The Newer World Order.
But can they get their heads round it?
Over the last few years, the machinery of the international system as we knew it has slowly begun to seize up, and no longer works the way it once did. Engineers have been worried about this problem for some time, but nobody listened. Now, when buttons are pushed sometimes nothing happens. And sometimes things happen without buttons being pushed. Widgets and wadgets are found lying unexpectedly on the floor, rust seems to be everywhere, and strange and often alarming noises are heard every now and then. But because the machinery was never consciously designed, but slapped together at different times for different purposes, and has been continuously modified without being improved, nobody really knows what to do. Most people are just hoping for the best.
Although the metaphor of the international system as a series of interlinked machines may seem unduly clinical and, literally, mechanical, I think it is valuable in reminding us that this system is fundamentally about processes. We expect things to happen in particular ways, and reasonably consistently, we expect forces to work in particular directions with particular effects, we expect particular organisations to function efficiently, in particular ways, and to work with reasonably predictable outcomes. We don’t expect perfection, but we do expect reasonable consistency. Yet that is clearly becoming less and less the case. So grave are the dysfunctions of the machinery of the international system as we used to know it, that even geostrategic risk analysts and Professors of International Relations at American universities are starting to notice.
We have been somewhere near here before, of course, in 1989, in 1945, in 1919, in 1789, in all sorts of periods of continuous and discontinuous change stretching back centuries. But then that’s History, which is a different discipline, to be mined occasionally for arguments in favour of one course of action or another, but not to be taken seriously in itself. Rather, thinking about the world today is largely dominated by political scientists, economists, international relations theorists, “strategy” experts, and pundits who once took a course in one of these subjects at university. Moreover, numbers matter here: probably two thirds of the international relations theorists who have ever lived are living now, and the vast majority of them have no professional experience from before the end of the Cold War. This creates enormous obstacles—political, professional, intellectual, organisational—to understanding or even admitting change, the more so because the dominant Liberal ideology of the last thirty years or so deals in timeless verities, and is thus incapable of learning anything, or adapting to events.
We therefore face a problem which is, I think, unique in western history. It can be summarised as follows. A shallow and incapable ruling class and its parasites are confronted with a series of subtle changes in the way the international political and economic system works, some linked, some not, that require the sort of careful analysis and thoughtful reactions of which they are inherently incapable. At the same time, the machinery of politics and economics in their own countries is breaking down, and they have no idea why, or what to do about it. These two points—the inability to imagine alternatives and the incapacity to understand even what is going on in front of their eyes—are the two themes I want to develop in the essay.
We all know that it is almost impossible to imagine the future except by reference to the present. This is as true of weighty political science tomes as of the most superficial science fiction film. Notoriously, attempts at prediction or proselytisation, from the neo-medievalism of William Morris to the desiccated scientific managerialism of HG Wells, are either reactions to the present, or projections of it into the future. So most science fiction of recent years takes place in a slightly adapted version of our current liberal social order with new technology. Novels about genuinely different societies, like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, about which I wrote a while ago, make people uncomfortable. By contrast, projecting an idealised present into the future reinforces our beliefs in that present and in ourselves, and in the general organisation of things. (Thus, Iain M Banks’s Culture novels are actually updated versions of the Narnia novels of CS Lewis, with the childlike Culture heroes venturing out to fight dragons and monsters, assisted by god-like machines.)
Those who manage the affairs of the world, or would like to, or who simply write about them, are no different. They have certain models in their heads of how the world works now, and it seems obvious to them that any future world will be broadly similar, because their ability to imagine alternatives is limited to variations on current themes. It took longer than you might expect for certain groups to escape from the mental fetters of the Cold War mindset, and it wasn’t until perhaps the mid-1990s that they finally admitted the world had changed. Even then, there was a frantic search for some substitute for the Soviet Union, against which the political testosterone secreted during the Cold War could be unleashed: Iraq in 1991 was an early target. More recently, and for reasons that I personally find inexplicable, China has been promoted to the status of Soviet-style Global Threat. Some people just can’t live without one, and so they have to assume that there will be one in any likely future.
