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All Major Powers—Even United States—Became Revisionists

19 Min Read

The world is between orders; it is adrift. The last coherent response by the international system to a transnational challenge came at the London summit of the G-20 in April 2009, when in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, leaders took steps to avert another Great Depression and stabilize the global banking system.

The subsequent international response to climate change, the metastasizing debt crisis in developing countries, and the COVID-19 pandemic can only be described as pathetic.

That failure stems from the fact that fewer and fewer countries, including the ones that built the previous international order, seem committed to maintaining it.

The United States led two orders after World War II: a Keynesian one that was not inordinately interested in how states ran their internal affairs in a bipolar Cold War world (a socialist India, therefore, could be the largest recipient of World Bank aid in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s), and, after the Cold War, a neoliberal one in a unipolar world that ignored national sovereignty and boundaries where it needed to.

Both orders professed to be “open, rules-based, and liberal,” upholding the values of democracy, so-called free markets, human rights, and the rule of law. In reality, they rested on the dominance and imperatives of U.S. military, political, and economic power. For much of the era that followed the demise of the Soviet Union, most powers, including a rising China, generally went along with the U.S.-led order.

Recent years, however, suggest that this arrangement is a thing of the past. Major powers exhibit what may be called “revisionist” behavior, pursuing their own ends to the detriment of the international order and seeking to change the order itself.

Often, revisionism takes the shape of territorial disputes, particularly in the Indo-Pacific: China’s friction with its neighbors India, Japan, Vietnam, and others in maritime Asia comes to mind. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a violation of international norms and a further rebuke to the notion that Russia could find a comfortable role within a U.S.-led order in Europe.

Revisionism also manifests in the actions of a plethora of other powers, including the growing skepticism about free trade in the United States, the military build-up in once-pacifist Japan, and the rearmament of Germany.

Many countries are unhappy with the world as they see it and seek to change it to their own advantage. This tendency could lead to a meaner, more contentious geopolitics and poorer global economic prospects. Coping with a world of revisionist powers could be the defining challenge of the years ahead.

REVISIONISTS HERE, THERE, EVERYWHERE
Few of the world’s major powers are content with the international order as it exists. As the sole global superpower, the United States is committed to extending President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda under the rubric of “Build Back Better World.”

The program’s name itself indicates that the order the United States has presided over so successfully for more than half a century needs improvement. The foreign policy establishment within the United States seems riven by fault lines separating those who preach a modern form of isolationism and restraint and those who have embarked on an ideological quest to divide the world between democracies and autocracies.

The United States has turned away from international institutions it built, such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. It has stepped back from its commitments to free trade by withdrawing from agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The view from Washington has grown darker, with great power threats looming on the horizon: not only China but also Russia, which has in many ways been expelled from the international order that sought to remake it in the image of the West.

China was the greatest beneficiary of the globalized order led by the United States. It now wants, in President Xi Jinping’s words, to “take center stage.” Beijing explicitly seeks a rearrangement of the balance of power in Asia and a greater voice for China in international affairs. But Chinese leaders have yet to present an alternative ideology that attracts others or confers legitimacy to their quest for dominance. Even in its immediate neighborhood, China’s influence is contested.

Major flashpoints and security dilemmas, including the future of Taiwan and territorial disputes with India and Japan, surround China. These disputes are a consequence of the real ways that China has disrupted the balance of regional and global power. Taken together, China’s assertive actions since 2008 make clear that Beijing seeks to change the global order.

For its part, Russia never really fit in the global order that Western powers tried to squeeze it into in the years immediately following the end of the Cold War. Instead, Moscow resents its decline and reduced influence after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The invasion of Ukraine is only the latest expression of this sense of grievance, which leads Russia to work with China to undermine U.S. global leadership and to try to shake up Europe, where Russian power still matters both economically and militarily.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to announce that the world had reached a Zeitenwende, or turning point. For decades an economic powerhouse with limited political ambitions, Germany is now taking a more assertive regional and international role by seeking to build up its military, arm Ukraine, and reassess its significant relationships with China and Russia. The fear of abandonment that the Donald Trump presidency induced in U.S. allies, such as Germany and Japan, has encouraged many of them to beef up their security capabilities.

Japan has reassessed its role in the region and the global order thanks to China’s rise. Japan is in transition from an economy-focused, pacifist, noninterventionist power burdened by the legacy of World War II to a much more normal country, looking after its own security interests and taking a leading role in the Indo-Pacific. Shinzo Abe, the recently assassinated former prime minister, both embodied and made possible this shift, which now enjoys broadening public support.

Japan’s vocal commitment to the principle of a free and open Indo-Pacific, the Quad (the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a partnership with Australia, India, and the United States), and other initiatives arises from its fear of both China’s rise and the United States’ possible retrenchment.

India, which embraced and benefited from the U.S.-led liberal international order after the Cold War, remains a dissatisfied member. Its quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council is the most visible example of India’s desire to have a bigger say in the international system, commensurate with its economic and geopolitical weight.

LOSING FAITH

If major powers harbor doubts about the rules-based order, weaker countries have steadily lost faith in the legitimacy and fairness of the international system. This is certainly true of countries in the global South.

They have seen the UN, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization, G-20, and others fail to act on issues of development and, more urgently, the debt crisis plaguing developing countries—a crisis made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic and food and energy inflation caused by the Ukraine war. According to the IMF, over 53 countries are now at risk of serious debt crises.

That recent history of economic failure is compounded by the record, just in this century, of serial invasions, interventions, attempts at regime change, and covert interference engineered by major powers. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is only the most recent and egregious example of such violations of national sovereignty, but many Western powers have also been guilty of these actions. This behavior has led many developing countries to feel even more insecure and to doubt the international order.

