to the outcome of the struggle and to the conformation of a new international order will be the internal situation of each country

Whenever peace has been the primary objective of a power, or a group of powers, the international system has been at the mercy of the fiercest member of the international community, said former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in his study of restoration of international order after the Napoleonic Wars in the first quarter of the XNUMXth century. The book - a world restored – was published in 1964, just before the Vietnam War. It referred to past wars, but the Vietnam War taught new lessons about the fiercest members of the international community.

Even older are the predictions of a noted American diplomat, George Kennan, which Frank Costigliola, professor of history at the University of Connecticut, rescues in an article entitled “Kennan's Warning on Ukraine”, published last January in the magazine Foreign Affairs.

George Kennan, former ambassador to Russia between 1951 and 1952 (then the Soviet Union), helped lay the foundations of Cold War-era containment policy in his article “The sources of Soviet conduct”, published in July 1947 also in Foreign Affairs (the article, considered one of the most important ever published by the magazine in its long history, can be seen here). When then-Secretary of State (1949-53) Dean Acheson was suggested the name of George Kennan to head a policy planning office, indicating that a man like him would be ideal for the post, Dean Acheson replied: “A man like George Kennan ? There is no one like George Kennan!”

In remarks about what the United States' objectives should be in relation to Russia, made in August 1948 – recalls Costigliola –, George Kennan states that the Ukrainians rejected Russian dominance, but that it would be easy to draw wrong conclusions from this fact, such as that of that Ukraine should be independent (it was then part of the Soviet Union) and concludes that the United States should not encourage such separation.

In its recommendations, it said that it was impossible to draw a line that clearly separated Ukraine from Russia, that the two economies were deeply linked, and that promoting an independent Ukraine "could be as artificial and destructive as an attempt to separate the Corn Belt, including the Great Lakes industrial zone, of the US economy. An independent Ukraine can only be maintained by force”, and added that even the US triumph in the Cold War should not try to impose Ukraine's independence from a defeated Russia. If a conflict arose between the two over Ukraine's independence, the United States should propose an agreement based on a reasonable form of federalism.

In 1997, says Castigliola in his article, George Kennan was alarmed by Washington's decision to integrate the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland into NATO and initiate military and naval cooperation with Ukraine. “Nowhere does this decision appear more serious and fraught with more fateful consequences than in the case of Ukraine,” warned George Kennan.

He wrote to Strobe Talbott, undersecretary of state under Bill Clinton (94-2001), expressing his opinion. Strobe Talbott ignored him. He believed that, given the dire state of the Russian economy after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the country was obliged to adapt to the demands of the West.

An opinion similar to that of George Kennan was expressed by Henry Kissinger in his speech on May 23 of last year at the Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he reiterated his conviction that it was necessary to seek a peace agreement in the Ukraine conflict that would satisfy the Russia's security requirements. Taking the war further would no longer be a question of freedom for Ukraine, but a war against Russia itself.

Post-war political stability, Henry Kissinger had said in his aforementioned book, had not been the result of the search for peace, but of "a generally accepted legitimacy". Legitimacy that should not be confused with justice, he warned, meant “no more than international agreement on the nature of workable agreements and on the acceptable objectives and methods of foreign policy. It implies the acceptance of the framework of the international order by all the great powers”.

At least until such time as no state is so dissatisfied with this situation as to express its dissatisfaction with “a revolutionary foreign policy”. “Whenever there is a power that considers the international order oppressive, or the form of its legitimation, its relations with other powers will be revolutionary. In these cases, it will not be the adjustment of differences within a given system, but the system itself that is called into question,” he added. Something that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made evident, according to the statements of Vladimir Putin himself and his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

The goals of war

The objectives of this war are diverse. And not always clear.

“The inhabitants of Donbass are fighting for the right to live in their own land, to speak their mother tongue (Russian), aspirations that the Kiev regime is trying to prevent,” said Vladimir Putin in his speech before the Russian Federal Assembly on 21 of last February.

Among his objectives were the protection of this population – who lived in what he described as historical lands of Russia –, guaranteeing the security of his country and eliminating the threat posed by the “neo-Nazi regime”, which would have taken power in Ukraine as a result of the coup. of State 2014.

From their perspective, the political scenario in which they tried to solve these problems, through negotiations, no longer works. During long centuries of colonialism, the West was busy giving orders and exercising its hegemony. He got used to “being allowed to do whatever they wanted,” said Vladimir Putin.

He realized that, with the end of the Soviet Union, the West began to review the international order established after World War II and to build a world governed by other rules. “Step by step, they overhauled the existing international order, dismantled security and arms control systems, and waged a series of wars around the world” with the sole aim of “dismantling the architecture of international relations established after World War II. ”.

It was not just about the order built after the Second World War, but above all about unwritten rules, practices established after the outcome of the Cold War, with the dissolution of the USSR and the end of socialism in Eastern Europe, a scenario that Talbott had crudely defined. .

In particular, the authorization of the use of force in international relations ceased to be, in fact, the exclusive competence of the United Nations Security Council. The wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan are good examples of this. Just like Ukraine. Likewise, the very composition of the Council and its operating rules – with the right of veto of the five permanent members – no longer adequately reflect political relations on the international stage.

strategic competition

“Reshaping the world” was the title that the British newspaper The Guardian – a newspaper that, in my opinion, has turned into an instrument of war – gave his commentary on Vladimir Putin's speech. For Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the speech was disappointing propaganda. For US President Joe Biden, it showed that the whole world was facing the “challenge of the times”.