Likewise, the conviction of “unipolarity” or “hegemony” replacing the “bloc-to-bloc” logic of the Cold War seems to be very deeply ingrained now in the strategic mind. This hegemony is sometimes attributed to the West, sometimes to the United States alone, by critics as much as by proponents, and is assumed now to be the natural order of things. It is indirectly derived from the (dominant) Realist and Neo-realist schools of international relations theory, which postulate an anarchic international system with endless conflict of different sorts among states, and, naturally enough, strong states controlling weaker ones. And if you believe that the US now “rules the world,” in a system like this, and that the structure of the system itself is natural and will endure, then the only alternative you can imagine is another global hegemon, and you write books with titles like When China Rules the World. Of course, it was never as simple as that, and it isn’t now. A lot of countries decided that it was in their national interest to cooperate with the US on certain issues, or at least to publicly agree with them in certain cases. US power and money was useful, and could provide benefits in combating political opponents or hostile neighbours. It is this exaggerated, often self-flagellating and self-demeaning image of weakness in the face of the US as a hegemon (a “hyperpower” as some masochistic French intellectuals called it) which is ultimately behind the new vocabulary of “multipolarity,” that has started to be heard in recent years. All “multipolarity” really means is that, if change cannot be avoided, then in place of one world hegemon to tremble before, there will be several, semi-hegemonically dividing the world up between them.
But the reality will be far more complicated than that, just as it has been in the past. We are already seeing this in West Africa, for example, where nations are cultivating relations with Russia and China, as well as retaining them with the West. But there are no “spheres of influence;” rather a multiplicity of overlapping relationships, varying according to subject and common interest. This is going to be the pattern for the future, too. Among its most interesting consequences will be the effect it has on the structures of power and opinion in the United States. So far, at least, Washington is showing itself to be intellectually incapable of understanding what is going on, which is to say incapable of understanding that the future could not just be different from the present, but different in unexpected ways. The US system could just about, I think, cope with the rise of Russia and China as military threats (though it would tend to disparage them), but not with the subtlety and complexity of the situation that is now developing.
In turn this is because the US is an extreme case of a political reality found everywhere: it is better to be wrong with the majority than right on your own. After all, given western control of media discourses (reducing markedly in fact) who is going to remember who was right and who was wrong in five years time, or even necessarily what the question was? More than any other major capital, Washington resembles a closed box made of mirrors where people talk entirely to each other, and where what matters is whether you have the right opinions, and can win battles against your peers. The rest of the world, I sometimes think, is just another lobby group, and reality just another factor to be taken into account. After all, you can have a Doctorate in Political Science theory with a brilliant reinterpretation of Leo Strauss, decide to specialise in Iran, and go on to a distinguished and lucrative career in think-tanks and universities with stints in government and NGOs, all without having visited Iran or speaking Farsi, because the public you can appeal to in your own country is so large. Indeed, one reason why US diplomacy is often so ineffective, is the amount of time and effort that such internal conflicts take.
Most countries suffer from at least a diluted version of this problem. But the West, and within the West the United States particularly, seems these days to be incapable of long-term thinking, or of sustaining any memory of even the relatively recent past. This means that almost any unexpected event is destabilising and inexplicable, because nobody has been studying long-term trends. Such disparate examples as the Chinese-brokered rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or the rebuilding of the Russian defence industry over the last fifteen years, were prepared and undertaken in plain sight: it’s just that nobody was paying attention to them until their irruption into the news cycle made them unmissable. Likewise, nobody in the West can really analyse their long-term consequences properly, because we no longer have the capability or the inclination to do long-term thinking.
The result is panic and confusion, and the search for simple explanations, because the myopic western system cannot accommodate the almost infinite complexity of the real world. We saw this very clearly as early as the Cold War, when all developments perceived as inimical to western interests were attributed to the “hand of Moscow.” It was not considered possible that wars could erupt, anti-colonial forces could arise, or political changes could take place in a country, simply because of decisions taken by the local players. And ironically, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy, because every time the West decided to support one side in a struggle, the Soviet Union supported the other, thus enabling skilful local actors to manoeuvre adroitly between the two. Yet it was an article of faith in many western chancelleries that, for example, opposition to nuclear weapons in Europe, or to the apartheid system in South Africa, was not based on genuine popular feeling, but had somehow been stirred up by the KGB.
