Geo-Politics versus Multilateralism
by Mary Kaldor
January 15, 2022
by Mary Kaldor
January 15, 2022
Authoritarian states tend to be irridentist states. Paranoia about internal dissent is inextricably linked to exaggeration of external threats. ‘Fear of the other’ is a tried and tested mechanism for shoring up domestic cohesion. The rise of the populist right in many countries is not just a domestic problem but represents a risk for polarisation and division in different parts of the world.
The regimes in both Russia and China have become increasingly authoritarian in recent years. Both are engaged in widespread repression against political opposition and, in the case of China, against ethnic groups such as the Uighurs. Both act provocatively abroad -the annexation of Crimea, the destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine, the intervention in Syria in the case of Russia and, in the case of China, the role in the South China Sea, on the Indian border or against Taiwan. Indeed, the build-up of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border and the increasingly frequent Chinese overflights over Taiwan represent potentially alarming global flashpoints.
These acts of provocation are compounded by increased global military competition. World-wide military spending began to rise again in 2019 after a period of decline. The main nuclear powers (Russia, China, the US, the UK and France) are all engaged in replacement and modernisation of nuclear warheads, delivery systems and production facilities. At the same time, the nuclear arms control regime is weakening: the START talks have faltered; the INF and ABM treaties have been abandoned; the NPT review conference has been postponed. Attempts to revive the agreement with Iran after the end of the Trump Administration are moving slowly.
So-called Realists argue that military competition is the most effective way to deal with such regimes. The realist argument in International Relations is that world order depends on geo-political competition; inevitably rising powers, like China, for example, threaten the existing dominant powers. Graham Allison refers to Thucydides’ trap to explain and justify competition with China. But this is an anachronistic argument. We live in a very different world from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is an interconnected world where a global regulatory regime, not to mention concrete links through trade, investment and communication, enmesh societies in ways that are sometimes invisible to those who view the world through a statist lens. We also live in a world where all weapons have become hugely destructive, and any great power war of a traditional type would threaten the very existence of humanity.
For realists, deterrence is a way of demonstrating who would win in an imaginary war modelled on the experience of the Second World War -preventing war by demonstrating how destructive such a war would be. The problem is twofold. First it is a risky strategy; what if the Russians or the Chinese do not believe that the West would risk the destruction of humanity for the sake of Ukraine or Taiwan? Indeed, Biden has made it clear that the US would not go to war over Ukraine and is ambiguous about American support for Taiwan. There has been rather little reaction to the annexation of Crimea or the Chinese inroads in the South China Sea. Moreover, there are frightening possibilities of mistakes and miscalculations, especially given the automaticity of modern weaponry that we are much less aware of than during the Cold War period. In the decades since 1948 when the Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons there have been a series of ‘close calls’ –moments when the use of nuclear weapons looked likely either as a result of a political crisis or a misreading of the other side’s intentions. According to a Chatham House report, it was not deterrence that explains the avoidance of nuclear war. Rather ‘individual decision-making, often in disobedience of protocol or political guidance, has on several occasions saved the day.’
Secondly, it is a strategy that feeds the paranoic mentality of irredentist regimes. The more that Western countries engage in competitive military build-ups including the deployment of offensive weapons, the more they provide a rationale for aggressive and provocative behaviour. NATO’s deployment of missiles in areas bordering on Russia, for example, or the expansion of NATO are used as pretexts by President Putin to justify his own expansionist plans. It is a recipe for deepening rivalry and polarisation punctuated by ongoing violence within and beyond the dominant powers.
a human security strategy would imply that security of Chinese or Russian people matters just as much as the security of Americans or Europeans
So, what is the alternative? Realism is usually counterposed with idealism. But if by idealism we mean a multilateralist rights-based approach, this may turn out to be to more realistic in the context of the twenty first century. The term human security has been increasingly used by multilateralist institutions like the United Nations or the European Union. A shift from national to human security implies that individual countries pursue a security strategy that aims for a more secure world. This is something smaller countries like the Scandinavian countries have long recognised; they lack capacity to ensure security unilaterally –they are safer if the world is safe. In other words, a human security strategy would imply that security of Chinese or Russian people matters just as much as the security of Americans or Europeans.
Although the term was not used at the time, the Helsinki Accords of 1975, the outcome of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, which marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War, was an expression of human security. The three baskets contained in the agreement – security, economic and social co-operation, and human rights – basically encompassed what we tend to mean by human security, that is to say the security of the individual in both physical and material terms. Something like the Helsinki process needs to be revived to deal with the contemporary geo-political rivalry, perhaps on a global scale. If not a process, we could talk about a new approach, based on human security, that could include three components.
The first component is the prevention of war. This could combine confidence building measures, arms control negotiations, with a defensive posture. During the 1980s, there was much concern about the offensive posture of NATO and the dangers of weapons of mass destruction. It might be worth revisiting proposals for what was known as defensive defence. This was the idea of deterring foreign attacks through a convincing defensive posture rather than through the threat of retaliation. It was the idea behind Gorbachev’s notion of ‘reasonable sufficiency’. Proposals for area defence or in-depth defence were put forward that would have meant drawing down nuclear weapons as well as conventional offensive capabilities, such as bombers or massed tanks. There have been similar discussions of deterrence by denial or archipelagic defence instead of deterrence through retaliation or punishment. It can be argued that a defensive posture would be more convincing now than in the last years of the Cold War, given the emergence of independent states in central and Eastern Europe and the big reductions in military manpower on all sides. This argument also applies to new capabilities such as cyber; it is important to develop cyber capabilities that are defensive and human rights based rather than offensive. This type of defensive deterrence could include the threat of economic measures, such as the cancellation of Nord Stream 2, the pipeline designed to bring gas to Western Europe from Russia.
The second component is the urgent need to at least try to co-operate on common planetary dangers like climate change or pandemics and to establish a shared stake in overcoming the crises engendered. This should also include co-operation in peace-keeping and a return to the backing provided by dominant powers to UN operations aimed at dampening down conflicts as in Bosnia, DRC or more recently Libya, and Yemen. And the third component is human rights. The key to addressing the aggressive behaviour of states like Russia and China is greater domestic liberalisation. All the dominant powers should be called to account for human rights violations; there is a need to draw public attention to human rights violations, to raise issues of legality, to impose targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for violations of human rights and to find ways to protect and strengthen civic spaces across borders.
At the end of the Cold War, it was hoped by many that both the Warsaw pact and NATO would be dissolved and replaced by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe – the institution that was constructed on the basis of Helsinki principles. Russia is a member of OSCE and would therefore have been a part of the security arrangements for Europe. That did not happen. NATO continued to exist and indeed expanded Eastwards excluding Russia. Likewise, despite reductions in military spending, domestic pressures from the military-industrial complexes in both the US and Russia contributed to the ongoing military competition. We cannot return to that period but were NATO to shift towards a human security approach in relation both to crisis management (out of area operations) and through adopting a defensive posture in Europe, this might help, at the least, to weaken the Russian narrative that legitimises its actions in Ukraine, the Baltic states or the South Caucasus.
A multilateralist rights based international order is needed more than ever. It is very important that those states and groups of states that remain democratically accountable to their populations resist pressures to adopt increasingly realist external policies typical of the past. The more they emphasise the security of the state and of borders, the less likely is the world to overcome current existential dangers, of which global war is one.