The European and Global international system is broken. Whilst others have contributed to its decline and subversion in the past, it was Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and other parts of the former Soviet space before that, that have dealt it the decisive fatal blow."What is desperately needed in the international system are rules, and the mechanism to ensure that these rules are abided with", writes Dennis Sammut in today's Monday Commentary. "Multi-polarity may sound like an attractive solution, especially to small countries who have been under pressure from bigger players or international actors, but with closer inspection, on its own, it is not."
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was in Turkey last week. Whilst most of his time was taken to discussing mundane issues on the Russia-Turkey agenda, he also found time to make one or two grand pronouncements. So after accusing the United States of being the absolute hegemon in international relations, Lavrov spoke about a “new world order …… which we all need instead of the unipolar world order overseen by one hegemon”.
A multi-polar world has been a favourite theme of Russian leaders for some time, and in this they also echo similar feelings from Beijing. Indeed, during the visit to Moscow last month, China’s President Xi Jinping reiterated his support “for world multipolarity”.
In an editorial commentary on 23 March, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua stated:
“China and Russia, together with most of the developing world, share both the need and motivation to safeguard the UN-centred international system, a multi-polar world, greater democracy in international relations and the common values of humanity -- peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom.”
It added, “The old days of a unipolar world have long gone. Power politics and hegemonic ambitions belonged to the Cold-War era, rather than today's world that is becoming inevitably multipolar and increasingly diverse.”
These ideas are confused and confusing. Let us first of all remember that the world had , between 1945-91 not a unipolar world, but a bi-polar one. During this time of cold war the United States and the Soviet Union faced each other in a constant hostile posture that made world peace immensely fragile, and the risk of war, nuclear war at that, very high. The current Russian leadership has deep nostalgia for this period. Most of the world does not. The Cuban Missile Crisis; the blockade of Berlin, the division of Germany, the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia all happened during this time of bi-polarism, as were wars such as those in Korea and Vietnam. Even if you refrain from passing any judgement as to who of the two superpowers was right, and who was wrong, the conclusion cannot be that this was a time of world peace, nor a time of order in the international system.
The United Nations was established in 1945 to try to prevent a repetition of World War II. One of the key principle of the UN is sovereignty of states. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022; its continued war on Ukrainian territory, and occupation of Ukrainian land, including Crimea, not only does not strengthen a UN-centred international system – it threatens directly world peace. Western sanctions against Russia are an attempt to hold Russia to account for its actions. By failing to condemn the Russian actions, and by its constant expressions of support for Russia, China is fast becoming an accomplice to this crime.
It is a pity that a number of countries have preferred not to join the sanctions and to remain as bystanders.
Multi-polarity may sound like an attractive solution, especially to small countries who have been under pressure from bigger players or international actors, but with closer inspection, on its own, it is not. In the bi-polar world of the 1960s and 1970s smaller countries were often marginalised, as the two superpowers decided the fate of the world. There is no guarantee that if you have two, three or four hegemons, instead of one, the same will not happen.
Rules, not poles
What is desperately needed in the international system are rules, and the mechanism to ensure that these rules are abided with. If we look back, it was the drift towards a rules based system in the form of the Helsinki Final Act signed in 1975, and the arms control mechanisms introduced by the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), that brought Europe back from the brink of nuclear war. Those instruments served the international community well, and gave results even though decisions in the CSCE (then with 35 member states) operated on the basis of consensus. By invading Ukraine Russia has also thorn up the Helsinki Final Act. Europe is today in a state of war.
The European and Global international system is broken. Whilst others have contributed to its decline and subversion in the past, it was Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and other parts of the former Soviet space before that, that have dealt it the decisive fatal blow.
The risk of this situation should not be underestimated. But no-one should rush to conclusions about the solutions. What is needed is a rules based international system, not a division of the world in zones of influence. A multipolar world – where China, the European Union, and possibly others, join the United States at the global top-table, may sound attractive to some, but on its own will change appearance of the problem of global governance, but not resolve it. Similarly, the long due reform of the United Nations Security Council, and the veto system that often paralyses it, is long overdue. But simply adding more permanent members is not a solution either.
The discussion on the future of global governance needs to be deeper, and needs to address the core issues of what rules are necessary; how to agree them, and then how to ensure that they are respected. This global debate needs to start, and it must be one which is open and transparent, but also which is time sensitive with a deadline for an agreement. Many small countries, from the Global South, from Europe, and from elsewhere can play a decisive role in this conversation, as can and should think-tanks, academic and civil society.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed and accelerated the crisis in the international governance system. It is now time, even as the war rages on, to start thinking how to fix it. The risk of global nuclear war has now re-surfaced, joining a number of other contemporary global challenges, such as climate change, food security, and technological developments. Decisive action is now necessary and urgent.