The current state of international relations can be captured by the phrase – beaten track, uncertain horizon. The recent developments demonstrate that the major powers behave in expected ways, but from a long-range perspective, they do not indicate whether they will cooperate to build a peaceful world.
The post-cold war 21st-century world is different from the cold war 20th-century world. That was the time when the bipolar world was the definitive character of international politics, and scholars like Kenneth Waltz predicted that this bipolar model would be stable. The United States and the Soviet Union were two major adversaries, representing two ideologies and different poles of attraction, gathering other countries from the world around them. It was stable in the sense that the two great powers drove international politics, and small developments at small places were eschewed under the larger concerns of superpower politics. Though Waltz’s prediction did not prove true as the bipolar system collapsed in the 1990s, the system provided stability in international politics for many decades in the 20th century.
Though scholars like Fukuyama declared the victory of liberal democracy, the world after the end of the cold war appeared more chaotic than earlier. There was no Soviet Union, nor were there raging debates about capitalist and socialist models of development. Capitalism thrived, and also thrived the cocktail of capitalism and authoritarianism. China emerged as a major power despite not being a democratic country. Russia retained its military might, though economically it became weaker. Other countries including India appeared on the international political scene. While scholars like Steven Pinker and Joshua Goldstein adopted an optimistic approach and predicted that we live in a peaceful world, the reality did not corroborate that approach.
We do not have world wars or major interstate wars in the last many decades, but we have what Kalevi Holsti termed wars of ‘third kind’, reflected in the rise of intrastate wars and insurgencies. One could add to these rising religious fundamentalism and terrorism, communal violence, cyber warfare, etc. The recent ransomware attacks in the United States could be included in the rising instances of wars of third kind. The rising global power, China, aggressively pursued its foreign policy goals and used offensive realist methods despite its official proclamation of peaceful rise. Theocratic states like Saudi Arabia flourished despite their suppression of human rights as revealed in the case of Jamal Khashoggi. Liberal international powers reconciled to reality after initial whimpers. Liberal-moral concerns of democracy and human rights were eschewed by prudence and realist concerns of interest and power.
When Biden during his recent meeting with Putin presented the concerns about electoral interference, cyber warfare, and ransomware, and undermining of democratic dissent, they were on expected lines. Also on expected lines were Putin’s denial of charges and recalcitrant posture. Biden acknowledged Russia as a ‘worthy adversary’, thus bringing back the cold war narrative. Putin as a former KGB official and strategist knew well how to play his cards, and it would perhaps be an amusement for him to be considered a worthy adversary. While during the cold war, Soviet Union was the major adversary and other problems constellated around this bipolar rivalry, in the post cold war era, the Biden administration would confront not only Russia but also China.
Relying on old paradigms and narratives may not help in this globalized, interconnected world, in which ideas and values morph quickly and give rise to new ideas and theories. As almost everything is open to public glare, it will be difficult to separate means and ends of foreign policy. The idea of carrot and stick, or the ideas of using soft power at some places and hard power at some other places, or tools such as deterrence and compellence, may not work effectively as earlier as in this globally interconnected world, intentions, howsoever couched in decent languages, cannot be hidden.
In his recent work Joseph Nye, Jr. articulated well that morals matter in foreign policy. If the goal is to establish a peaceful and moral world, then the first step must be developing a peaceful and moral agenda and then giving it a policy shape. Biden’s visit to Europe and meeting with European leaders and G-7 leaders recently is a step in that direction. Prospects of including all countries of the world including the adversaries in this process of building a just and peaceful world need to be explored. While it may appear necessary to have adversaries or rivals to have an enjoyable political game, in international politics it is not necessary that conflict must be the path towards international peace and security. It may sound idealist, but the United States under President Biden can provide moral leadership to the world. Perhaps there is no better time than now.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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