Hans-Joachim Spanger rightly points to the main challenges to European security emphasizing that new challenges could only be adequately addressed against the backdrop of the global political changes of the last ten to twenty years. He makes a worrying diagnosis of the current state of European security, and provides some practical recommendations for improving the situation. However, we should not give up upon the existing order with its liberal norms and principles so quickly as this would strengthen those actors that seek to undermine it.
In his recent PRIF BLOG post Hans-Joachim (as many other scholars of international relations) postulates that the international order – be it “liberal world order”, the “rule-based international order” or even the US-“shaped” order – is in crisis. Numerous manifestations in international politics seem to confirm such a strong statement. But in fact, these are not manifestations that allow scholars to use the term ‘crisis’ as crisis means that existing and emerging problems cannot be resolved within the framework of the existing international order. This, however, is a fairly one-sided and shortsighted view.
First, the remarkable growth of Chinese economy is inseparable from the country’s increasing dependency upon trade with the US and the EU. Moreover, other nations (Brazil, India) are eager to replace China as suppliers of the global competitive markets. An old-fashioned Marxist would claim that China is just an element in a global division of labor, economically dependent on the goodwill of traditional capitalist superpowers. And why would it seriously challenge the international order that seems to be so beneficial to its economic growth?
Anyway, most scholars do not expect the Chinese government to take the risk of destroying economic relations with the US and the EU. Russia obviously is a different story as its relative economic position in the current international order continues to decline. However, Russia is an internationally isolated and economically insignificant nation (with less than 2 percent of global GDP).
Taking domestic politics into account
My second concern relates to the benchmark for ascent of the rising powers. In the 20th century military potential was a function of industrial production, and nations with more coal and steel could produce more tanks and guns. Today, the role of technological innovations has replaced the significance of industrial production, and perhaps the volume of industrial output cannot serve anymore as a benchmark for economic power relevant to the arguments of global power transition. These are the new technologies that form the basis of modern and future military power. In that respect, we do not see a weakening of the West as it still keeps monopoly power in many high tech areas.
My third – and probably the most important – point is that domestic politics as an explanatory variable has to be taken account of. According to conventional wisdom rising powers seek to change their place in the international hierarchy once they reach certain threshold in economic and military terms regardless of domestic political factors and fears of the political incumbents. Yet the author supports the idea of an international order that no longer binds status allocations and participation to liberal democratic standards, but to ensuring stability and peace. The legitimacy of this new order should derive from new authorization of difference, while this authorization could be achieved, for example, by limiting the struggle for democracy to the societal level and by reserving security for the legitimate units of political authority in the international order, the states.
If we are talking about threats to the international status quo order from a stronger China (and perhaps Russia), then strategically it makes sense to weaken them politically and technologically and increase their dependency on the West. In this logic, all means to weaken Russia and China would lead to maintaining stability, or at least to slowing down instability. And one of the ways to weaken them in the international arena would be to achieve this through democratization (arguing cynically, the threat of democratization would force these states to spend more on controlling the society and less on foreign policy).
The liberal international order is imperfect, but not in crisis
Besides all of the above, focusing on the balance of great powers unfortunately leaves no room for smaller states. Taking into consideration that most European states are small while the text is titled ‘Recalibrating European security’, the author’s choice would seem somewhat strange to me for this reason alone. I strongly feel that we are in too much in a hurry to declare a crisis of international order. Yes, it is very imperfect, but existing problems could be solved within its framework.
“Crisis,” on the other hand, means that a different order is urgently needed, while concrete understanding of its essence (first of all commitments of international actors) is obviously not in place so far. Even more dangerous is the fact that discussions about the “crisis” send a signal to those international actors who would like to change the existing order in their favor, that the norms and rules of the current order could be easily disregarded, as it is practically no longer valid.