This combination of a brutal word-view based on crude assumptions about hegemony, an attention-span insufficient to boil an egg competently, and an inability and a disinclination to imagine futures except as variants of the present, means that any genuinely significant change produces stupefaction and panic in the capitals of the West. It is denied for as long as denial is possible and then produces unpredictable and incoherent reactions, themselves often driven primarily by internal western politics, and the political competition between western states. This is, of course, a factor for instability in itself, and as we move into a world of more distributed power, western incomprehension, division and irrationality will make the consequences of the changes more dangerous than they otherwise would be.
But it would be unfair to single out Western governments uniquely for criticism. The fact is that politics, tomorrow’s history, appears the more terrifyingly contingent the more you look at it. The shape of the world in fifty years’ time will be determined, as much as anything else, by events which most of us are not even aware of now, and whose importance may not be appreciated for decades to come. Once we go beyond cartoon history and follow the evolution of crises in more detail, we realise, in fact, how overwhelmingly unlikely is the world we actually live in, compared to all the other many possibilities. After all, if Louis XVI of France had been prepared to accept a constitutional monarchy in 1791, or if Corsica had not become French in 1768, or if a certain Napoleon Buonaparte had not joined the French Army, the history of Europe would have been very different. If Lenin had not been sent to St Petersburg by the Germans in 1917, if Trotsky had been less adept at plotting a coup d’état, if the Kerensky government had been stronger … if Hitler had accepted any other post than Chancellor in 1933 … if the Popular Front government in France had sent arms to the Republicans in 1936, if the Germans had not stepped in to transport Franco’s troops to the Spanish mainland … the list goes on and on and on, and soon becomes overwhelming and disabling.
And if you insist that, nonetheless, these were great events and decisions taken by great powers, consider something much more mundane. If an obscure French Colonel named De Gaulle had not published a book in 1934 advocating a professional military for France, which caused in scandal, if the Radical politician Paul Reynaud had not noticed the book and adopted De Gaulle as his protégé, if Reynaud himself had not been Prime Minister for a few months in 1940, if he had not appointed De Gaulle, to general consternation, as Deputy Minister of War, and if De Gaulle had not been in London when the Armistice was signed and Reynaud resigned … well France might well have fallen into a civil war in 1944, with US troops engaging Communist résistants. Or if you want a more recent example, then as this is being written there are episodes of violence between the US and so-called “Iranian-backed” militants in the Middle East. But why is there an Islamic regime in Iran anyway? Essentially because of one event which remains largely unexplained: the decision to send the Ayatollah Khomeini back from his exile in France, apparently in the hope that he would counter the Communist Threat which was believed to be behind the otherwise inexplicable fall of the Shah, and bring some kind of a Martin Luther King-style peace and reconciliation to the country. Well, we can all be wrong, although in this case the error was intellectually and politically catastrophic.
What this little list demonstrates is that history is appallingly contingent, and naturally this frightens us. By extension, the idea that history could take off in completely unexpected directions, as it did in 1789, 1917 or 1933, is terrifying even to contemplate and utterly disabling, intellectually and even morally, especially in a society which has self-marinated itself for decades now in Liberal certainties about the nature of the world and the inevitability of progress. In Thomas Pynchon’s masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow, about which I wrote a year or so ago, a character called Brigadier Pudding, sets out to write a book on “Things that Could Happen in European Politics” soon after World War I, but finds himself quite quickly going backwards rather than forwards, as things inevitably happen that he hadn’t thought of. This is a caricature of a problem that afflicts anyone unwise to try to anticipate the future at a granular level. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to intelligently anticipate—I’d hardly be writing this essay if I thought that—but rather that the best we can do is to think broadly, and try to isolate what is possible from what is not. As Marx observed, we do not make history “under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” That is to say that the contingency described above is not absolute, but is confined within what is practically feasible. From an almost endless list, and almost at random, had Corsica still been an independent republic in 1789, Bonaparte’s military genius would never have been exercised. Had Stalin told the Communist Party to support an SPD-led coalition government in the early 1930s, Hitler would (probably) never have come to power, since the political system was capable itself of resisting him. (Pudding’s calculations for 1931 didn’t give Hitler “an outside chance”.) And for that matter, if a charismatic political leader were to come to power in the United States today, determined to rebuild its military and set out on new adventures around the world, he or she could not succeed, because the deindustrialisation of the US and the rot of its institutions are now in their terminal phase and cannot practically be reversed. Prognostications about the future have to exclude miracles.
