Wu Xinbo: how the international system will develop after the Russian-Ukrainian conflict

The conflict in Ukraine was the third “blow” to the world order that took shape after the Cold War, writes “Huanqiu shibao”. According to the Chinese expert, there will be significant changes in the trade and economic system of the world, the system of global governance and the system of international relations.

The hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, which have caused great concern in the international community, have been going on for more than a hundred days. This is not only a conflict between the two countries, but also serious disagreements, contradictions and clashes in the international system. From Moscow’s point of view, one of the main goals of the special military operation is to destroy the dominant status of the United States in Europe. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has made it clear that all this is being done to end the US-dominated world order and to help build an equal international community. The reaction of Washington and Brussels is also unprecedented. The sanctions they have imposed are not only a kind of suppression of one of the parties in the clash between the two countries, but are also aimed at ending ties between the West and Russia in trade, finance, technology and energy, as well as at reconstructing the world trade and economic system and the system of global governance. Therefore, both Russia and the United States pursue fundamental goals in this conflict.

Three blows to the post-Cold War system

In 1998, Russia received an invitation to join the G7 and became a member of the G8. In 2001, China joined the WTO as a result of the basic formation of the international system after the end of the Cold War. Russia and China, America’s two main adversaries of the period, were included in this system. It can be said that the moment when the United States allowed Beijing and Moscow to join the international system marked the overcoming of geopolitical and ideological differences, since at that time the United States focused on building an inclusive global system. But over the next 20 years, she was hit three times.

First of which was the war in Iraq. By unleashing it, bypassing the UN, America obviously challenged the organization’s dominance in the field of international security and a number of important norms established by its charter. This affected not only the system of organization, but also the system of US allies, since some of them, such as France and Germany, were strongly opposed to military action in Iraq. The first blow only damaged the international system, but did not destroy it. Why didn’t she collapse? There are two main reasons for this. First, under the prevailing circumstances at the time, the United States had a significant advantage in strength, and the international community’s response to Washington’s actions was limited. Although many countries were discontented, they did not dare and were unable to fight back America. This is the unhealthy side of the international system, in which hegemony plays an important role. The second reason is that the United States paid a heavy price in the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, after which it self-regulated. After Barack Obama took office, the country leaned towards multilateralism.

Second strike caused by the Donald Trump administration. One aspect of its influence on the international system is unilateralism and “leaving the group”, which has caused serious damage to many international mechanisms and rules. Another manifestation was the unprecedented trade war against China, which not only hit the global supply chain and industrial chain, but also destroyed the norms of the international trade and economic system. Thus, during the Trump presidency there has been damage to the international system, the destruction of its rules and the weakening of the world order. After Joe Biden took office, on the one hand, some multilateral mechanisms and the system of allies were restored, but, on the other hand, a number of predecessor practices were inherited, especially in terms of China policy, restructuring the international trade and economic system, and rewriting trade and economic norms. In this sense, the damage done by Trump to the international trade and economic system continues and increases.

Finally, third strike is the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and the sanctions of the West. A clash between two countries—without sanctions—has limited impact on the international system because, after all, it is local. However, the numerous packages of anti-Russian measures are not only unprecedented in scope, but also seriously undermine established international rules. The impact of these sanctions on the international system will be huge and long-term.

Four new trends

There is currently a resonance between the US strategic rivalry with China and the sanctions imposed on Russia. The post-Cold War international system is trying to transcend geopolitics and ideology. However, since Donald Trump launched a strategic rivalry with China, America has been bringing geopolitics and ideology back to the forefront of its foreign policy. When it comes to relations with China, the United States focuses more on the so-called “value system” than on globalization and markets. Because of this, the ongoing strategic rivalry with China and sanctions against Russia are collectively fueling and accelerating four major trends.

Firstly, turning interdependence into a “weapon”. Economic interdependence is manifested in market, technological, financial and other aspects, and is the result of economic activity. But now it is used by the West as an important weapon against China, Russia and some other countries (such as Iran, North Korea and so on).

Secondly, security of economic relations. The logic of globalization is market based, and it consists in organizing investment, production and sales in terms of maximizing economic benefits. But today the United States and some Western countries are paying more and more attention to the security of economic relations. Regardless of technology, investment or production chain structure, the first thing to consider is the so-called security issues. The security of economic relations has severely damaged or even disabled the logic of globalization.

Thirdly, turning international public goods into instruments. The American dollar and the dollar-based international payment system have become part of international public goods and should remain public goods, but they are now increasingly being used by America as a tool of foreign policy.

Fourth, the ideologization of international relations, or, in Western terms, the so-called “value orientation”. Today’s international relations are increasingly based on a “value system”. Recently, Joe Biden visited Asia to promote the Indo-Pacific strategy, and one of the main flags in this was precisely the “value system”.

Three Consequences

In this context, the global trade and economic system, the system of global governance and the system of international relations will undergo significant changes.

Firstly, transition from economic globalization to economic consolidation. The world is gradually splitting into different trading, technological and currency blocs. We have witnessed the “de-sinification” of the West, especially the United States, in trade, technology, investment and industrial chains, as well as the “de-dollarization” of many countries of the world in the monetary sphere. American sanctions against Russia using the dollar as a “weapon” may put pressure on it in the short term, but in the long term it will weaken the international credit of the US currency and encourage many to think about reducing their dependence on the US dollar.

Secondly, weakening or even splitting of the global system of governance. For example, this year the United States demanded that Russia withdraw from the G20 meeting. Whether the G-20 can truly play its role as the main platform for macroeconomic coordination in the future remains an open question. At the United Nations, the divisions between Russia and China on the one hand and the United States and its allies on the other are becoming increasingly apparent. This phenomenon will gradually spread to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other mechanisms of global governance. Cooperation in this area initially goes beyond geopolitics and ideology, but America is increasingly bringing these two factors to these platforms. In the future, this will weaken the function of the global governance system and may even lead to a certain division of it.

Thirdly, reorganization of international relations. It is obvious that the world game unfolding around the conflict between Russia and Ukraine in the form of a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine, sanctions imposed by Western countries against Russia, and the suspension of Russia’s participation in the UN Human Rights Council, leads to a split in the international community . This means that the current international relations, focused on cooperation and the search for consensus, are weakening and tending to split into two opposing camps and one neutral camp. The participants in the neutral camp do not want to take sides, they adhere to a practical approach, focused on solving problems, and take different positions on different issues.

How far will these trends go? It depends not only on the attitude of the West towards Russia, but on its attitude towards China. Although Russia wants to end American hegemony, in terms of potential and political orientation, Russia plays a more destructive role, that is, weakens the hegemonic dominance of the United States over the system. However, building a more equal international system may depend more on the choices and actions of China and other developing countries.

Wu Xinbo is the head of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University.

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