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From Mr. X to Mr. Y: in anticipation of Mr. Z?

One of the many things demonstrated by the enormous amount of attention that the global public, devoted to something that was, essentially, a family affair unfolding in a less-than vital country in a less-than vital region is the desperate shortage of clarity as to what matters and what does not.

Timofei Bordachyov is the Director of Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies, Department of International Economics and International Politics, State University–Higher School of Economics; Research Director, Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.


One of the many things demonstrated by the enormous amount of attention that the global public, devoted to something that was, essentially, a family affair unfolding in a less-than vital country in a less-than vital region is the desperate shortage of clarity as to what matters and what does not.

To be blunt, there are grounds for genuine surprise in the fact that the British Royal Wedding has not been included in the list of the issues to be addressed during the late afternoon session of the Russian – American Valdai Working Group meeting of May 12-13th. It would be rather timely. And, given the amount of international attention devoted to this august occasion, it would even be, in relative terms, justified. According to BBC statistics, a Google search produced about 162,000,000 hits for “royal wedding”. Add to that my own Google search this morning, which offered 252,000,000 hits for “Libya war”, 133,000,000 for “bin Laden dead”, and, sadly, only 79,300,000 for “Fukushima”.

One of the many things demonstrated by the enormous amount of attention that the global public (including the policy-making community), devoted to something that was, essentially, a family affair unfolding in a less-than vital country in a less-than vital region is the desperate shortage of clarity as to what matters and what does not. And, as one can see from various recent publications, this is not a problem that concerns the general public alone. It is, presumably a challenge currently facing the entire international academic and policy-making community.

After all, beyond the distinguishing feature of excellent written style, what differentiates Mr. Y’s narrative from George Kennan’s 1947 essay The Sources of Soviet Conduct? The distinction is, as I see it, that one of the most distinguished thinkers of the last century was in fact lucky to have a concrete subject, on which he could get a firm grasp. Kennan’s analysis was unquestionably actor–focused, something that allowed him to derive exceptionally unambiguous policy predictions and recommendations from a no less unambiguous examination of the history and internal structure of the subjects under consideration. And that is why Mr. X’s narrative served American foreign policy needs so well for so many decades. Furthermore, it also made a considerable contribution to global structural stability, as mediated by the foreign policy actions of an exceptionally important actor.

The authors of Mr. Y’s narrative, on the contrary, are not keen to demonstrate an especially explicit vision of what main phenomenon or development one should methodologically tie his or her intellectual effort to. The “deeply inter-connected global system” (Ann-Marie Slaugther, Preface to “A National Strategic Narrative” by Mr.Y, Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, 2011,p.3.) which the authors mentioned several times and which was unmistakably emphasized in the preface, is not the kind of academically sound or solid notion to which one could refer in further theoretical exploration. Rather it is merely the establishment of a certain statistical fact. This may indeed be an important fact but still, as a piece of information, does nothing to clarify the structure (and related) or actor (and related) dimensions of international politics.

We all, I believe, recognize that there is a transformation taking place within the international system. We can also, I would like to believe, agree that the state of international affairs today, as we observe it, is the product of change unfolding at both structure and actor level. The question is which actor is the major source of stability (or instability) and what structural change (whether or not it is inspired by this actor) should be seen as being the most crucial? Especially now, when Osama bin Laden, the incarnation of global terror, is definitely out of the game. No other personality or state is either willing to replace him or is even eligible for any such role in the eyes of “responsible stakeholders”.

The observation that Mr.Y and the preface’s author place at the center of their study is less helpful than one would like it to be as a tool to expand our knowledge of the particular actor relative to whom the USA should calculate their power and concentrate their efforts. In the latter part of last century, George Kennan, and America more broadly, got the foe right and, by the will of history, enjoyed the luxury of having one, well-known, explicit adversary, “a rival, not a partner, in the political arena” (X. The Sources of Soviet Conduct // Foreign Affairs, Vol. 4 (Jul., 1947), p.580.)Now, even that much less impressive invention – a certain Mr. bin Laden – is fading from view for the active players on the international stage. And in this sense the elimination of Osama was quite a brave and resolute decision. First because it raises the issue of what sort of new foot-hold can be gained in re-structuring policy analysis and, as a result (one hopes), policy implementation. So far no such foot-hold is apparent.

It is also not terribly helpful to learn more about the international system’s structure. Especially given the fact that neither these particular authors nor the rest of the international academic community seem capable of deciding exactly which form of “deep global inter-connections” is of fundamental importance and which is of derived and, hence only secondary significance. Therefore it does not help us better understand which of the modern state’s many capacities is to be prioritized when enumerating national policy priorities overseas and domestically.

Can national policy-making continue without it? I do not believe this question can be answered in the affirmative. What will the national policy-making apparatus do if the intellectual community is not able to furnish it with any such methodology? It will inevitably either incorporate opportunism into its judgments and actions, yesterday bombing Gaddafi who killed hundreds and now sitting back and watching Bashar al-Assad who kills thousands, or it will settle on a continuation of the most traditionalist policies under cover of this new agenda. This leads to the kind of policy that endeavors to develop a nation into “the strongest competitor” while still stressing the actual “positive sum game” nature of the world. You know, it is always dangerous to leave our political masters rudderless.

