The New World Disorder

As a marked increase in conflict causes instability across the globe, the West can only watch international order unravel

Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

In the end, the summer of 2014 resisted the fateful pairing with 1914 that some proposed. But no one can deny this long and hot summer its achievements:  like 100 years ago, August has been the high season for guns. The conflicts are well known (Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq, Syria and Libya): the difficulty lies in imposing a hierarchy that does justice to their magnitude and consequences. Each one of those conflicts has brought a double challenge: that of the loss of human lives, serious in itself; and, simultaneously, the demolition of some of the foundations upon which the world order is based.

Increasingly, the conflicts we face, and those it seems we will unfortunately face in the future, are characterized by a stark asymmetry in their repercussions.

Increasingly, the conflicts we face, and those it seems we will unfortunately face in the future, are characterized by a stark asymmetry in their repercussions. Even if we decide to abstain from involvement, these will affect us. This explains, for example, why we not only lament the tragic fate of the minorities in Northern Iraq subjected to a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing by Islamic State jihadists, but we lament even more so the knowledge that the help we are offering will not restore order in the region or bring a lasting peace. Arming the Kurds or launching airstrikes against the jihadists are inevitable decisions, but they will not repair the divided and battered Iraq State nor will they lay the foundation for the eventual peace process in Syria.

The difficulties that we are experiencing have to do with the role of the state. On one side we have states that become disordered and on the other, states that deny the international order and it´s rules, disordering others. Just as with their motivations, the threats they pose are very different but do converge on one point: the progressive narrowing of the current liberal international order, a process that may end in its complete suffocation and the start of a prolonged period of anarchy and international conflict.

In the strip called the Levant, the state has ceased to exist as a form of political and administrative organization, and the state monopoly of violence is being replaced by sectarian and religious violence with roots as deep as they are intractable.

The first type of problem, the fragmentation of existing states, is the dominant one in the Middle Eastern conflicts. Behind Abu Bakr Al Bagdadi´s proclamation of an Islamic caliphate hides a truth of very uncomfortable consequence:  that in that strip called the Levant that extends from Syria to Northern Iraq, the state has ceased to exist as a form of political and administrative organization, and the state monopoly of violence is being replaced by sectarian and religious violence with roots as deep as they are intractable.  At the heart of it is a similar process as witnessed in Libya: there, the state, if ever there was something that merited the name, has also been reduced to an amalgam of factions which on the one hand suck their Egyptian and Gulf neighbours into their skirmishes and on the other, export weapons and chaos to the entire Sahel region.  This denial of the state is, if possible, even more entrenched in the Palestine-Israeli conflict, although in this case under two converging pressures: the state that the Israelis incomprehensibly deny the Palestinians and the one that Hamas denies the Gazans.  And even with some obvious caveats regarding the origin of the problem and its dimensions, the problem of state weakness is also present in the conflict in Ukraine, a country that has wasted away over the course of the decade since the Orange Revolution of 2004.

Acting successfully in many of these conflicts requires achieving triumph in something the West has failed at too many times to believe in again:  the construction of open and democratic nation-states.  From Afghanistan to Iraq, via Syria or Libya, today´s failures are the failings of past, and also those of the future. The prognosis is not encouraging since in the absence of states and worse, state-builders, chaos will continue to flow through the cracks permitted by state weaknesses. And as we experienced this summer, a world without states is even worse than a world with authoritarian and closed ones.

As we experienced this summer, a world without states is even worse than a world with authoritarian and closed ones.

 

The second type of instability comes from the states that create disorder. Some, like Russia, are declining and insecure powers that to survive, create a mini-order in their image and likeness in the immediate surrounding area. To create these areas of influence they do not hesitate, just as Moscow has done throughout this crisis, to break all the bolts of the existing European order dating to the Helsinki agreements of 1975. As a result, not only has war and territorial annexation returned to the European continent, but a radical questioning of the entire network of multilateral institutions on which the European order rested.  If the conflict has not spread it is because the European Union has wisely decided to asymmetrically face an asymmetric threat: by diverting the Russian military push towards the financial realm, the EU has avoided war but has failed to save the political and legal order on which peace rests. The EU and Russia today exist in a precarious equilibrium sustained by the respective asymmetries between financial power and military power. But this is power logic, not a logic of peace or security upon which we can rest easy.

It is not difficult to imagine the interest with which Beijing observes the disordering of Europe and the interest, but from the reverse angle, of Tokyo, Manila or Hanoi. Not in their wildest dreams could Chinese leaders imagine such a perfect experiment to see how the West faces its decline as witnessed in Ukraine. Of course, unlike Russia, the Chinese have time on their side: they can afford a much smoother transition from the role of spectators of disorder to creators of it.  Hence the strategic patience with which the Chinese are successfully testing their Japanese, Filipino and Vietnamese neighbours in the South China Sea: Chinese pressure on the Senkaku islands or the Spratley or Paracel archipelagos represents a periodic test of the robustness of both the rules and coalitions that sustain peace in waters through which 50% of the world´s seaborne trade passes. Like Russia in Ukraine, China may come to believe it feasible to impose its own version of a regional mini-order in which its supremacy is undisputed through just a succession of military fait accompli. With one caveat: that unlike Russia, facing a postmodern European Union, the United States is far from the asymmetric contender that Putin finds in Brussels.

We live under a political order that instead of developing into a post-state world is divided in two.

The sum of these two types of disorder leads to a paradoxical situation. On the one hand we live in an economic world order of a post-state nature which works fully integrated, with production and distribution chains that know no boundaries.  But then we live under a political order that instead of developing into a post-state world (only the European Union has reached the stage where sovereignty has melted into the background) is divided in two: the states that limp along, squeak and even disappear, and those that reinforce their statehood at the expense of international order and effectively resist submitting to an order they do not consider themselves indebted to.

After the Second World War, the West went from making war to making the rules governing international order. But now, it is neither willing to adapt these rules nor able to impose them, nor does it know how to persuade others to accept them. Paralyzed by its helplessness, it has become a passive spectator of its own decline. 

Translated by Carla J. Hobbs. An earlier version was commissioned and published by El Pais in Spain.

 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Author

Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow