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Regression to the Great Power Mean
Illiberal geopolitics is here to stay.
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the map of Europe was dominated by four empires: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ottoman Empire (which extended from Europe across the Middle East), German Empire, and Russian Tsarist Empire. And then there was Britain, which while not having Continental possessions (Gibraltar aside), made up for it by having most of the rest of the world (neighbouring Ireland included), as far as territory covered by single empire has ever extended.
The emergence of respective European states itself arose from the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, while the Eastern Empire (Byzantium), continued up until Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453. The Mughal Empire dominated the subcontinent for centuries. The Persian and Ottoman Empires extended over the Middle East. Modern China evolved over successive imperialist dynasties from the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC to the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, the end of which overlapped with the emergence of Japanese imperialism in 1894. In modern Central and South America, the Aztec and Inca Empires, respectively, had no great power rivals and dominated the respective regions until the arrival of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. Imperial civilisations have defined the global map.
Whisperings of Sovereignty in Europe
Within any context of imperial analysis, a constant theme is hierarchical order based on ruling interests, in which weaker states or peoples are deprived of the opportunity for self-determination, and the rights and protections which flow from independence, statehood, and recognised legitimacy. In Europe, this theme has been exacerbated by the circumstances of its geography; a constellation of smaller nation states rubbing shoulders in a tinderbox of peer competition, igniting over and over since antiquity. And smaller would-be nation states have repeatedly been subsumed by the flames into a larger imperial polity.
The concepts of self-determination and recognised legitimacy had found expression before the First World War redrew the map of Europe. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which brought the Thirty Years War to a close, may be considered the root of modern concepts of the nation state and sovereignty, while enshrining religious tolerance between Catholicism and the Reformed Protestant religions. But look further East and a more interesting, and historically relevant, example may be found: the Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth.
Born out of the Union of Lublin in 1569 between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which covered modern Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine, the Union formalised the extant reality that the two polities had been under a single ruler since 1385. Poland-Lithuania was a federal entity, with both nations as equal partners electing a shared sovereign, retaining distinct civil and religious traditions. The Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth was a dynamic state, with cultural and religious pluralism. This relative tolerance and pluralism was ultimately why Europe’s Jewish communities were most concentrated in Eastern Europe, up until the Holocaust. Poland-Lithuania retained deep commercial and intellectual connections with Western European states, while facing a constant threat posed by the expansion of Muscovy, the origin polity of the modern Russian state.
Yet these tentative whispers of sovereignty and self-determination would be suppressed into silence by imperial expansion. Poland-Lithuania was partitioned on three occasions between 1772 and 1795 by the trifecta of the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Prussia. Russia would take the eastern part of Ukraine and Lithuania, the Austro-Hungarian Empire took Galicia and other parts of Poland, while Prussia split the remainder of Poland. Polish sovereignty would not be restored until 1918 and the aftermath of the First World War.
The Wilsonian Era and the Bipolar World
The fallout from the First World War is a legacy that extended right up until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and into the 1990's, a period often termed the “Wilsonian era” or “Wilsonian order” by foreign policy scholars. With the end of the First World War, long-suppressed cries for national self-determination arose from each of the disintegrated and defeated empires. And the cries came in many tongues. In the Austro-Hungarian empire alone, fourteen different languages were officially recognised; German, Croatian, Czech, Hungarian, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Ruthenian (modern Ukrainian and Belarusian), Serbian, Slovakian, Slovenian, Ukrainian and Turkish, with Yiddish spoken widely in Galicia.
President Woodrow Wilson’s proposal for the League of Nations had a two-fold purpose: the right to self-determination of smaller nations, and the formation of a rules-based international order. Despite the lofty intentions, even at this early stage the undue weight of great power Realpolitik was felt by some of the voices demanding national self-determination; Wilson had guaranteed Serbia would have access to the sea, and Montenegro became the sacrificial lamb to achieve this end. The US, Britain, and France, all withdrew their representation with the exiled Montenegrin government, and turned the other way while Montenegro was incorporated into Serbia. And self-determination did not get far in other regions of the world; in the Middle East, for example, only Iran was an original member of the League of Nations (Iraq would follow later).
Nevertheless, it was ambitious; the desire to create an international order based on a shared framework of legitimate sovereignty, mutual cooperation, and an international rule of law. However, Wilson could never garner domestic support for US involvement in the League of Nations as isolationism gripped America in the aftermath of its cameo appearance on the Western Front. America would retreat back inside of itself until December 7th 1941, when Imperial Japan roused the fury of what became the worlds foremost economic and military power. The ripple effects of these competing tensions of isolationism and intervention within America remain visible to this day.