In addition, the lack of any methodological ability to distinguish which issues, or states, deserve to be addressed first can lead, remarkably rapidly, to pluralism in relations. And this can itself become a serious factor, undermining a certain state’s power on the international arena. Power, which, as Maurice A. Ash wrote back in 1951, is “a subjective factor […] induced by the fact of relationship.” As such, it is absolutely different from, say, armaments which are “a concept of objectivity.” (Maurice A. Ash. An Analysis of Power with Special Reference to International Relations // World Politics, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Jan., 1951), p.219.) Having too many relationships essentially equates to having none. Pretending to have a sense of satisfaction, or as it is more commonly known “relative power,” in a whole host of relationships in a myriad of areas is dreadfully demanding for states which cannot even manage to establish, with any confidence, their sense of satisfaction in one quite conservative, field: military power relations.

The difference between knowing what is in the crosshairs of analysis in one case and the clear deficit of any such vision in another is not something for which one should blame the authors and fans of Mr.Y’s narrative. It is, nevertheless, the most apparent illustration of the tremendous yet insurmountable methodological puzzle currently facing the art of international relations. It is also the main concern of the individual responsible for the disjointed collection of thoughts you are reading. The question is: how should we measure and, crucially, how can we verify any one individual’s value in contributing to global stability? Or, to put it in the crudest possible terms, how should one decide who matters and who does not?

Finding an answer to this question is, I believe, vital. This is first and foremost due to the fact that global security and stability depend on how states perceive and interpret the actions and reactions of others. In other words: how do they calculate the limits of our own foreign policy action, those boundaries beyond which it endangers international and, in the nuclear age, our own national security? And how do states decide when they need to initiate talks and when they can safely ignore other states without any substantial damage today or in the future.

Misperception has always played quite a considerable role in the origins of conflicts and wars. Basically, besides the structural causes, many wars started due to one side’s faulty calculations of how important certain matters were for their opponent.(Here I refer mostly to Jack S. Levy “Misperception and the Causes of War: Theoretical Linkages and Analytical Problems // World Politics, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Oct., 1983), as well as those to which the author refers such as, most noticeably, Robert Jarvis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976.) That is why international relations scholars should never view misperception as a secondary or easily surmountable factor. The most dangerously potent misperceptions are those either of excessive self-confidence or the over estimation of one’s adversary’s power and capabilities. To paraphrase Mao, that is why it is so important to calculate correctly from which particular barrel of a gun the political power grows. This is central both in making friends and handling foes. And particularly in the times of, to quote, an “interdependent world,” what makes it even more perilous and demanding.

At least three times during the last century, in 1919, 1945 and 1991, the 500 year old concept of the “balance of power” has been solemnly confined to the dustbin of intellectual history by politicians and policy analysts alike. (The balance of power debate survived its ups and downs, which can be traced from the “golden books” of the intellectual history in XVI – XIX centuries, through the comprehensive reviews by Ernest B. Haas (The Balance of Power: Prescription, Concept or Propaganda? // World Politics, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Jul., 1953) back in the early 1950s, with many (at times more, at times less) fundamental studies made during the following decades, up to last decade’s “soft balancing” debate illustrated by the articles in International Security, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Summer 2005) and International Security, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Winter, 2005/2006)). Now it is preparing to rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes. The revival of this concept draws on the collapse of virtually each and every concept of the 1990’s and the dwindling influence of international institutions that we otherwise know as the “cold war’s feeble progeny.” Though of course, much more fundamental processes are underway, such as the unprecedented democratization of international politics that accompanied the appearance of these new global powers. These new powers usually have their own, quite distinctive vision of justice.

The return of this concept of the balance of power, was preceded by a lively debate over the “power shift” and some, at times serious, at times less so, attempts to reestablish policy-contingency frameworks along the quasi-bipolar lines of an opposition between “market democracy” and “market autocracy.” This concept is not merely the result of today’s new international context it is also considerably and qualitatively influenced (in its theoretical and empirical aspects) by the factors which themselves constitute this context.

It is to these factors that one must attribute the diminishing role played by military superiority as a system-structuring factor in inter-state relations on the global as well as, in most cases, regional level. Second, one can, making some assumptions, observe the emergence of a genuine “global economy” – a certain “autonomous reality” amenable to academic enquiry. And third, there is the qualitative increase in importance of the (external and internal) perceptions of the state’s aggregate capabilities in finding its rightful place in the structure of international relations. And, last but not least, the democratization of international politics and the appearance of new, up and coming states with their own, often quite different cultures, put in question the traditional instruments by which states’ global and regional intentions are defined.

