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The Retreat of Western Liberalism and New Competition of Great Powers

June 10, 2019
Thomas Graham

Great power competition today will not resemble the great power competition of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries up to World War I.

During those centuries, competition was for the most part restrained because it took place in a world order grounded in a balance of power and a common sense of legitimacy. When the balance was overturned or the common sense of legitimacy challenged, as was the case during the French Revolution and the early 20th century, great-power competition could lead to catastrophic conflict.

This is the situation we face today. There is no common sense of legitimacy. The leading powers have very different concepts of world order.

  • The United States advocates—or it did until quite recently—an institutionalized, rules-based order, what we now call the liberal world order, which it would naturally lead.
  • Russia by contrast thinks more in terms of a concert of great powers that come to understandings about how the world order should operate and divide the world into spheres of influence.
  • China has yet another vision, of a hierarchical system centered on China in which other states are awed by China’s cultural and economic prowess.

At the same time, the global equilibrium, or balance of power, has been breaking down for a decade or more, and the process has been accelerating in recent years. China’s rise and Russia’s resurgence have undermined the U.S.-led world order. Disarray in Europe, tensions in the transatlantic relations, turmoil in the Middle East and rising populism and the reinvigoration of nationalism are all manifestations of this breakdown.

It is hard to discern the contours of a new global equilibrium that could emerge in coming years because the world has grown more complex, certainly compared to the 18th and 19th centuries.  We find ourselves in a state of multilayered multipolarity.

  • The security order is increasingly less bipolar, as the proliferation of nuclear weapons, advanced conventional weapons and cyberweapons erodes the duopoly once exercised by the United States and Russia.
  • The economic order has become increasingly multipolar with the rapid rise of major economic powers, especially in Asia.
  • And the political order sees an increasing number of states vying for influence, especially at the regional level, even as the power of states is challenged by the emergence of disruptive non-states actors, including in particular international terrorist organizations.

Without a common sense of legitimacy or a robust balance of power, what has encouraged restraint in global affairs for the past 70 years has been the existence of nuclear weapons and the threat of annihilation they bear. But this last element of restraint—grounded in a U.S.-Russian concept of strategic stability—is breaking down as the arms control regime built up during the past 40-50 years collapses in the face of new technologies with strategic implications and policy choices in Moscow and Washington.

In short, we are living in a dangerous moment, in which the risk of major conflict, including between great powers, is mounting.  

What then are the imperatives for great powers in the current environment?  

  • Great powers need to avoid war against one another.
  • They need to manage competition, to introduce restraint into their competition, to reduce the risk of escalation that could lead to war. In particular, they need to find a way to manage the acute technological competition—the race to master AI, big data and bioengineering—that is revolutionizing the way we communicate, produce, govern ourselves and fight wars.
  • And, despite the competition, the great powers need to foster cooperation in dealing with global challenges that are beyond the power of any one country to resolve, such as proliferation, terrorism, climate change and pandemic diseases.

How do great powers encourage restraint?

  • They need to maintain open channels of communication between one another. In particular, the United States and Russia must find a way to restore the channels of communication that were severed after the eruption of the Ukraine crisis in 2014.
  • Russia and the United States need to open a dialogue to develop a new concept of strategic stability, in which China must eventually participate.
  • The great powers need to resist the temptation to turn the global competition into a bipolar contest between unified blocs with opposing sets of values. Rather, great powers should be able to form shifting coalitions with one another and with regional powers to address concrete issues and sustain balances of power in key regions across the globe, including Europe, Northeast Asia and the Middle East.

Let me end with this thought: The last time the world found itself in a situation akin to the one we find ourselves in today was the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That was a time of great stress on the global balance of power as a rising Germany challenged Great Britain and a time of disruptive yet promising technological innovation. The technology laid the foundation for the prosperity that has spread across much of the globe today. But the great-power competition turned the 20th century into the bloodiest in history. So, the challenge today is to take advantage of the promise of technology while avoiding the cataclysm of unrestrained great-power rivalry. And that in turn will require the emergence of wise and capable statesmen across the world, as a new generation of leaders eventually replaces the current one, statesmen who can reconcile the different visions of world order and shape a new equilibrium out of the mounting disorder.

The points above formed the basis for the remarks given by the author at this year's Primakov Readings Forum on June 10, 2019.


Thomas Graham

Thomas Graham, managing director at Kissinger Associates, was the senior Russia expert on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration.

Pixabay photo.