In the interwar years, however, the instability of fledgling states in Europe struggling to establish democracy eventually succumbed to reactionary forces of the far Right and far Left, which fed on the ferment of economic depression and collective humiliation. In the East, Imperial Japan had already set out on its murderous campaign of conquest before Hitler had seized power in Germany and duly followed suit, with both surpassed only by Stalin's Soviet Russia for sheer scale of human slaughter.
If the First World War started with imperial powers and ended with a fleeting “rise of nations”, the Second World War altered the map of the world again, with more widespread self-determination dominated by the bipolar Great Power competition in the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union. This time the Wilsonian principles that flashed briefly in the interwar interregnum had gained currency, bolstered by knowledge of the horrors of the Holocaust by Nazi Germany, the depraved sadism of Imperial Japanese forces throughout Asia, and the Holodomor starvation of Ukraine through brutal Soviet policies.
During the Second World War, the foundations began to be laid for the postwar order. International institutions and a rules-based order, including the United Nations, International Court of Justice, World Trade Organisation, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all emerged from the rubble. The symbolic catalyst for this new order was the Nuremberg Trials, where the US insisted that the Nazi hierarchy and war criminals would be tried, in open court, in accordance with the principles of due process. The “Wilsonian order”, often known as the “liberal international order”, had taken a Second World War to establish, and defined the bipolar ideological conflict between liberal democracy and Communism.
This project contained its own hypocrisy and contradictions from the start, mostly perpetuated by the US as the spearhead of the project that also overthrew democratically elected governments, installed dictators and puppet administrations, and embarked on futile conflicts of attrition, none more tragic than Vietnam. As Neil Sheehan, author of A Bright Shining Lie put it, the great failure of US policy in Vietnam was the failure to distinguish a nationalist movement for unified statehood from the threat of international Communism.
Yet despite the mishaps, which should always be studied and understood, at the core of this project was an idea; that democratic principles and free societies were preferable to autocracy and repression. And that these principles required an international order to facilitate the expression of self-determination. This order provided a route plan to sovereignty for many emerging economies and fledgling democracies in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And in the bipolar Great Power world that dominated global affairs between 1945 and 1991, the choice was clear.
The Unipolar Moment and Fall of the International Order
The disintegration of the Soviet Union would change, once again, the map of Europe. It would also change the map of Asia. Former Eastern Bloc Soviet States, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania, were freed from Moscow's hegemony, while Germany was unified. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Moldova, Belarus, and Ukraine, had sovereignty restored. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, all emerged as independent nations.
The period was defined by the hope of expression of self-determination. From the hundreds of thousands of Germans who took to the streets for the 'Monday Demonstrations' chanting "Wir sind das Volk!" ("We are the people!") to the Polish mass civil resistance and protest with the Solidarity movement, to 84% of the Ukrainian electorate voting for independence with 90% approval. Perhaps nothing is more poignant than the 'Baltic Way', when ~2-million citizens of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, joined hand-in-hand to form a living human chain that extended for 600km.
From the perspective of Great Powers, however, the world was now defined by what policy hawks term “the unipolar moment”, i.e., the period in which America constituted the worlds sole superpower. But the unipolar moment also reflected something more; the assumption that liberal democracy and free markets were now an inevitability. Francis Fukuyama's infamous declaration that, with Communism now in the ashes of political ideology, we had arrived at the “end of history”, captured the Zeitgeist. The problem at the heart of this hubris was a peculiarly Anglo-American determinism, that free trade, democracy, and the rule of law were an inescapable endpoint of the arc of history, rather than an imperfect project in perpetual need of nurture.
But the inspiring scenes of self-determination and restoration of sovereignty which accompanied the disintegration of the Soviet Union masked over another reality; that this period in the early 1990's marked the beginning of the end of the rules-based international order, albeit a faint trace of this unfurling. And America, Russia, and China, lie at the heart of this story.
American foreign policy during the brief unipolar moment can be divided into two phases: the arrogance of the 1990's, followed by the hubris of the 2000's. The arrogance which permeated American foreign policy during 1990's (before the hubris of the 2003-2021) reflected the prevailing “end of history” haughtiness which spread through Washington. Two examples are important for the present moment: how to incorporate former Eastern Bloc countries into Western international structures, and secondly, allowing China a seat at the international table.
