The gradual culmination of the political season is promising no calm fall or even end of summer. In most cases, the source of instability is the West, a group of countries that won the Cold War. But today their internal unity and international responsibility face challenges. Moreover, it is the US and its European friends/allies that are regarded by the rest of the world as universal spoilers unable to put their own house in order and disseminators of chaos. The Western countries’ actions at home and elsewhere are alarming the international community, and for good reason. This is a good pretext for analyzing the causes and potential consequences of their behavior, particularly that of the United States, one of the world’s three military superpowers.
Objectively speaking, it would be as much of a fatal analytical simplification to accuse the US of destroying the existing world order as it would in 1939 to accuse Hitler of starting World War II. In either case, the political leaders, no matter how reckless their actions were, are just tools in the hands of History. What needs to be considered are the systemic factors that determine the development of the international system in a historical period. The relevance of any ideas, be it the fantasies about the “end of history” 30 years ago or the ruinous radicalism of Donald Trump’s closest associates, is determined by the existing historical context, while this context itself is nothing more than the outcome of a preceding international political process.
In global terms, the current international situation is a result of the processes launched in the early 1990s by the disintegration of a relatively stable postwar world order. Though unfair, this order was comparatively stable and reflected the balance of forces between the leading states. In Europe, the mounting chaos is the result of the political and institutional decisions approved by the regional leaders on the back of the astounding success of European integration during the “glorious decade” between the European Single Act of 1986 and the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam. But in both cases, the disarray is linked to the insurmountable contradiction between the subjective demand for greater control over the most important processes, on the one hand, and objective obstacles to the effectuation of this control by individual, even the most powerful, players.
There is no denying that the destabilizing behavior of the United States is one of the most striking and disturbing phenomena in current international politics that is giving a lot of trouble to other great, middle and small powers. One has the impression that like King Midas, who turned everything he touched into gold, the US government can turn any international issue into a hotspot and a factor of instability by its mere attention thereto. In June, the international community’s focus and greatest worry was Iran because Washington’s strategy in recent months has hinged on a confrontation with that country. By its decisions and statements, the US not only put paid to the advances achieved in the course of dialogue between Tehran and the international community before 2018, but also has put the situation in the region on the verge of a large scale war. No one doubts that a hypothetical military confrontation between the two will not be a walkover.
But it is also clear that neither Washington nor Tehran is eager to cross the red line, for the consequences may prove fatal for both, albeit in different ways. Iran is likely to see the collapse of its political system and a considerable loss of life. The United States is in for numerous casualties as well and in addition will have to contain Tehran’s response throughout the Middle East. And in any case, a hypothetical war with Iran is not for the US an option necessary for strategic reasons like the 1950-1953 Korean War. This is why concentrating all available forces and assets in this spot – and Iran will not be defeated unless it does so – cannot be explained away as a national objective. By and large, the Trump administration will not distinguish itself by any remarkable military venture. But this is not diminishing the overall destabilizing effect of its activities, or rather the discomfort it is inflicting on others.
US-China relations are another area where international tensions are steadily growing. During the last few years, the PRC authorities have done a lot to change the US perceptions of their country’s intentions and potential. China spent several decades pursuing a policy of “saving strength and keeping in the shadow.” It skillfully used in its interests the US illusion that it would grow more comfortable for the West politically as its market economy made strides. But nothing of the kind has happened. Under President Xi Jinping, China challenged the US on two counts simultaneously. First, it has offered developing countries a real alternative to Western development sources as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. Second, after China solves its domestic problems, it will inevitably have to put competitive pressure on the United States at the most important global economic venues.
But let me stress that both issues that make a rise in tensions between the two economic superpowers inevitable are a natural result of international political and economic developments in the past decades. However, the US pressure on China will not lead to the emergence of new blocs. Other countries distrust China and will not be allied with it in the long term. So, it seems that only the Western bloc will survive, if in a much weakened state as compared with the previous period. The main challenge, therefore, is the inevitable US-China confrontation against the background of either player’s inability to rally a critical mass of allies.
Strategically, the Trump administration’s wild swings are nothing else than attempts to adapt to the world, where the 30 years since the announced “end of history” has seen the US waste the last remnants of its leadership. What the US is doing now is not about attempting to establish or recover a global hegemony. America will never be a hegemon or a leader again. For all its immense might, the US can no longer aspire to being a provider of power resources for international governance. The most it can achieve is to carve out for itself as large a place as possible under the sun through sufficiently aggressive moves.
As a result, the international situation continues to develop in a chaotic manner. The number of foreign policy constants and reference points is steadily shrinking. The international institutions and the entire infrastructure left after the Cold War and the subsequent period do not work. More than that, states are less and less willing to resuscitate it. This is increasing the responsibility that devolves on each player. But there is no readiness in evidence to shoulder this responsibility and the more powerful each player is, the more devastating the consequences of its unpreparedness to face the new world.