It’s undeniable that this contingency makes people feel uncomfortable, and never more than in times of crisis. The reaction—splendidly incarnated by the narrator (or narrators) of Gravity’s Rainbow—is the belief that everything, no matter how chaotic things may seem, no matter how contingent and irrational, is nonetheless somehow connected. This has always been a common reaction, when significant and otherwise inexplicable things happen. The French Revolution, for example, was interpreted at the time as a plot by rationalists and Freemasons prepared over several generations (all those pamphlets! Voltaire! the Encyclopaedia!) rather than the shambolic set of accidents and blunders it really was. Many western governments in 1917 quite seriously believed that the Russian Revolution had been organised and carried out by a band of “German-Jewish mercenaries,” paid by Berlin to get Russia out of the war. And as we’ve seen, the “hand of Moscow” was frequently observed behind inexplicable events in the Cold War, and is making a repeat appearance today. Conversely, it seems that some, at least, of the leadership in Moscow see the Ukraine War as the product of a decades long devilish NATO plot to destroy Russia (although I doubt that any Russian diplomat who had attended the NATO-Russia Council and seen the alliance’s organisational and political dysfunction would make such a mistake.)
Which is to say that human beings, even (and perhaps especially) politicians are influenced by the tendency to see in the past and the present, and project into the future, connections that do not actually exist. (Paranoia is an occupational disease of politics after all.) Psychologists have a name for this: apophenia: the neurotic desire to find connections between things at any cost, and it seems to be a kind of defence mechanism, against a world which is otherwise terrifyingly meaningless. (It’s been observed that the only thing worse than the idea that everything is connected is the idea that nothing is.) This is, obviously, a secularised version of the concept of Divine Providence, and the idea of the working out of a great plan for humanity, although hardly anyone seems to realise it.
The idea that the present chaos of the world, and the changes that are starting to take place, are not random and contingent but planned and directed, is less terrifying than the alternative view that it’s all a hopeless mess of conflicting objectives pursued by incapable institutions and people. (There are, of course, many who would like to direct the course of history, or like to see certain outcomes, but that’s a different issue.) There’s an obscure comfort for some in the belief that everything is being directed from an operations room under the City of London, the White House, or come to that the Vatican or the Kremlin, where governments are replaced and wars and revolutions organised.
To recap, the current international system is breaking down, and the Liberal norms it incarnates are increasingly rejected even in western countries themselves. But none of the models of politics in general use today, from the mechanistic up to the conspiratorial, can explain why this is so. A genuine attempt to look at the future, therefore, has to proceed from the undeniable problems, but exclude crude Realist determinism and disguised versions of the present with a few tweaks, and also avoid drowning in a morass of conjecture, much of which is ruled out on simple practical grounds.
The first step is to recognise that the past itself was more complex than it perhaps seems in retrospect. The world was not neatly divided into two during the Cold War, whatever ideologues in Washington and Moscow may have thought. The world after 1991 was not simply “unipolar”, and is not now changing into a “multipolar” world made up of mini-unipolar ones. The best analogy for the international system, I have long felt, is a kind of three-dimensional Venn diagram, where groups of states find they have a common interest in a certain outcome, or confronting a certain threat, or just ensuring that an insoluble problem, where they may have different and even conflicting objectives, is nonetheless kept under control. Cooperation in one area does not, of course, rule our rivalry, or even outright confrontation in another. Even when objectives are not reconcilable (Russia, Turkey and the US in Syria, for example) informal and often unwritten rules prevent conflicts getting out of hand. Some structures, like NATO and the EU, or even the UN, have endured so long precisely because they enable different groups to pursue different objectives, sometimes even in opposition to each other.
