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Don’t despair: the world order is changing, but it is not collapsing

After the Cold War, pundits lined up to produce various scenarios of future political chaos. None of them have proven true

EuropeWar Zones

A destroyed Russian T-90A tank in Ukraine, March 3, 2022. Photo from Flickr.

As the war in Ukraine enters its second year, it is hard not to be pessimistic about the future. Although it is not impossible that some decisive military action might bring the war to an end in the coming months, this currently seems unlikely. More probably, the conflict will continue for a long time yet. Beyond that, Russian-Western relations are in ruins and unlikely to recover for many decades. For almost everybody involved, the war is a disaster from which no exit as yet seems visible.

If we believe the prophets of doom, that may not be the worst of it. For many, the past year is a potential turning point not just for Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of Europe, but also for the world as a whole. Viewing events in apocalyptic terms, some regard what is happening in Ukraine as potentially the beginning of a general collapse of the international order and the start of a new era of political and economic anarchy.

For instance, speaking at the end of January 2023, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that a Russian victory in Ukraine would encourage countries all over the world to use military force to achieve their political goals, and specifically would embolden the People’s Republic of China to invade Taiwan. “This war is not just a European crisis, but a challenge to the world order,” said Stoltenberg. Meanwhile, also at the end of January 2023, the Russian-based Valdai Club issued a report predicting that efforts by Western countries, notably Canada, to confiscate the property of Russian citizens, and then transfer that property to Ukraine, would “have serious international repercussions.” According to one of the report’s authors, French economist Jacques Sapir, these repercussions could include “a split of the world into different regions and the end of globalization,” accompanied by “de-dollarization and the complete destruction of the international monetary system.”

At this point, the pessimists go too far. While events in Ukraine will undoubtedly have an impact on political and economic affairs far beyond Europe’s boundaries, claims that they will lead to a collapse of the international order seem farfetched. After all, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003 did not induce countries around the world to start attacking one another. There is no particular reason why the war in Ukraine should do so either. Likewise, it seems to be stretching reality to imagine that the financial measures taken by the West against Russia in the past year will lead to “complete destruction of the international monetary system.” Certainly, these measures are likely to encourage states outside the West to further develop independent financial systems, safe from Western sanctions. But this is a process that has long been going on, and dramatic change is not going to happen overnight. It is not in any country’s interests to entirely cut itself off from the current international order. Change will be slow, and will involve a shift from one set of institutions to another, not a shift from order to anarchy.

In any case, while the war in Ukraine has been bad for Europe, most of the rest of the world is getting along reasonably well. There are, of course, exceptions, but by historical standards this is an extraordinarily good time to be alive. The Western world, for instance, continues to enjoy peace, wealth, and relatively good order and government, and despite all the panic mongering about the spread of populism, shows no obvious signs of collapse.

Other parts of the globe are also for the most part prospering. The Chinese economy has enjoyed 40 years of continuous growth and even though this slowed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the growth has yet to show any signs of stopping, with China becoming the largest economy in the world. Meanwhile, India has moved up to fifth place in the world economic rankings, is predicted to grow at a rate of seven percent in 2023, and is expected in due course to overtake the United States to become number two, after China. Africa is also doing well, economically speaking. Overall, its economies are growing faster than the global average, as they have now for several years. All this matters, as wealth provides the basis for much else—security, education, health care, protection of the environment, and so on. There are over a billion Chinese, over a billion Indians, and over a billion Africans. The economic progress they are experiencing constitutes a major step forward for humanity as a whole. This is really good news.

It is true that armed conflict has increased worldwide in recent years. But this needs to be put in the context of a massive decline in such conflict in the period following the end of Cold War. We are yet to get back to the situation that existed in the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, while some parts of the world are experiencing high levels of political violence, particularly the Middle East, others are enjoying considerable peace compared to the past, Latin America being an example. Terrorism is largely limited to a handful of countries, such as Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Nigeria. Elsewhere, your chances of becoming a victim of political violence are so tiny as to be hardly measurable.

After the Cold War, pundits lined up to produce various scenarios of future political chaos. None of them have proven true. Robert Kaplan, for instance, predicted a “Coming Anarchy,” in which environmental decline and state collapse would turn large parts of the globe into lawless zones reminiscent of Sierra Leone in the early 1990s. Nothing of the sort has happened. Likewise, post-9/11 fears of terrorism posing an ‘existential’ threat to Western civilization have proven completely unfounded. Other prophecies of doom have proven equally false.

On a global level, while states such as Russia and China may be challenging Western hegemony, contrary to many claims to the contrary, nobody is challenging the international system as a whole. Nobody is seriously proposing abolishing the United Nations, abandoning international law, suspending the rules regulating international trade, ripping up all bilateral and international treaties, and the like. And for very good reasons. It is in nobody’s interests to live in such a world. What is happening is that more and more states are making more and more treaties among themselves, and establishing more and more new multilateral institutions on a regional or local level. But these do not replace the existing system. They simply supplement it, while binding states further into an order of mutual obligations. The world order is changing, but it is not collapsing, nor is it likely to. Again, this is good news.

Every war must end. The war in Ukraine will end too. Unfortunately, much more blood will be shed before that happens. But, as things currently stand, this local catastrophe should not be taken as an indication of a more general crisis. So far it isn’t, and most of the world is showing no inclination to do anything that might make it so. For that at least, we should be thankful.

Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. He is the author of numerous works on Russian and Soviet history, including Russian Conservatism, published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2019.

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