The Ukrainian crisis has accelerated the creation of a new multipolar order, in which states such as Russia and China are emerging as alternative centers of power.


With NATO reaching out to Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, this is unlikely to happen and will hence strengthen the Moscow‐Beijing pivot. Photo: AP

The current crisis in Ukraine has revived old resentments of an expansionist and autocratic Russia. Just consider what passes for political dialogue these days – Putin is declared an “incendiary“ by  German weekly magazine Der Spiegel and U.S. Senator John McCain oversimplifies Russia to a “gas station run by a Mafia.” It’s no surprise that EU countries keep wondering if a new Cold War has returned to Europe.

Ironically, those allegations fail to assess the fundamental change in the global power distribution that has now become evident. While the West spent the last two decades clinging to the naive assumption of a liberal “New World Order,” it  neglected  essential  realities  of  the  international  system, thus  helping  to create what is now a multipolar world.

While realist theory has been recently derided as having no explanatory power for post-Cold War politics, its key assumptions continue to shape international politics. Without disconfirming the complexity of 21st century world politics, states remain the main actors in an anarchic international system. Fear of survival lies at the core of a nation’s interests. The absence of a supranational peacekeeping power presses states to accumulate power, form alliances and sometimes call to arms, in order to secure what they perceive is essential for their existence.

However, as former U.S. president George H.W. Bush foresaw in 1991, the future world would be shaped by a New World Order that would ultimately reform the international system and its anarchic structure.  By  putting  old  realist  assumptions to rest, Bush laid the cornerstone for the future U.S. perception of its role in world politics. Having won the struggle for world hegemony, it would be America’s duty to act as the absent global peacekeeping power and secure the unipolar moment. Ironically, this naïve assumption  unleashed two decades of Western unilateralism, which would initially result in the emergence of revisionist powers and thereby, further evidence for the realist paradigm.

While 90s Russia had just experienced a humiliating disintegration of its former empire, the United States and their allies pushed NATO enlargement eastwards. Russian security concerns were not included, but rather downplayed. Russia was given no say in further NATO expansion and no zone of interest in Eastern Europe. Within  the  next  decades, NATO would not only include most former Warsaw Pact members, but also three ex‐Soviet states, consequently pushing NATO’s frontier in immediate proximity to St. Petersburg.

Through a realist lens, the NATO alliance thereby became an eventual threat to Russia’s security, having an enormous geographical advantage in a possible future confrontation with Moscow. This impression increased during the following decades, with the West intervening worldwide in the name of freedom and democracy, distorting international law as it wished. Gradually, the idealistic new world order turned into a realist example of unipolar power distribution par excellence, with an untamed hegemonic superpower enforcing its will sometimes violently and against political resistance (just take Iraq 2003 as an example). 

Unsettled by the outcomes of unipolarity, Moscow tried hard to regain strength and accumulate  enough  power (both economically and militarily) to secure its national interests and sovereignty. The same is true for China, which faces comparable challenges in East Asia, and a number of smaller countries that push for the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as the ultimate “life insurance“ policy. Together they form a loose alliance of revisionist countries, united in the wish to contain an out of control claim on validity of the  West. The Ukrainian crisis shows how far both Russia and China have already moved with their aspirations to reform the global power distribution towards multipolarity.

Although the United States will remain the most powerful superpower for the next decades, it will have to deal with determined regional powers that are willing to defend what they embrace as their natural borders and interests. At the same time, new players such as Brazil and India are on the rise, with India now a nuclear‐armed competitor of China. The oversimpliied conclusion is that multipolarity is extremely unsafe; however, there are a few things that can be done to keep the world stable, although tensions will increase.

Above all, forget the nonsense about a new Cold War ‐ this “big power gamble” is provoked by structural factors, even though all major actors are motivated by domestic ideologies. Still, it’s mainly liberal democracy that still claims global salvation, hereby creating a steady excuse for interventions worldwide and momentous attempts at “democracy promotion.“ A less messianic U.S. could surely help to reduce this negative perception. Further, as the new power distribution leads to more conlicting interests, it’s necessary to adjust them.

The best solution here is a series of backdoor  deals  between  the  major  powers, thereby agreeing about  respective borders and perceptions. That won’t stop future struggles, but is certainly the lesser of two evils. Ironically, accepting the new boundaries of a multipolar world will lead to a weakening of America’s antagonists.

Since it’s ultimately the fear of a common threat that  forces states to herd together, the strengthening  of  “pariahs” like Iran and North Korea will depend on how much pressure is placed upon them and how much of an outlet both Russia and China can provide. Besides, both Moscow and Beijing distrust each other. How deep their alliance will grow depends on whether the United  States can accept the “new rules  of the game.“ With Obama and NATO reaching out to Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova and the U.S. proclaiming “America’s Pacific Century,“ this is unlikely to happen and will hence strengthen the Moscow‐Beijing pivot.

The new power balance will consequently make the world a more troubled place, with tensions arising and political  decision‐making shifting eastwards. Luckily, the  old  theory  of nuclear deterrence plus an increasing globalization will likely save us from a catastrophe. Still, it would make things much easier if policymakers in Europe and Washington would take Bob Dylan’s famous lines to heart:

“Your old road is

Rapidly agin'.

Please get out of the new one

If you can't lend your hand

For the times they are achangin’“.

(Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are AChangin’“ 1964)

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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