Let's start with the issue of the former Eastern Bloc countries. Mary Elise Sarotte, author of Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of the Post-Cold War World, describes the delicate situation in the early 1990's of a proud but humiliated Russia, attempting to establish democracy, sensitive to its vulnerability, with the US standing astride the ashes of the USSR. An early expression of sovereignty from the Baltic states and other former Eastern Bloc countries, including Poland and Ukraine, was to join international alliances like the EU and NATO. The expansion of NATO has been portrayed recently in reductionist, binary ‘good/bad’ terms, but as Sarotte illustrates the issue was how the alliance developed in these post-Cold War years.
The Norwegians in particular, as the only original NATO member which bordered the Soviet Union, had developed a savvy for not poking the bear. Norway deliberately did not deploy foreign troops or station nuclear weapons on its territory during peacetime, to maintain a less visibly fractious posture toward Moscow. Out of the Scandinavian strategy, the Partnership for Peace (PfP) was born, an organisation launched in 1994 to allow non-NATO European members and the former Soviet states to be affiliated with NATO, but not as members. PfP would allow for countries that overtly did want to join NATO, like Poland and the Baltic states, to gradually progress to full membership. But crucially, PfP did not require this, it was to be an individualistic and flexible organisation where countries could maintain affiliations with Western international institutions.
Ukraine was a crucial consideration within the proposed PfP framework because PfP was viewed as a compromise, a way for Ukraine to affiliate with the West without the antagonism that NATO membership would cause. But while Clinton was initially supportive of PfP, domestic pressure from Republicans who had seized the House and Senate in the 1994 midterms and endorsed aggressive NATO expansion, combined with the arrogance of the unipolar moment to throw PfP out the window. By 1997, Clinton had abandoned PfP in favour of overt expansion in a manner that maximised friction with Boris Yeltsin and Moscow, at a time when Yeltsin was preparing to hand over power to his successor, Putin. Yeltsin's attempt at democratisation in Russia had failed, while the Clinton administration effectively oversaw the redrawing of a new dividing line in Europe, behind which lay a humiliated Russia with a new, younger, autocrat at the helm.
Russia in the interim has restored its military power, is the primary nuclear weapons rival to the US, the worlds leading power in low-cost cyber-warfare and disinformation propaganda, and has successfully deployed its power in Syria, the Crimea, and lest we forget, invaded Georgia in 2008. It is deploying mercenary forces in several former Soviet states. And most importantly, it views the US of today as in a similar situation to Russia in the early 1990's, a flimsy democracy with too much domestic baggage and decades of failed military interventions on an inevitable trajectory of decline. Just as Russia had no choice but to watch as the US rubbed in its brief hegemony in the post-Cold War years, now the US has to offer empty platitudes about democracy and peace while Russia flaunts unchecked aggression in Ukraine.
The arrogance of the unipolar moment and the “end of history” narrative in Washington also found expression in shifting US attitudes to China, which at the time remained a highly underdeveloped economy. The assumptions that the arc of history bent toward free markets and democracy filtered into policy toward China, that facilitating access to global free trade and American markets would shift the domestic political landscape in China toward progressive openness. To quote John Mearsheimer:
“there is no comparable example of a great power actively fostering the rise of a peer competitor. And it is now too late to do much about it.”
Mearsheimer has highlighted that America was in a position to take a realist policy approach to China and ensure that the balance of power stayed firmly, economically and militarily, in Washington. Instead, the US granted China “most favoured nation” trading status, facilitated its entry into the WTO, and provided China with full access to global markets, technology, and capital. Yet the gamble on China's political trajectory as a result of this economic policy approach backfired. China has instead evolved a hybrid system of surveillance authoritarianism with market capitalism, or to use the official term, “socialism with Chinese characteristics for the 21st Century”. Through the “Belt and Road initiative”, China is developing an international network of rail, road, and ports, throughout Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific, seeking regional hegemony and offering an alternative to the rules-based democratic international order to any country willing to accept their economic investment.
All of these shifting geopolitical tectonic plates have occurred at a time when both Russia and China began to view the rules-based international order as nothing more than US-led hypocrisy. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 symbolises the moment in time where whatever rulebook the international order was based on was torn up and scattered in the wind. Deliberately falsifying information to the UN. Invading a sovereign country, irrespective of how one viewed its political leader. Shredding the principles enshrined at Nuremberg by embarking on a global program of arrest, detention without trial, and torture, all legally justified by the Bush-Obama administrations. The US wasn’t just defeated militarily in two respective 20yr wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; it sacrificed its moral authority in the world, and the integrity of the very international systems and frameworks it helped to herald in following the Second World War. And Russia and China paid close attention.
