Interregnum before a new world order

Two wars and a depression preceded the emergence of the previous world order. The world is again straining at the seams, but it is missing statesmanship this time
(Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
(Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

About 90 years ago, in the wake of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe, the Italian politician-philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote of the crisis in world affairs: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” This is a perfect description of the state of the world today. The international order of the Cold War years has clearly passed on; its successor is nowhere in sight. The “morbid symptoms” of the interregnum are there for all to see, from the seemingly endless war of attrition in Ukraine to the hot conflict in West Asia, escalating US-China tensions—though attenuated somewhat by the recent Joe Biden-Xi Jinping meeting—and assorted conflicts in Asia, Africa and Europe.

They flow, in part, from a failure of the international community to discard Cold War mindsets and, for the other part, unwillingness to grasp the implications of the political and economic transformations in the post-Cold War international landscape. We have moved very quickly from a liberal international order, underpinned by unipolarity in the early years after the Cold War, to a messy patchwork of conflicts and skirmishes.

Post-Cold War politics and economics encouraged many countries to rediscover their geopolitical perspectives. Globalisation and technology flows enabled a number of them to leapfrog stages of development and attain political, economic and military strength that fuelled their ambitions for greater regional and global influence. They put their national interests foremost in their policies.

This explains the divergent responses of countries to the wars in Ukraine and West Asia and to US-China tensions. The narrative of democracy vs authoritarianism does not sell. Countries invariably choose interests over values, though they may explain it otherwise. They are increasingly aggressive in stressing their autonomy of policy. Witness in this regard the Saudi insistence on oil production cuts resisting US blandishments, or the virtual stampede of ‘middle’ countries—including some American allies and partners—to join BRICS earlier this year. It is not that they do not accept the US-led international order; they want a greater say in it.

Most countries declare their allegiance to a rules-based order, but the interpretation of the rules varies. They abide by rules that suit their interests and ignore or reinterpret those that do not. The more assertive among them believe that they should have a greater say in framing, interpreting and administering the rules of this order. The latest US National Security Strategy recognises this aspiration. It asserts that all nations supporting universal rights and freedoms should have the opportunity to participate in shaping the rules of the international order, whatever their political system. But translation of this principle into action requires a broad international consensus on rule-building that the current fractures in global politics render unattainable.

The Russia-Ukraine war sharpened faultlines along one axis, the West Asian crisis along another, and US-China tensions along a third. The narratives propagated by the various parties to these disputes use history as a malleable substance, to be moulded according to the actions or policies being justified. Globalisation has been securitised and multilateralism is on life support. Talks about a liberal international order are increasingly hollow, since elements of ‘illiberal’ political and economic behaviour have crept into every democracy to a greater or lesser degree.

Free speech is a democratic virtue, but only when it is in line with political correctness or geopolitical interests; otherwise a ‘cancel culture’ kicks in. Allegations of genocide, ethnic cleansing or war crimes are freely bandied around, without historical context or verification. Meanwhile, the world barely noticed when a 100,000-strong Armenian population was literally hounded out of its traditional homeland of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan a few weeks ago. Pakistan has declared that it will expel millions of Afghan refugees from its territory; no one seems to care. Concern for human rights is a function of space and time.

Labelling states as rogue, evil or outcasts bent on disrupting the international order ignores the fact that they may have interests or concerns that need to be addressed. It triggers confrontations that thwart possibilities of bringing them into the fold of a manageable international order. When it is applied to countries with the political, economic and geographic weight of Russia and Iran, the problem is exacerbated.

It follows from this bleak picture that we do not today have a functioning international order. The mix of a dominant US, truculent China, disgruntled Russia, directionless Europe and a host of middle powers aggressively promoting their ambitions does not provide conducive ingredients for a sustainable rules-based order, especially when a zero-sum approach is applied to every conflict or rivalry.

We will therefore keep teetering on the edge of precipices, moving from one major conflagration to another, with the constant threat of an irresponsible state or non-state actor pushing the situation over the edge.

Analysts, particularly in the United States, are hopeful that the aftermath of the current Israeli military action in Gaza could open the door to a durable settlement, according recognition to Palestinian claims of land and political status. In the seemingly unlikely event that this happens, it would provide a template for a post-Cold war reconciliation that rejects a zero-sum approach.

The new order that Gramsci awaited was eventually born after a protracted, destructive world war. Today, with the near-anarchical clashes of national interests and the proliferation of lethal weaponry available to state and non-state actors, that would be a pathway to certain destruction rather than to a stable international order. There is no indication of the statesmanship in major countries that can spearhead the search for an alternative course. The best option available to us today is to manage the interregnum as best as possible.

P S Raghavan

Distinguished Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation, and a former diplomat

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