Europe, the second pillar of the Western world, is in an equally difficult position as the US. Some 10 or 15 years ago, the EU seemed like a bulwark of stability and onward development in an increasingly troubled world. Europe considerably strengthened its hand in world politics after the Cold War and was able to put forward several ambitious projects both for internal and external consumption. The world, where many were really expecting the “end of history,” looked more than attractive from the point of view of the European Union’s experience and potential, primarily because the EU had incontestable advantages – at least with regard to its periphery – that gave it a chance to become an unchallenged leader in the region. Its successful expansion to the East and a single currency initially strengthened it to such a degree that it entered the new century in a triumphal mood.
In the subsequent years, the EU received several sensitive blows that shattered its stability and made it incapable of rational involvement in international politics. Today the situation is far from rosy, with its internal stability and efficiency shaken. The euro-zone and migration crises that followed hard on each other forced Europe to take decisions that actually threatened to restrict the EU member-countries’ sovereignty. This resulted in a surge of popularity of parties that sought to overhaul the system responsible for decision-making and the distribution of rights in the EU. These political shifts manifested themselves with particular clarity during the 2019 elections to the European Parliament.
As a consequence, the EU spent the whole of June trying to stabilize the internal political situation, and the light at the end of the tunnel is yet to appear. The European right wing failed to achieve the electoral success they had hoped for. All told, supporters of their most prominent leaders – Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen – managed to form only the fifth biggest political group in the European Parliament. But the problem came from where it was not expected. The traditional European elites had invested heavily in propaganda against the right wing. They were even convincingly branded as Eurosceptics, although neither the Italian nor French rightists evinced any intention to ruin the EU.
But the campaign resulted in a surprise for the hosts of the European political scene, the right centrists (from the European People’s Party) and the left centrists (from the political group formed by the European socialists and democrats): the Liberals and the Greens ranked third and fourth, respectively, as per the election count. And it became clear at this point that one group of European integrationists is in no hurry to serve the interests of others.
This is why the internal situation and self-immersion are likely to mean the EU’s paralysis as an active global political player for the coming years. Internationally, Europe is seeking opportunities to arrange a new cooperation mechanism with the US. Simultaneously, individual EU countries are attempting to boost their strategic independence from the US amid Washington’s diminishing predictability. The EU leaders – Germany and France – are certainly not thinking about even a hypothetical emancipation from the United States, no matter how reckless the US policy may wax. But they undoubtedly can try to gain at least some ground diplomatically. A logical decision on the part of the European leaders, under these circumstances, was their attempt to mend fences with Russia by backing its return to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, with all countries of Old Europe voting for Russia during the ballot in late June.
Another example is a situational alliance with Russia on the domestic political situation in small and poor Moldova, perhaps the most devastated country in the post-Soviet space (subject to a ruthless plunder by its irresponsible elites). To the great joy of many Russian observers, Moscow and the leading European capitals, plus Brussels, managed to reach an agreement, in early June, on the composition of a new ruling coalition in Chisinau. Later, the change of power in Moldova was endorsed by the US. As a result, the new government includes representatives of both the radical pro-Europe political camp (that has contributed the prime minister) and the relatively pro-Russia Socialist Party. Many in Moscow have accepted these events as well-nigh the beginning of a new stage in Russia-EU relations in their common neighborhood countries. It was assumed that now Europe understood the need to come to terms with Russia and the sides would be able to gradually retreat from the competitive model of relations, the most tragic consequence of which was the military and political crisis in Ukraine.
But obviously we should not jump to conclusions. Unlike Russia, which always seeks to reach a compromise with the West and “bank the profit,” the European countries, even being in a state of relative strategic nothingness, would always perceive a compromise as just a stage in a larger zero-sum game. Europe is unlikely to give up this game as it seeks to adapt to the new world, where the West has ever fewer opportunities to control everything. Therefore, it is absolutely unclear whether Europe will be able to become an effective partner for Russia in the coming years. It seems that the European nations will have to continue balancing between the wish to ensure their own relative autonomy and the inevitable dependence on the US in matters of strategic importance.
The chaos engulfing the international environment and the need for every important player to withstand its consequences all on its own are unlikely to strengthen the West’s unity. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the US and its allies lack common strategic goals or threats that could unite them, and even the growth of Chinese might is not for Europe a challenge on the same scale as it is for the United States. What does this mean for Russia? This primarily means that Russia has some room for maneuver and does not need to enter into formal allied relations with China. In turn, this will continue giving the international system a sufficient degree of flexibility that even now makes it possible to view numerous crises and conflicts less dramatically.