The first of the factors mentioned above leads to the gradual but unstoppable effectiveness of military strength as the ultimate regulator in international relations. Historically, it has been states’ military muscle that determined how the international system was structured. Raymond Aron believed that international relations “take place within the shadow of war.” In E.H. Carr’s classic work we find no shade of doubt that military might has primacy over all the other factors that may determine states’ relative positions. (Edward Hallett Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations, Perennial, 2001) The point at issue is not the presence of military strength as such, and not even the high probability of its use; the core question is about the key role of military strength as a factor that is the main element determining the behavior of states: the pillar of the international system’s capacity for autonomous action.

At the present time we are witnessing the erosion of this factor’s efficacy. The fatal blow to this military might-based structure of the international system was dealt in 1991, when the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States vanished. Comparing the military might of the United States, which exceedes the combined forces of all other countries many times over, with Washington’s very limited ability to pursue and achieve its objectives at the global or even regional level should suffice to demonstrate the extent to which the effectiveness of strength has dwindled today.

The situation appears even more dramatic if one looks at the scale of the challenges from Iran and North Korea (both relatively small). These regimes’ resolute, bordering on hysterical, determination to posses the ultimate weapon would, in the past, have run up against tough military resistance. The most powerful state or group of states cannot be regarded as the omnipotent leader with unquestioned authority so long as the “abusers” are in any doubt that swift, effective, severe punishment will inevitably follow any breach. Even absolute military superiority is now no longer sufficient to effect such punishment.

Therefore, the most important feature of our new world order is precisely that disappearance of rational choice in favor of the application of force as a means of achieving political objectives. Of cause here we are dealing with hypothetical political objectives which are much more solid than the wish of any particular European politician to conceal his individual connections.

This shift has occurred not because states have sublimated their predatory and aggressive nature to the influence of internal transformations or their growing dependence on the surrounding world. Military strength, as a factor, still retains the role of ultima ratio – the most powerful argument in any dispute (Georgia 1998). Similarly, the transformation of military might as a factor does not herald the triumph of those who are, in military-strategic terms, impotent. The clearest example of this can be seen in the attempts to forge a place for united Europe on the world stage. Those countries and regional groups that have no real military might are not considered significant players by others. China understands that fairly well and over the recent years has been building up its defense capabilities to bring them in line with its economic potential. Conversely, as Russia’s example indicates, even the lack of economic, political and ideological strength and attractiveness can be compensated for by military resources. At the same time, relations among countries on security issues based on mutual military threat no longer form the backbone of world order at a global level.

The second factor listed above – the birth of the “new world economy” – gives rise to new framework conditions within which states can use their economic resources, including those that are God-given such as natural resources. The economy, in its global dimension, is assuming an increasingly external character. It looks as if it is even beginning to play the role of an external variable, replacing the old power-based system of international relations. And this new “autonomous reality” acts as an independent variable generating systemic requirements and thus determining not only the economic, but also the foreign policy behavior of states to the same (if not greater) degree as their own given resources and capabilities. This then requires serious reflection on how, and in what ways, economic interdependence has an effect on the condition of interstate relations.

This qualitative increase in the importance of the (external and internal) perceptions a state’s aggregate capabilities sparks a new debate on the issue of how a state’s physical and social powers exist relative to each other. As stated above, power in international relations is more of a subjective expression of the social norm. And the most crucial aspect of social norms is the extent to which they are actually recognized (or not recognized) by the majority of any particular community. In our case: members of the international community. Only recognition based on shared perception makes power, alongside the very fact of relationships, exist.

Aggregated, these three context-framing factors leave the researcher and policy-maker facing a significant problem. This problem goes beyond any understanding of how we measure the actual power of the state in international relations. Though that, no doubt, is also terribly important. It leads to an infinite multiplication of the parameters of power that need to be taken into account, which in turn has already proved to be a serious “infinite limit” on analysis in the largely liberal academic tradition of international relations.

But, crucially, the problem appears to be identifying what kind of relationship is best suited to establishing how correct we are in our perceptions of power and the balance in place. After all, these three factors seriously limit the applicability of the most common approach in which conflict is the universal way to establish a hierarchy.

Recognition of the fact that conflict should not and can no longer be considered the most adequate instrument by which to establish a hierarchy in international relations can be found in many current academic and policy-oriented articles. It is also included in the Mr.Y’s narrative as a key imperative in U.S. foreign policy “from containment to sustainment” (Mr.Y, A National Strategic Narrative, Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, 2011, p.5.).  In short, few doubt it.

However, this reluctant removal of conflict from the list of the first, most rational foreign policy choices does not solely or indeed exclusively change things for the worse. It challenges us to accomplish a feat which has never before in human history been accomplished: the peaceful transformation of the international system. It also means we have to define what possibilities and instruments can be drawn on in such an unprecedented transformation and how states need to act in order to develop these instruments. That is, of course, provided they do not fail to recognize that there is indeed a very real need for just such a transformation and that, like those that preceded it, it will involve change on both the structural and actor level. It also apparently excludes the possibility that some actors are fated to be, I quote, “the strongest competitor and most influential player” (Op.cit., p.3.).

But all these problems seem to have been left for Mr. Z to deal with…