A New World Order? Think Again.

by James A. Russell

Russia’s storming of the Ukrainian naval base in Crimea just as Iran and world powers wrapped up another round of negotiations in Vienna earlier this week represent seemingly contradictory bookends to a world that some believe is spinning out of control.

It’s hard not to argue that the world seems a bit trigger-happy these days. Vladimir Putin’s Russian mafia thugs armed with weapons bought with oil money calmly annex the Crimea. Chinese warships ominously circle obscure shoals in the Western Pacific as Japan and other countries look on nervously. Israel and Hezbollah appear eager to settle scores and start another war in Lebanon. Syria and Libya continue their descent into a medieval-like state of nature as the world looks on not quite knowing what to do.

The icing on the cake is outgoing Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai’s telling the United States to get stuffed and leave his country — after we’ve spent billions dollars of borrowed money and suffered thousands of casualties over 13 years propping up his corrupt kleptocracy. Karzai and his cronies are laughing all the way to their secret Swiss banks with their pockets stuffed full of US taxpayer dollars. Why the United States thinks it needs to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan remains a mystery — but that’s another story altogether.

econ-imageIn the United States, noted foreign policy experts like Senator John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Condoleeza Rice have greeted these developments with howls of protest and with a call to arms to reassert America’s global leadership to tame a world that looks like it’s spinning out of control. They appear to believe that we should somehow use force or the threat of force as an instrument to restore order. Never mind that these commentators have exercised uniformly bad judgment on nearly all the major foreign policy issues of the last decade.

The protests of these commentators notwithstanding, however, it is worth engaging in a debate about what all these events really mean; whether they are somehow linked and perhaps emblematic of a more important structural shift in international politics towards a more warlike environment. For the United States, these developments come as the Obama administration sensibly tries to take the country’s military off a permanent war-footing and slow the growth in the defense budget — a budget that will still see the United States spend more on its military than most of the rest of the world combined.

The first issue is whether the events in Crimea are emblematic of a global system in which developed states may reconsider the basic calculus that has governed decision-making since World War II — that going to war doesn’t pay. Putin may have correctly calculated that the West doesn’t care enough about Crimea to militarily stop Russia, but would the same calculus apply to Moldova, Poland, or some part of Eastern Europe? Similarly, would the Central Committee in Beijing risk a wider war in the Pacific over the bits of rocks in the South China Sea that are claimed by various countries?

While we can’t know the answer to these questions, the political leadership of both Russia and China clearly would face significant political, economic, and military costs in choosing to exercise force in a dispute in which the world’s developed states could not or would not back down. These considerations remain a powerful deterrent to a resumption of war between the developed states, events in Crimea notwithstanding– although miscalculations by foolhardy leaders are always a possibility. Putin could have chosen some other piece of real estate that might have led to a different reaction by the West, but it seems unlikely.

The second kind of inter-state dispute troubling the system are those between countries/actors that have a healthy dislike for one another. Clearly, the most dangerous of these situations is the relationship between India and Pakistan — two nuclear-armed states that have been exchanging fire directly and indirectly for much of the last half century. By the same token, however, there is really nothing new in this dispute that has remained a constant since both states were created after Britain’s departure from the subcontinent.

Similarly, the situation in the Middle East stemming from Israel’s still unfinished wars of independence remains a constant source of regional instability. Maybe one day, Israel and its neighbors will finally decide on a set of agreeable borders, but until they do we can all expect them to resort to occasional violence until the issue is settled. Regrettably, neither Israel nor its neighbors shows any real interest in peaceful accommodation.

The third kind of war is the intra-national conflicts like those in Syria, the Congo, and Libya that some believe is emblematic of a more general slide into a global state-of-nature Hobbesian world in which the weak perish and the strong survive. If this is the case, what if anything can be done about it?

Here again, however, we have to wonder what if anything is new with these wars. As much as we might not like it, internal political evolution in developing states can and often does turn violent until winners emerge. The West’s own evolution in Europe took hundreds of years of bloodshed until winners emerged and eventually established political systems capable of resolving disputes peacefully through politics and national institutions. The chaos in places like Syria, the Congo, Libya, and Afghanistan has actually been the norm of international politics over much of the last century — not the exception.

This returns us to the other bookend cited at the outset of this piece — the reconvened negotiations in Vienna that are attempting to resolve the standoff between Iran and the international community. These meetings point to perhaps the most significant change in the international system over the last century that has seen global institutions emerge as mechanisms to control state behavior through an incentive structure that discourages war and encourages compliance with generally accepted behavioral norms.

These institutions, such as the United Nations, and their supporting regulatory structures like the International Atomic Energy Agency have helped establish new behavioral norms and impose costs on states that do not comply with the norms. While we cannot be certain of what caused Iran to seek a negotiated solution to its standoff with the international community over its nuclear program, it is clear that the international community has imposed significant economic costs on Iran over the last eight years of ever-tightening sanctions.

Similarly, that same set of global institutions and regulatory regimes supported by the United States will almost certainly impose sanctions that will increase the costs of Putin’s violation of international norms in Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Those costs will build up over time, just as they have for Iran and other states like North Korea that find themselves outside of the general global political and economic system. As Iran has discovered, and as Russia will also discover — it’s an expensive and arguably unsustainable proposition to be the object of international obloquy.