What challenge is this? We are in the midst of a strategic competition to define the future international order, reads in the “National Security Strategy”, which the Joe Biden administration launched in October last year. The United States will lead these efforts "with our values ​​and will work with our allies and partners, with those who share our interests." “We will not leave our future subject to the whims of those who do not share our vision of a free, open, prosperous, and secure world,” the document says.

There was already a reference to the dimensions of this task in the “Provisional Strategic Guidelines for National Security” published in March 2021. It reads that “the defense of democracy does not end at our borders. Authoritarianism is on the march across the world, and we must join with like-minded allies and partners to revitalize democracy around the world.”

This view of the role of the United States has more ancient roots, as highlighted by Andrew J. Bacevich, Professor Emeritus of International Relations and History at Boston University. Andrew Bacevich believes that the United States needed to abandon the prospect of imposing its vision of freedom, democracy and human rights on the world, and looks to George Kennan who, as early as 1948, warned of the dangers of this temptation.

In an article published in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs - The Reckoning That Wasn't –, Andrew Bacevich refers to a “Report to the National Security Council”, of April 1950 – when the Cold War began to shape the international scene in the second half of the last century – in which it was stated that the absence of order among nations was less and less tolerable. The document, which can be viewed here, concluded that the United States had to assume “the responsibility to impose order and justice, by means compatible with the principles of freedom and democracy”.

This was the world that imploded when Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border. Russia realized that the West's objective was to finish the work started in the Second World War – to defeat the USSR – and that the Cold War left unfinished, that is, to complete the dismemberment of the largest country in the world that had survived it.

For Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the aim of the “hybrid war” against his country was not just to defeat Russia, but to turn it into a “pariah country”. Like Hitler, he would say, the United States is trying to unite European countries for the “final solution” against Russia. He added: “The new concept of our foreign policy is the need to break the West's monopoly on determining the beacons of international life.

Does Russia have the strength for this?

The challenge is clear. The question is whether Russia has the strength to do so and whether the chosen military option was the right one to achieve this objective.

The connection between the outcome of the war in Ukraine and the changes in the international order, the relationship between these two scenarios, needs more detailed definitions that do not seem to exist yet. It is possible to intuit, but it is difficult to see the details.

Russia is reviewing its obligations to international organizations that harm its interests, Lavrov said. But this is only part – and perhaps a smaller part – of this task. The Russian foreign minister stressed the importance of the renewed alliance with China, the basis of the multipolar conception of the world.

It is the same opinion of the Chinese foreign ministry. At a press conference held in March, on the sidelines of the first session of the 14th National People's Congress in Beijing, Foreign Minister Qin Gang said that with the two countries working together, “the world will have the driving force of multipolarity and democracy in international relations and the global strategic balance will be better guaranteed”.

Accused by undersecretary of state Wendy Sherman of trying to rewrite “the rules-based international order,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin responded that the United States was the main disturber of that order. "It is the United States, not China, that undermines and tramples on international norms." Wang cited the cases of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, as well as the application of sanctions against other countries, as examples of "a policy of looting and exploitation that creates divisions around the world".

Ukraine's war makes it clear to what extent the objectives defined by Vladimir Putin can be achieved: control of Russian-majority territories; the end of a Ukrainian regime, which Moscow considers illegitimate; and security guarantees, measures that prevent the deployment of NATO weapons on Russia's borders.

But the relationship between the conflict and the establishment of a new international order cannot yet be seen with the same clarity.

Perhaps it is Washington that feels this most clearly, if we consider the billions spent to arm Ukraine and the profound changes in the policies of its now allies – Germany and Japan –, then enemies in the Second World War. Both reformed their legislation – including their constitutions – to rearm themselves and countries at war, ending restrictions that existed after their role in the global conflict of the last century.

The goal is a strategic defeat of Russia, said Vladimir Putin in his report to the Federal Assembly, for which 150 billion dollars have already been invested in support of Ukraine. A value that contrasts with the 60 billion dollars earmarked by the G-7 countries to support the poorest nations in the world.

The militarization of international politics is expressed in the extraordinary military budget requested by Joe Biden from Congress on March 9: 842 billion dollars, about one hundred billion dollars more than in 2021. An extraordinary expense, which exceeds the military budget of the nine countries that follow. A budget that will likely face Republican opposition, with a majority in the House of Representatives.

In the “Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community”, document released on February 6, which can be viewed here, it is noted that the great powers compete to define the rules that will be imposed on the world in the near future: the United States and its allies, on the one hand; China and Russia on the other.

The scenario is thus defined, a quadrilateral that demarcates the confrontation, without its rules being clearly defined. Which generates the fear that it will be resolved without rules...

In any case, the key to the outcome of this struggle and to the formation of a new international order will be the internal situation of each country, in particular the relationship between Washington and Beijing, and not the war in Ukraine. If we manage to avoid this confrontation being defined on the military terrain, this future will have to reflect the changes in the weight of each nation on the world stage.

*Gilberto Lopes is a journalist, PhD in Society and Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR). Author, among other books, of Political crisis of the modern world (Uruk).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

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