A systemic clash: Revisionists vs. USA (I)


Since 2007-2008, there is talk about a state of uncertainty that appeared in the international system of states. Developed in the context of the exponential and unprecedented growth of China, plus the explosion of emergent states (Brazil, India, Russia, S.A.R. etc.), and against the background of the global financial crisis and the crisis of the European single currency, this uncertainty was associated in comments by experts – some of them famous – with the decline of the hegemonic power of the USA. Titles like “The End of Pax Americana” or similar were frequent on the covers of new books and Washington started the process of drafting a new “grand strategy” meant to secure its systemic ascendency in an increasingly complex world that is expensive to manage using traditional instruments. The crises multiplied, especially in Asia, but – lately – in Europe too, and the probability of a new hegemonic war aimed at shaping a new systemic order is frequently invoked by experts.

The crisis of Ukraine, more than others that occurred in other areas – like the South or East China Sea, Syria, more recently Iraq – once again galvanized the debate on the global order, because of its possible systemic impact. It is obvious that, by the annexation of Ukraine, Russia challenges the existing global order, based on a consensus reached in 1943-1945 and post-Cold War between the great powers, especially USA and Russia. So, is the solution to the Ukrainian crisis related to the beginning of a process of shaping a new global order, or the old one can be improved so that to absorb the drastic modification that appeared?
As it is known, the Ukrainian crisis, which started at the end of November 2013, entered a bloody phase in the third decade of February this year, in March Crimea was occupied and annexed by Russia, which continued to act bloodily in Eastern Ukraine. Some experts speak of a “quiet” war between Russia and Ukraine in the east of the latter state, the separatists here being granted not just diplomatic, but also military support by Russia, also by mobilizing significant military forces at the border of the two states. Russian experts (S. Karaganov, F. Lukianov, D. Trenin etc.) appreciate that this tough clash between East and West in Ukraine is only the enactment of Kremlin’s strategy meant to force the installing of a multipolar world, which would mean the end of the unipolar system, USA being the systemic hegemon installed shortly after the collapse of the USSR. Thus, by proposing the founding of a “Greater Europe” Russia plus the EU, from Lisbon to Vladivostok, Kremlin might target the changing of the present systemic order and the end of the role of single global power pole exerted by the USA, replacing it with a ‘power triangle’ – USA, Greater Europe and China – that would stabilize the international system this century.
In the American space too, there is much talk about the systemic implications of what is going on today in the context of the Crimean crisis. From this perspective, two schools of thought were distilled, although each of them has significant nuances in some cases. The first was recently illustrated by expert Walter Russel Mead, who in the last issue of ‘Foreign Affairs’ (May-June 2014) describes Russia, China and Iran as being “revisionist powers” (in an article named “The Return of Geopolitics – The Revenge of the Revisionist Powers”). So, the three states are major actors in the international relations and do not agree to the current systemic unipolar configuration, acting in order to acquire a prominent place in it. This would explain, according to this school of thought, the multiplication of the frequency of crises in which the three ‘revisionist’ states are involved, from Syria and Crimea – in relation to Russia – to the frequent crises of the East China Sea (Senkaku-Diaoyu) or South China Sea (between China and Vietnam or the Philippines) in which Beijing is part, or those where Iran plays a significant role (Syria, Iraq etc.). In Mead’s words, these ‘revisionist’ states did not succeed in changing the global order installed after the Cold War, but “they have converted an uncontested status quo into a contested one.” The American school of thought represented by Mead lays emphasis, in Russia’s case, on the discontentment and frustration of this country, caused by its exclusion from the mini-reshaping of the global order that occurred post-1991, as it pretends being one of its founders in 1943-1945, hence entitled to reclaim a particular role in it. As for China, Mead affirms that the economic expansion without historic precedent of this country will make it think it is entitled to an equally significant role in the global order, its assertiveness being limited, for now, to territorial claims in the regional strategic space of reference, while Iran allegedly attempts to dominate the Middle East through the geopolitical game of its own alliances. Mead affirms: “So far, the year 2014 has been a tumultuous one, as geopolitical rivalries have stormed back to center stage. Whether it is Russian forces seizing Crimea, China making aggressive claims in its coastal waters, Japan responding with an increasingly assertive strategy of its own, or Iran trying to use its alliances with Syria and Hezbollah to dominate the Middle East, old-fashioned power plays are back in international relations.” According to this school of thought, the comeback of geopolitics has the role of resuming the older and out-of-fashion power game based on the existence of spheres of influence or interest and the forced interference in the systemic uncertainty meant to attain the intended revisionist goals. Two explanations are important in Meade’s analytical approach. The first refers to the fact that the West should have never excluded the return to the spotlight of this systemic ‘power game’, the nature of the global structure, relying on power classifications, with a prominent role being played equally by the size of the GDP and the military strength, the changes of hierarchy within these classifications determining revisionism related to global stature. The second explanation refers to the fact that the changes implied by the global power game of geopolitics cannot take place exclusively by peaceful means. He writes: “That process will not be peaceful, and whether or not the revisionists succeed, their efforts have already shaken the balance of power and changed the dynamics of international politics.”
Even if the school of thought represented by Mead seems pessimistic – he also makes references to the thesis of F. Fukuyama about the end of the Cold War also being the ‘end of history,’ i.e. the global victory of liberalism and the beginning of the post-modern era – the return to geopolitics determining the revenge of frustrated and neglected actors, adepts of the obsolete theories (19th Century) of power game, he does not hesitate to mention a fact confirmed by everyday reality. Which is that the main adversary of these ‘revisionists’ is the USA, the real custodian of the present global order. At least until now, none of the ‘revisionists’ dared and tries to avoid a conflict with the USA. When Russia attempted, in August 2008, to punish a “rebel” of its own sphere of influence (Georgia), which had taken a firm stance towards NATO, it had to backtrack rapidly and avoid an escalation of the crisis, confronted with the firm reaction of the USA. Apparently, this is also the case with the Ukrainian crisis.
But how long will these states avoid a direct confrontation with the USA?

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