As a young undergraduate student of international affairs at the London School of Economics, I was excited by the possibilities of a cosmopolitan future, proud of the rules, convention, tradition and institution-based present and disdainful of the realpolitik of the past. While we were presented with “realism”, “rationalism” and “revolutionism” as three theoretical frameworks with which to understand how nation-states interact with each other, we all knew that implicit in our education was a not-so-subtle hint that the world is — teleologically — moving from the conflict-driven past to the negotiation-driven present and integrated-driven future.
For much of the last 70-odd years, our post-war international system has been characterised by a somewhat superficial and somewhat substantive rules-based order. Countries acknowledge each others’ sovereignty, a number of globe-spanning international treaties and organisations, and a wide array of formal and informal rules and norms of behaviour. War, while ever-present, seemed from the end of the Cold War onwards to have changed in character: Large-scale state versus state fighting seemed to have receded into history and low-intensity, long insurgencies and other forms of asymmetric warfare mushroomed. Great power rivalry seemed to have shifted gears towards economic competition within the framework of a global trade and finance system.
A decade or two ago, the West was smugly noting China’s forced entry into the global economic system — opening up to international trade and capital flows and fuelling western consumption while polluting itself; Russia was weakened, boring and largely isolated. No other part of the world was even contemplating systemic alternatives to free markets and democracy, and western societies’ undeniable advantage both systemically and culturally made a long-range triumph of western values and priorities all but inevitable.
By 2019, the picture seems to have altered dramatically. For a set of reasons too complex to fully explore here, important pillars of western leadership in the world are now creaking. Europe is in a fine, multi-layered mess of political and economic dimensions. The United States seems to have lost its sense of geo-strategic direction and is much distracted by domestic reactionaries, while its vaunted private corporations seem to have detached themselves entirely from national goals (the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft have as much to do with the rest of the world for their profits as they do with US foreign policy objectives).
But whatever be the reasons for the West’s decline, the current posture of Western politicians, diplomats and generals prevents an effective response to the moves of China, Russia, certain Middle Eastern powers and even North Korea. For even now, Western diplomats waste their breadth and ink at the United Nations — pursuing resolutions doomed to be vetoed — while US companies are forced to react to volatile stock markets while attempting to compete with Chinese corporations that are indistinguishable from Chinese state capital.
Meanwhile, Chinese and Russian diplomats have to pay nothing but fallacious lip-service to international norms, while their proxy cyber-warriors penetrate networks and steal critical information and their acquisitive companies act as instruments of state power through the construction of holistic infrastructure ecosystems in target economies — roads, rail, ports, aircraft and broadband and digital networks — all backed by Chinese capital, expertise and security.
The Chinese aren’t and the Russians aren’t willing to actually play by the rules, they see the rules as convenient artifices that have proved profitable to abide by in the recent past while being of no consequence when it is far more profitable to skirt, ignore or even blatantly violate them. Whether it is land-grabbing in Eastern Europe or the South China Sea, or one-sided and destructive economic agreements, whether it is stealing critical technology or installing government back-doors in leading Chinese tech products, the full spectrum of actions are available to Chinese strategists.
If the West continues to live in denial that the international order it authored is not just strained but probably obsolete, it will continue to handicap its best assets at the sharp end of the struggle against the Chinese and the Russians. While the very point of the struggle may be lost if Western tactics are to emulate their adversaries, there is surely no point in fighting with one hand tied behind one’s back.
Perhaps the most important lesson to be learnt for theoreticians and practitioners is that aligned interests and a large stick are still the only guarantors of good behaviour in a system that still seems to reflect more of Hobbes than anyone else. Either the West recognises the peril and soon, or the end of the post-war order will be best described using a Hobbesian turn-of-phrase — “nasty, brutish, and short”.
Shah is an alumnus of London School of Economics, Cambridge and Harvard, and lives and works in Mumbai