For those hawks arguing for a more militarized US response to these disparate events, it’s worth returning to George F. Kennan’s basic argument for a patient, defensive global posture. Kennan argued that inherent US and Western strength would see it through the Cold War and triumph over its weaker foes in the Kremlin. As Kennan correctly noted: we were strong, they were weaker. Time was on our side, not theirs. The world’s networked political and economic institutions only reinforce the strength of the West and those other members of the international community that choose to play by the accepted rules for peaceful global interaction.

The same holds true today. Putin’s Russia is a paper tiger that is awash in oil money but with huge structural problems. Russia’s corrupt, mafia-like dictatorship will weaken over time as it is excluded from the system of global political and economic interactions that rewards those that play by the rules and penalizes those that don’t.

As for other wars around the world in places like Syria, we need to recognize they are part of the durable disorder of global politics that cannot necessarily be managed despite the awful plight of the poor innocent civilians and children — who always bear the costs of these tragic conflicts.

We need to calm down and recognize that the international system is not becoming unglued; it is simply exhibiting immutable characteristics that have been with us for much of recorded history. We should, however, be more confident of the ability of the system (with US leadership) to police itself and avoid rash decisions that will only make these situations worse.

Photo: A Russian armoured personnel carrier in Simferopol, the provincial capital of Crimea. Credit: Zack Baddorf/IPS.

James Russell

James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world. His latest book is titled Innovation, Transformation and War: US Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book about learning in irregular war, focusing on US military operations in Afghanistan. Prior to arriving at NPS from 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on various aspects of US security policy. He holds a Masters in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London. The views he expresses here are his own.



  1. Interesting. I wonder, is this preaching to the choir, or a symptom of looking at the subject for too long a period? I agree with the last paragraph, but shouldn’t someone speak of the Empire building that’s going on, as well as going into depth, the jadedness that exists today between the “cults”? If it wasn’t for the “borrowed monies” that powers these various wars the U.S. has engaged in, allowing the despots the U.S. puts into power, the killing and maiming of both the civilian population[s] as well as the U.S. Military personnel, would we be having these discussions? Will it be too late before the common sense returns, or is it a non-starter?

  2. An interesting and thoughtful article, though I question the statement ‘Regrettably, neither Israel nor its neighbors shows any real interest in peaceful accommodation.’ It is Israel alone – I believe – which has no constitutionally defined boundaries. There is a widespread suspicion that the Zionist aspiration for Eretz (“Greater”) Israel, stretching from the River Nile to the River Euphrates, is what lies behind this.
    US and majority European (and tacit Eurasian?) support provides Israel with complete impunity and immunity (thanks to the US veto in the UN on just about everything) and Israel is THE most powerful military regime in south west Asia.
    Comparing Israel with its neighbours on equal terms is clearly inapplicable.
    Israel has a substantial military advantage over all its adjoining countries to an incredible degree.
    The problem is not that Israel’s neighbours do not want a peaceful resolution to the current situation but that it is the Israelis alone who lack the wisdom, foresight and magnanimity to agree final terms.
    The Kerry “peace” talks are widely anticipated to fail, principally because the Zionists insist on introducing new factors whenever the possibility of a resolution occurs. In England, we refer to this practice as “moving the goal posts”, which is something the Zionists invariably do in order to frustrate any peaceful resolution in the area. In this process, the US has been fully complicit for decades now.
    One final point, which you may find equally unpalatable: what gives the US the right or entitlement to determine world affairs? While they may have a powerful military, so too did the Greeks and the Romans – and look what happened to them historically. In more recent times, European powers like Britain, German, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal have all had their own empires rise and fall.
    There are how many US citizens in the world – around 300 million? Out of a global population of 7 billion – and rising. Why should they expect to have any more say in world affairs than anyone else living on the planet Earth? Some humility on the part of the USA might not go amiss.

  3. I would call putting a group of fringe neo-Nazis into the executive branch of a European government a slight wrinkle in the existing world order.

    Maybe we should have seen this coming. In fact, it’s just the logical step that began in 1948 when thousands of Nazis, “middle management” types, who were captured and slated for the guillotine, were suddenly let go and actively recruited by western intelligence agencies in the cold war against the Soviet Union.

    You could read about this secret history in Christopher Simpson’s 1988 book Blowback.

    Sooner or later they were bound to be handed the keys to power. What makes it so comical is that it came on the watch of the first African-American president who no doubt saw those pics of Confederate and white power flags hanging in a government building in Kiev.

  4. The US secret service recruited former Nazi spies immediately from 1945 onwards.
    The West German secret service was easily infiltrated by East German and Soviet counter-espionage.
    From the immediate get-go, the USA was fairly hopeless in the intelligence game.
    Most of the neo-Nazi and ex-IDF thugs in Kiev were paid for with the $5 billion mentioned by Nuland.
    Why – you have to ask yourself – are rabid antisemites and activist Zionists collaborating together in Kiev?
    The mess in the Ukraine is a wholly made-in-the-USA mess – no one else’s.
    I also doubt it has much to do with Obama – he is probably as much in the dark as everyone else.

  5. Thanks John, you hit the nail on the head. Couldn’t agree more with your points. The Arab peace initiative appears very sound and fair by anyone who has bothered to look at it in depth, and it is the Israeli rejectionism that is continue to fuel instability and the voilence. And it’s funny how the author mentions many areas of turmoil but fails to acknowledge that at some point the US empire has had a hand in either creating or contributing to these debarcles, overthrowing democratic regimes, propping up dictators, supporting unsavoury gorilla groups, miscalculated military adventurism, etc, etc….as you said some self reflection and humility will go a long way, but I wouldn’t hold my breath

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