Confidence in the pillars of that system is eroding. It has been several years since economic sanctions or military actions against particular countries were taken to the UN Security Council or other multilateral forums for approval. Instead, sanctions regimes and military interventions rely on the force of U.S. or Western power for their efficacy.

The fractious nature of major power relations has made international institutions progressively less effective. With international law not constraining the actions of the powerful, the legitimacy of these institutions has steadily declined. Long-established norms are beginning to fray; see, for instance, the increased likelihood of nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia, where Japanese leaders are more willing to discuss acquiring nuclear submarines and the return of U.S. nuclear weapons to the region.

A DANGEROUS WORLD

A kind of anarchy is creeping into international relations—not anarchy in the strict sense of the term, but rather the absence of a central organizing principle or hegemon. No single power can dictate the terms of the current order, and the major powers do not subscribe to a clear set of principles and norms; it’s hard to establish the rules of the road when so many countries are on their own paths.

In both word and deed, China and Russia today question major aspects of the Western liberal order, particularly its norms relating to universal human rights and the obligations of states. They invoke the principle of state sovereignty as a shield to operate as they wish while seeking to set new rules in domains such as cyberspace and new technologies.

But they do not yet offer an alternative, or one that is sufficiently attractive to others. Indeed, their treatment of their neighbors—in Ukraine, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea and on the India-China border—suggests an overwhelming reliance on hard military and economic power to the detriment of norms and institutions.

Equally, it is misguided to see today another Cold War defined by the sharp bipolarity of two blocs: a “free world” and a realm of “autocracies.” The transatlantic alliance has consolidated, and China and Russia appear united in an alliance of animus against the West, but this is far from another Cold War. Several democracies increasingly display the characteristics of autocratic states.

The world’s reactions to the Ukraine war and Western sanctions on Russia show that there is no unified bloc outside the transatlantic alliance. The economic interdependence of China and the United States has no precedent in the Cold War, when the chief adversaries were poles apart.

Besides, there is no equivalent to the ideological alternatives posed by the Cold War rivals, the United States and the Soviet Union; nothing like the appeal of communism and socialism to developing countries in the 1950s and 1960s is apparent today. The prime authoritarian, China, does not offer an ideological or systemic alternative but attracts other countries with financial, technological, and infrastructure promises and projects, not principles.

Instead, geopolitics grows more fractured and less cohesive. A world of revisionists is one in which  each country goes its own way. The globalized world economy is fragmenting into regional trading blocs, with partial decoupling attempted in the areas of high technology and finance, and ever fiercer contention between the powers for economic and political primacy. In the process, a much more dangerous world is emerging.

COPING MECHANISMS

States must learn to cope with this world of revisionist powers, a world between orders, and prepare for an uncertain future. One solution is to turn inward. China, India, the United States, and others have all done so in recent years, stressing self-reliance in one form or another: China’s “dual circulation” model, Biden’s pledge to “build back better,” and India’s commitment under Prime Minister Narendra Modi to pursue atmanirbharta, or self-reliance.

At the same time as they want to become more economically independent, states also want to be more militarily secure. All of the major powers have sought to expand their defense and nuclear capabilities. Global defense spending crossed $2 trillion for the first time in 2021 despite the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another response to a world of revisionism is for states to forge ad hoc coalitions. The last decade has brought a rash of plurilateral and multilateral arrangements—including the Quad, BRICS (a partnership featuring Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the I2U2 grouping featuring India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. Each problem seems to birth a new acronym.

These arrangements are expedient and serve particular ends, and although they might help tighten certain bilateral relationships, they do not come close to resembling the more rigid alliances or blocs of the Cold War era.

Inevitably, many middling and smaller powers will straddle divides and seek to balance their ties to greater powers. The response of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to growing contention between the United States and China, and the consolidation of Israel’s ties with the Sunni monarchies in the Gulf states through the Abraham Accords are examples of this trend.

Most recently, many African, Asian, and Latin American countries with strong ties to the West resisted joining sanctions against Russia after it invaded Ukraine. Such balancing and hedging behavior will encourage the pursuit of local solutions to local problems, whether in the form of regional economic and trading arrangements or in locally negotiated solutions to political disputes.

Yet action at the local level is insufficient for grappling with big global problems. Take, for instance, the debt crisis. Sri Lanka’s debt default and economic crisis have led the island nation to lean on neighbors within the subcontinent, with India providing food and fuel supplies and credit to the tune of U$3.8 billion.

Major foreign lenders, including in China and in the West, have yet to reschedule Sri Lanka’s debt. For years, wealthy countries have refused to act upon calls to reschedule or cancel the debts of developing countries teetering on the precipice of default.

Nobody looks likely to offer indebted developing countries a soft landing. More iterations of Sri Lanka’s collapse may follow. In effect, a world of revisionists is a world between orders where the great issues of the age—uneven development, climate change, and pandemics—are not addressed.

IN LIMBO

As the old order disintegrates and the new one struggles to be born, the advantage lies with states that clearly understand the balance of forces and have a conception of a cooperative future order that serves the common good. Unfortunately, the capacities of many major powers have diminished, and many of their leaders exhibit little interest in foreign affairs, managing crises, or solving transnational problems, precisely when widespread revisionism makes crises more likely and dangerous.

As a consequence of their contentious domestic politics, none of the significant revisionist powers, each of which wishes to change the international system, has a compelling vision of what that change might be. Nor is the rapidly shifting balance of power likely to provide the basis for a stable order for some time. Instead, the powers will probably muddle along from crisis to crisis as their dissatisfaction with the international system and with one another grows, in a form of motion without movement.

 

First published in the Foreign Affairs Magazine