Listen to the Talk Here
by Elizabeth Teague
Professor Robert Legvold spoke on the topic, “How and where do the United States and Russia fit into a new world order?”
Professor Legvold began by asking, Is there a new world order and, if so, what is it? He argued that there is not at present a new world order. Citing Henry Kissinger, he defined a “world order” as a single institution resting on a set of commonly accepted rules that determine how states behave. Many people thought that that was where we were heading at the end of the Cold War but that, Professor Legvold argued, was a misapprehension. For the better part of the last ten years, the major powers have been moving in the opposite direction. That is what drives the current uncertainty about what the contemporary international order is and where it is heading.
What we have now, Professor Legvold argued, is a new international system, which is in the process of evolution.
An international system is not however a world order or a global system. It can consist of two or more “international orders,” and is based on interactions between the major powers that determine international relations in a specific area.
Bipolar international systems are rare. Multipolar systems are much more common – for example, we saw a multipolar system following the Napoleonic wars. In the recent past, the dominant international system was seen as that led since 1945 by the United States, which was based on a specific set or norms, rules and institutions. The Soviet Union/Russia and China were excluded that international system. So, from 1945 to 1991, what was often described as a bipolar system was actually two separate international systems.
Since 1991, there has been no agreement in the United States over whether the US-led unipolar system is over. Some argue that US predominance is under assault and that, while it is not yet over, the US needs to change it behaviour. Others argue that the unipolar system is finished and that the US needs to adapt to the new reality. As for Russia and China, they are sure that the unipolar system is over – if indeed, it ever really existed. They see an emerging multipolar system in which the influence of the West will inevitably weaken. Together with China and other authoritarian regimes. Russia is seen as actively seeking to undermine the rules-based system long led by the US. Russia denies this, and accuses the US of having gone rogue and of undermining its own purported norms.
However, Professor Legvold sees neither the unipolar nor the multipolar explanation as adequate. Rather, he proposed an alternative image. From the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 until the end of the Cold War, the international system rested on a single axis, which was Europe. What happened in and around Europe determined the character and course of international relations.
Now, Professor Legvold suggested, we are entering a dual-axis system – one axis located in Europe, the other in Asia. The US will remain a principal actor in both. Russia will remain suspended between both. For each actor, however, the key dynamic is a large question mark. On the Western axis, that question is “Is it the end of the West, both as an idea and as a relatively cohesive collaboration?” On the Eastern axis, the fundamental question is “Does the future promise a US-China strategic dialogue, or a new US-China Cold War?”
The answer in both cases will depend heavily on US choices. Russia’s response will depend on what choices the US decisions leave open to Russia. If on the Western axis the current trend in US foreign policy continues towards self-absorption, abdication of leadership, unilateralism and confrontation with allies, that will produce one kind of answer, and Russia will have to respond to one set of choices and outcomes. If, on the other hand, the US returns to a more traditional, albeit awkward, leadership role, and a fractured Europe preserves its integration project, the answer will be very different.
If on the Eastern axis the US mismanages its relationship with China, as it is doing now, abetted by unhelpful Chinese behaviour, the answer will not only create challenges and dangers for Russia, but will threaten the entire international system. If on the other hand the US, with somewhat more cooperative Chinese behaviour, remains in an uneasy balance between interdependence and rivalry with China, then the answer will again be different. And so too will be Russia’s choices.
Professor Legvold said that, while he sees the US-led liberal international order as under threat, he does not see it as fatally doomed, one reason being that neither Russia not China has a vision of a fundamentally different system that they seek to build in its place. So, if an alternative is emerging, this is not order of any kind, but simply the complete degradation of the existing liberal international order.
Over the next ten years, Russia and the United States will face fundamental choices. This leads back to the original question: where do Russia and the US fit in? And how will they figure in an international system that is under stress?
For the US, there are three potential choices: (1) abdication of leadership -- what Professor Legvold calls “the Trump Administration’s ‘Go It Alone’ policy”; (2) the policy called for in Joe Biden’s presidential campaign to restore US moral authority by renewing its alliances and promoting international cooperation to tackle the 21st century’s global challenges; (3) a policy of retrenchment whereby the US would reduce its alliances and its force deployment, shrink its security involvement, and narrow its priority security concerns to three overseas regions essential for the US -- Europe, East Asia and the Persian Gulf.
Russia faces four fundamental choices: (1) full-scale alignment with China in the event of a US-China bipolar Cold War; (2) cultivating a balanced partnership (not an alliance) with China and pursuing constructive relations with India, Japan and Europe while avoiding confrontation with the US; (3) tilting toward no other major power but maintaining productive relations with all; (4) seeking international leadership “with a mission” based on aims such as preserving international peace and protecting the environment.
Professor Legvold ended with a summary of four major stakes that the US and Russia share: (1) the risk of the use of nuclear weapons is now as great if not greater than at any time during the Cold War; (2) it is necessary to reverse the remilitarisation of European security that has occurred in the last ten years; (3) the US and Russia need to respond to the rise of China cooperatively rather than competitively; (4) the US and Russia need together to address the security challenges posed by climate change.
“I offer these propositions,” Professor Legvold concluded, “as requirements if the future is to be stable rather than unstable, if the world is to be safer, rather than less so, but in particular as an analytical standard for judging which among the three potential US choices, and which among the four potential Russian choices, could move the international system in a safer, or a more dangerous direction. Is there any chance that we will move toward a greater world order, or is the more likely prospect that we will move toward world disorder?”