Most cultures recognise this easily enough, and have broad and long-term objectives, mixed with a great deal of flexibility in the short term, and a readiness to compromise. Liberalism does not have this luxury, because it proceeds from arbitrary a priori axioms about the world which it believes are universal, or should be, and which it expresses with a clumsy mixture of vague aspirations and over-precise language. It has therefore fundamentally misunderstood the nature and extent of its influence in the world over the last generation, and is in for a nasty surprise.
What we have seen in the West over that period, and to some extent in other areas of the world as well, is not a conspiracy or a centrally directed programme, but the result of a common purpose, itself drawn from strong similarities in education, and interactions, and shared life experiences and social and economic circumstances, among a small but powerful group of people. The widespread trend towards highly educated professional politicians from comfortable backgrounds, with economically and socially liberal ideas, has created what I usually refer to as the Party, which has effective power in most of the world today. Through privatisation of public assets, the movement of capital and jobs around the world, the consolidation of media empires and many other factors, the Party’s members are just as likely to be found in business, the media or NGOs as in political life: indeed, it would not be inappropriate to describe them as a Communist Party-style nomenklatura. Highly educated, travelling and living internationally, they see only each other, and imbibe the same ideas. Reading the same newspapers and internet sites, attending the same conferences and workshops, lunching, dining and of course working together, they hear only the same opinions they themselves hold.
Less obvious is the impact of the small “pro-western” class found in many countries of the Global South today. These are people who have often been educated in the West, work for western-funded organisations, speak western languages and have assimilated dominant western Liberal ideas, either because they genuinely believe them, or because it is expedient for them to do so. In many cases they occupy important positions in politics, government, the media and business. The West fools itself into the belief that such people are representative of their societies, and is serially confused and disappointed when this proves not to be the case. Franz Fanon’s aphorism that “every colonial subject secretly wants to be white,” may be an exaggeration, but it certainly applies to those in the western-educated elite circles of which Fanon himself was part. (Indeed, his critique of colonialism itself owes its vocabulary and concepts to his philosophy studies at the University of Lyon, under Maurice Merleau-Ponty, at the same time as he was training to be a doctor.) One of the earliest and most obvious signs of the rebalancing of the world is the progressive loss of interest in the West by this group, accompanied by a reduction of their influence in their own countries, and indeed a reduction in the ability of the West to finance and motivate them, as it has fewer and fewer rewards to offer. This was already starting to happen slowly, but it has accelerated since the twin shocks of Ukraine and Gaza, and the revelation of the economic, political and military weakness of the West.
This class is beginning to lose control now in even western countries, as its own incompetence and the incoherence and inutility of its ideas become increasingly unmistakable. In turn, this will both undermine the influence of western states (it’s increasingly hard to preach democracy and good governance when you ignore them at home) and encourage other states to look to their own traditions and culture for the running of their social and political systems. Which brings us to the most important point: the link between political and economic power on one hand, and ideas on the other.
Simply put, as I have argued elsewhere, “ideas” have no agency in themselves. Decisions are taken by named individuals, not by abstractions or organisations. But in turn, it matters greatly which ideas these individuals hold, and that is essentially a question of power and influence. Organisations can change their basic assumptions—their operating systems if you like—over a period of time, as the individuals cycling through them change, and bring currently fashionable ideas with them. Thus, a Finance Minister from 1954, attending a meeting of the IMF today, would probably think he had stumbled into a lunatic asylum. But what has been undone once can be undone again, and over the next decade we shall see a gradual reconfiguration of the world operating system, as different countries and cultures reshape the assumptions and procedures by which it operates.