Regression to the Great Power Mean
We are now entering a new phase of Russian-Chinese cooperation. China is now Russia's main trading partner, and their emerging strategic partnership is mutually beneficial in a number of ways. China has the economic development and technological prowess, enticing countries away from the old US-led order with economic incentives; Russia lacks the economic development, but has more military projection across the globe than China, and with its concomitant capacity for cyber-warfare and disinformation, seeks to disrupt and destroy the US-led order.
This Russia-China alliance is developing at a time when the US now enters a third phase of the post-Cold War period: resurgent isolationism. A resuscitation of the post-First World War desire for America to retreat from the tinderbox of Europe, and the worlds problems. But unlike the end of the First World War, too many of those problems are of America's own making. In prior incidences, whether there was some domestic opposition in Congress or not, the world had a functioning America with a clear sense of purpose for its global role. Today, the Great Power competition looks over at a society incapable of basic distinctions between fact and fiction, militarily demoralised after 20yrs of failed deployments, and an executive and legislature incapable of functioning. And the EU has proven itself a toothless geopolitical actor, incapable of projecting any power, and beholden to Russia economically for fuel, a gross miscalculation which led to the EU burying its head in the sand when Russia annexed the Crimea in 2014, and an impotant response to the current invasion of Ukraine.
What has emerged over the post-Cold War period is a return to the “spheres of influence” geopolitics of the Cold War era, where smaller nations become stakes in the game of Great Power actors, diminishing expression of true sovereignty and independence. The “liberal international order” is now gone. The reality is that the current geopolitical contest is an ideology-based contest reflecting the great struggles of the 20th Century. Liberal democracy is threatened by autocratic regimes of varying ideological complexions, from populist autocrats like Erdogan's Turkey to authoritarian market capitalism in Xi's China.
Then there is BigTech, which needs to be in any discussion about the new Great Power geopolitical paradigm. What makes BigTech unique is that it constitutes a non-state actor that exerts the powers of sovereign states. Several commentators have drawn parallels with the threats faced by democracy at the time of industrial monopoly in the early half of the 20th Century. Democracy now lies in similarly precarious territory with BigTech as a monopoly, only this is different; industrial monopolies did not have the capacity to influence behaviours, preferences, public perception of “reality”, or indeed what the public even see or do not see. And this power may be deployed both in service of, and independent of, the aims of a state actor. This is an unprecedented fifth column in the geopolitical arena, and there seem to be scant ideas for how to address it.
There are real consequences to this geopolitical regression. We are watching them now. Social media is awash with the performative overtures and declarations of “I stand with Ukraine!” But they don't. You don't. I don't. And the reason we don't is that as citizens of democracies who form part of the now-defunct “liberal international order”, the sovereign nations and organisations that represent these principles are not standing with Ukraine. They're making grandiose statements, sending a few guns and well-wishes. They have neither the appetite nor capability to stand up for the very principles of democracy, sovereignty, and self-determination that form the ideological tenets of the liberal order. No one is “standing with Ukraine”. That is the point. It shouldn't matter that Ukraine is not a member of NATO or the EU. What should matter is a people overwhelmingly self-determined for their own sovereignty and independence, and have continued to fight for those principles even as recently as the Maidan Revolution in 2014.
The stakes are high. But we should also be clear on what the stakes are. The stakes are the foundational principles of democracy, sovereignty, and self-determination. These ideas were born in Europe. They've been fought for in Europe. They are under attack, again, in Europe. For all the self-immolation and self-flagellation by Western liberals, from the Left in particular, over the past couple of years in response to historical reckonings regarding slavery, colonialism, and empire, there has always been an irony to this rhetoric; that this dialogue is only possible in the first place because we live in societies that remain freer than any other formulation of organising. Now the same bougie pseudo-socialists who were posting “down with the West!” throughout 2020 and eviscerating the ideological foundations of democracy are the ones posting “I stand with Ukraine!”, yet another pointless performative act in blissful ignorance of their own irony in now supporting the very freedoms and foundations upon which this whole imperfect project was built.
The project of democracy and free, open societies is incomplete, imperfect, evolving. But it is the only system that has shown the capacity to self-correct. Democracy as a concept was tested between wars, and failed. We know what followed. It resuscitated in the post Second World War period, and expanded. It is under threat again, and the stakes are high. Because despite what middle-class kids in comfortable Western democracies think, the future is not some Utopia of overthrown capitalism and self-regulating anarchy. The alternatives on offer now are illiberal, regressive regimes, where might is right. Similar to the 20th Century ideological struggles, the choice should be clear. And it should be clear that these principles have always needed fighting for.