Richard Sakwa: A More Diverse Model of World Order


Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics, University of Kent, UK

I want to make three points, building on some of the discussion which we had last night, which I thought was fascinating. We began by talking about great powers, and we ended up discussing ideology. I just want to step back a little bit and to put things into context. 

My first point will be “to distinguish between the international system and world orders”. “World order” is the competition of power and legitimacy, the two key factors identified by Henry Kissinger in his work on World Order. This book, however, failed to describe the system itself. The international system we are now living is the one which was established 75 years ago in Yalta. It drew on earlier international systems, beginning in the modern era with Westphalia in 1648, then developing into the Congress of Vienna system in 1815, and then the failed international system based on Versailles after the First World War. The current system was shaped by the wartime alliance and the United Nations declaration of 1 January 1942 by the four great allied powers of the time: the US, the USSR, China and the UK. The Yalta System drew on this when in February 1945 the wartime leaders met in the Crimea, and the institution of the United Nations was created with the participation of the major states of the time. In other words, although the Atlantic powers certainly took the lead, the post-war international system was built as a cooperative endeavour. The Yalta international system is based on sovereign internationalism and remains embedded in the United Nations and the associated institutions of global governance.

This international system has three levels. The first level is the normative level: the United Nations, multilateralism, and the commitment to do better than the vague liberal internationalism and utopianism of the Versailles System and the League of Nations. This normative level does not negate the balance of power or spheres of influence, but it also seeks to transcend them. This international system fostered decolonization and provided the framework for today’s 200-odd sovereign nation states. It was modified to a degree by the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, which brought human rights to the fore, described by Samuel Moyn as The Last Utopia, prioritizing values rather than interests, human rights rather than social rights. The level in the middle is based on contesting orders, and at the bottom we have international civil society, global transnational movements and economic corporations.

My second point builds on the first to suggest that there are now four models of globalization. They are all “ideational”, based on the normative visions of how international politics should be conducted and based not only on great power considerations. We can even use the word “ideology”, but they are certainly normative systems. The so called “great power conflict and confrontation” is above all the confrontation between the four models of globalization and world order. 

The first one is the Atlantic power system. The Atlantic power system was effectively established in its modern form in August 1941, with the adoption of the Atlantic Charter. This transformed the old model of internationalism in the US, and endowed it with a new militancy – hardly surprising in a time of war. The important book by Stephen Wertheim, Tomorrow the World, describes how the combination of power and norms in the Atlantic charter went on to become the foundation of what others call liberal hegemony after 1945. It was within this framework that NATO was created, and the Cold War waged. However, this Atlantic power system after the end of the Cold War re-branded itself as “the liberal international order”. This is a combination of dominion (power) and hegemony (ideas and values), and at the same time this normative order claims to be universal. This expansive combination of norms and power ultimately provoked the Ukraine crisis in 2014, and with it the Second Cold War in Europe.

The second model of world order is based on the pre-Atlantic idea of sovereign or conservative internationalism, and is this normative order that is the foundation of the post-war international system. Russia and China act in defence of this conservative or tranitional model of sovereign nation states, and this is the normative basis of their current alignment – which in all but name is a type of quasi-alliance. It is very deep because and certainly not just contingent on alienation from the US and its model of expansive universalism, or a response to its neo-containment policies pursued through sanctions, extra-territorial measures and global alliance system. It is based on a common vision of what world order should be like. 

The third model of world order is the mercantilism nationalist one. Trump represented it and some countries in Europe today are moving back to this sort of dog-eat-dog nationalism. It condemns globalization and has little time for internationalism, let alone genuine multilateralism. This is often mistaken as a manifestation of great power politics, but as suggested above, sovereign internationalism combines defence of national sovereignty with a variety of non-hegemonic forms of internationalism. Instead, mercantilist nationalism came to dominate in the interwar years and in the end overwhelmed the Versailles system as it took increasingly militaristic forms.

The fourth model is the transformational vision. The Non Aligned Movement tried to find space for non-hegemonic politics, and the idea for a New International Economic Order was advanced. Here we find peace movements and concerned activists dealing with the danger of nuclear confrontation. And above all today this is where we find the environmental movement arguing that the challenges facing humanity cannot be addressed by old structures and practices, and therefore a transformational vision is required. These movements operate in the third tier of the international system, and challenge the practices of the various contending models of world order n the second level. Their arguments have been given added force by the pandemic, as the confluence of human activity and environmental vulnerability demonstrated the fragility of human life on the planet. Activists argue that we need a whole new model of globalism, which transcends all the early ones which I have just mentioned. 

So that is four models of international order, contending at the moment within the international system established in 1945.

My third and final point is about the way that this Atlantic power system can develop today. Joe Biden’s presidency is clearly dedicated to returning to some sort of pre-Trumpian normality, and that also means a return to the normative order of liberal hegemony. In terms of the rational conduct of politics, this means a return to multilateralism, alliance maintenance and the reinforcement of the values of the Atlantic power system. However, if the model outlined above has any heuristic value, it suggests that the normality to which the new administration is committed is already fraught with conflict potential and multiple internal contradictions. The enforcement of the normative power of Atlanticism and liberal international order universalism provides little scope for powers outside of that particular version of world order.

It may well be welcome to see the end of Trumpian mercantilist nationalism (for the time being at least), but what is required is some sort of reconciliation with the other normative models of world order. The four models of world order outlined above are far from exclusive. Biden’s environmental and decarbonisation draws on this fourth model, of transformation. There is a return to “normalcy”, as after the First World War; but there is also innovation at the moment because of the transformational challenges facing humanity. One change that may be in the offing is the retreat from expansive universalism, and this would allow greater scope for the revival of diplomacy within the framework of sovereign internationalism. This would mean a more plural and diverse coexistence of contending models of world order, all constrained by the principles of international law as institutionalized in the Yalta international system. The return to great power confrontation is accompanied by the need to manage competition between alternative models of world order. This is a challenge not just for the contending models of normative order, but also for the international system as a whole. 

The content on the website represents the views of the author only and is his/her sole responsibility; it cannot be considered to reflect the views of CISS.

Last:FU Ying: How China Views Multilateralism

Next:FU Ying: Start with the End in Mind