The New Polycentric International Order / By Pedro Costa Júnior

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dismantling of the USSR in 1991 brought the end of the bipolar international order that had ruled the world for almost half a century. From the literature capturing the history of international relations, we can understand the phrase “international order” to refer, essentially, to a certain collection (in motion) bringing together norms, institutions and power structures that modify, limit and direct the behavior of the actors that make up the world-system during a certain period.

There are two unequivocal historical movements in every transition and subsequent establishment of a certain world order: the pen and the bomb, that is, war and peace. This was the case in the “Peace of Westphalia”, in 1648, which was the outcome of what has been known as the Wars of Religion. In Vienna, in 1815, the Napoleonic Wars were followed by the “Concert of Europe”. We see the same pattern in the so-called “Peace of Versailles”, in 1919, at the end of the First World War. Or even in Yalta, Potsdam and San Francisco, in 1945, with the end of the Second World War. After the Soviet collapse in 1991, the US bombing of Iraq, in the First Gulf War, established, through the power of weapons, new power dynamics in the international field.

Given this situation, from the 1990s onwards, the United States and the European Union prioritized in their geopolitical agenda the “management” of the dismantling of the “Russian empire”, due to its economic consequences and the old geopolitical challenge around Central Europe. The Americans hastened the expansion of NATO and quickly took over the military positions left by the Soviet army in Central Europe. The United States and its Western allies explicitly supported the autonomy of states from the former Soviet “zone of influence” and actively promoted the dismemberment of Russian territory.

Starting with Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, followed by Ukraine, Belarus, the Balkans, Caucasus and Central Asian countries. They supported the independence of Kosovo, pressured the deployment of its “anti-missile shield” in Central Europe and began to openly arm and train the armies of Ukraine, Georgia and Central Asian countries, disregarding the fact that most of these countries belonged to Russian territory during the previous three centuries. They also ignored the dissonance and warning of respected internal voices such as George Kennan, the “containment theorist”, who predicted how NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe would be its tragedy, and Henry Kissinger, who advocated that the so-called “zones of influence” of the great powers should be respected.

After the humiliation Russia was subjected to during the Yeltsin years, in this new century we see the Russian renaissance. Russia has been explicitly pursuing a policy of empowerment. It is notable that the Russian reaction began with the government of Vladimir Putin in 2000 and its strategic reorientation. The Russian president has recentralized power. He reconstituted the Russian state and economy, rebuilding its military-industrial complex and nationalizing its vast energy resources. He articulated the construction of the BRICS. Possessing the largest nuclear arsenal on the planet, the new Russian government warned the United States of the possibility of a new nuclear race if it continued with its project of developing an “anti-ballistic shield” in Central Europe – more precisely in Poland.

In August 2007, Putin planted a titanium Russian flag in international waters deep in the Arctic. In 2008, Russian troops intervened in Georgia. In 2014 Crimea was incorporated by Russia as a new subject of the Federation, within the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis. Putin, moreover, posed an impediment to any Western intervention in Syria and has secured his ally, Bashar al-Assad, in power. And since then, he has strengthened his strategic ties with China, especially after the sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union following the Ukrainian crisis.

On February 4, 2022, strategically at the opening of the XXIV Winter Games, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin met in Beijing. On the occasion, in addition to participating in the opening ceremony of the games, the two heads of state released a “Joint Declaration” that drew attention both for its assertiveness and for its scope.

The two countries announced a high-level and unprecedented alliance in the history of the world-system: “The new inter-state relations between Russia and China are superior to the political and military alliances of the Cold War era. The friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no 'prohibited' areas of cooperation”, according to the text.

The long document deals with virtually all relevant aspects of international politics, democracy and human rights, pandemic, defense of peace, colour revolutions, shared and sustainable development, combating climate change, terrorism, internet governance, communicational warfare, etc.

In essence, the document as a whole represents a defense of multilateralism and a new polycentric international order. It reveals a solid intention of the two countries in unity, openly contesting the post-Cold War, Atlanticist and Anglo-Saxon international order, as well as the end of American hegemony. It establishes that the world-system undergoes a transformation in its governance architecture and world order. According to the text, “humanity is entering a new era” and “sees the development of processes and phenomena such as multipolarity, economic globalization, advent of the information society, cultural diversity, transformation of the architecture of global governance and world order”.

The letter points directly to NATO and sets clear limits for its role in this new world order. The document reads: “The parties oppose further enlargement of NATO and call on the North Atlantic Alliance to abandon its ideological Cold War approaches and respect the sovereignty, security and interests of other countries. The parties oppose the formation of closed bloc structures and opposing camps in the Asia-Pacific region and remain highly vigilant about the negative impact on peace and stability in the strategic region of the US Indo-Pacific.”

It points to an inexorable “Eurasian” rise of power: political, economic, technological, military, diplomatic, cultural, sports… The expression of such a shift, besides the partnership and the document itself, would be, among others, the Chinese development project of the “Belt and Road Initiative”, the greater Eurasian integration with multilateral organizations such as the G20, ASEAN, BRICS and in particular the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). At the end, one of the conclusions of the text highlights: “Russia and China intend to comprehensively strengthen the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and further improve their role in the formation of a polycentric world order based on the universally recognized principles of international law, multilateralism, equitable, joint, indivisible, broad and sustainable security”.

The history of international relations demonstrates that any breach of an established world order implies the use of force. Twenty days after Putin's visit to Xi in Beijing and the release of this Sino-Russian document that clearly and unequivocally challenges the post-Cold War international order, Russian troops were sent to Ukraine within the frameworks of an early announced special military operation. And, through the power of its military, Russia, supported by its great ally, China, inaugurates a new era in the world.

A new polycentric international order has been established, putting an end to the infinite expansionism of NATO and the hegemony of the USA, which lasted for thirty long years.

Pedro Costa Júnior is a doctoral student in political science at USP. Author of the book Collapse or Myth of Collapse?” ( Appris ).