That’s not to say that the formal structure of the international system will change radically. The one thing that the five Permanent Members of the Security Council are agreed on is that things should stay as they are. But on the one hand the Council may itself begin to lose significance, and on the other, non-permanent members, perhaps supported by China and Russia, are likely to become more assertive and independent during their presidencies. Likewise, candidates not favoured by the West will be increasingly appointed to head UN Organisations, and countries hostile to the West will increasingly be voted into membership of specialised committees. It may not sound that much, but over a period of time, it will substantially change the way the international system operates.
The same will apply to the resolution of crises, and what follows. The Liberal conception of international politics is vague, aspirational and normative, whereas the Liberal concept of Law is fussy, precise and detailed. The combination of the two, which has largely held sway since 1945, is essentially unworkable. It has led to incredibly complex and detailed peace treaties with grandiose aspirations, full of Protocols and Annexes signifying little, which are often not translated into the local language, and so often simply ignored. There is every chance that the model for the future will instead be the Chinese management of the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, which seems to have concentrated on building confidence and a degree of trust and finding common ground, rather than detailed and technical provisions.
Similarly, rather than treating International Law as a set of non-binding but politically-important guidelines, Liberalism has waged war (almost literally) over commas and sub-paragraphs, a process resembling what the French describe somewhat vulgarly as enculer les mouches (look it up.) And it tries to treat the detail of blood and chaos of war with the finickiness of a contractual dispute, and judges wind up making frankly subjective judgements about things that they don’t really understand. This has been most noticeable in the attempt to apply the unworkable Genocide Convention to the terrible events in Gaza, as though it were ever possible to be sure, to a criminal standard of proof, about the contents of somebody’s brain, and as though technical points of drafting (what percentage is “part” of a community? Is there really such a thing as a “race?”) actually change the horror of what is going on there . (All attempts to actually use the Convention in real trials have succeeded only by ignoring what it says and making stuff up.)
This is too big a subject to treat further here (though I may do so on a subsequent occasion) but I just want to underline the stark contrast between the modern, technocratic Liberal concept of Law at all levels, and the more flexible and socially-based view of other societies, and indeed of most societies in history. The origin of Law in ancient societies (Egyptian Ma’at, Greek Nomos) was effectively the codification of traditional norms: “what we do.” In pre-literate societies, there were limits to how codified such laws could be, if they were to be clear and understood by all. Even the Romans were averse to putting too much trust in written law, as opposed to good sense. But the traditional view that Law exists primarily to codify accepted values and practices, has been replaced in modern Liberal thinking by Law as a weapon for the normative deconstruction and remaking of other peoples’ societies and economies. This is inevitably going to change.
Finally, much of the western domination of operating details the international system has been related to software, not hardware. That is to say, some (but not all) western states have expertise in foreign policy and security issues that is the product of history and culture, and inherited capability. If the UN Secretary General decided to set up a working group to explore, say, options for peace in Myanmar, he would make an appeal not only to countries in the region, but also to countries with long experience of handling crises around the world, and a lot of government expertise. Unsurprisingly, western countries have figured prominently in that list. But after the serial shambles of Brexit, Covid, Ukraine, and now Gaza, and the political crises shaking the EU and western nations generally, that image of western expertise and competence is looking rather battered. Of course, new, competent actors will not appear overnight, and political inertia will continue to give some western states an important role for a while yet, but we can already see the Chinese flexing their muscles (over Myanmar as it happens) and there will be a definite shift in the way that political crises around the world are managed.
All this, of course, is gradual, rather than apocalyptic. It is as stupid to do a find-and-replace substituting “China” for “America” as it is to assume that nothing will change. Because things will change, but gradually, and often below the surface. The Russians and Chinese, along with many other nations, are not looking to dominate the world, but rather to a world where different sorts of power are diffused in different ways, and decisions are taken by discussion and bargaining between groups that are much more equal. We do not have to assume that the leaders of such countries are animated by the highest moral sentiments: they see national advantage in moving towards a world where power is more dispersed, that’s all. But the process as a whole is likely to be uncomfortable for the West, stuck as it is with rigid and often unsophisticated assumptions about how the system works now, let alone what it is likely to evolve into. Dealing with that change is going to be a massive challenge for the political systems of the West. I’m not sure they are necessarily up to it.