In a campaign that recalls the old days of Soviet propaganda, Russian President Vladimir Putin is promoting a new theme: the end of the “American” world order. The theme, now peddled by talking heads on Moscow-sponsored satellite TV screens and elaborated upon by “experts” in conferences mushrooming all over Europe, was first put into circulation by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the last international security conference in Munich, Germany.
Putin and Lavrov are right: The current world order, which has been in place since the end of the Second World War, is a result – largely though not exclusively – of American initiatives reflecting the United States’ economic, diplomatic and military domination in the confused international scene left by the most devastating armed conflict in human history.
Look at international institutions such as the United Nations and its numerous appendages, not to mention the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the precursor of the World Trade Organization, and you will see “Made in America” stamped on them.
Virtually every aspect of international life is organized and policed by more than 10,000 international treaties, agreements, conventions and protocols almost all of which were also made in America, occasionally with some input by its European allies. The US currency has been, and still largely remains the principal medium of exchange in international trade partly because anyone who has some money, anyone including the People’s Republic of China, is keen to hold as many dollars as possible. In military terms, the US is the only power with a veritable blue-water navy capable of projecting power in all continents, and logistics capabilities without which no credible military operation is launched beyond any nation’s borders for a significant chunk of time.
Whether or not such American preponderance has been a good thing is a matter of opinion and ideological penchant. What is certain, however, is that, its many defects notwithstanding, the “order” has worked. Although we have witnessed scores of wars, small, medium and large, since 1945, we have not suffered another World War. Almost all nations have also experienced unprecedented economic transformation. Famine, a recurrent feature of human existence since the dawn of time, has all but disappeared while most of the epidemics that were the main killers of humans for millennia have been brought under control.
Of course, all that is not exclusively due to American efforts. After, as Brecht once observed, all when Caesar crossed the Rhine in winter he did have someone to make him some soup, and polish his boots. But the system held, not always in a just way, because it was guaranteed by American power.
Putin and Lavrov may well be right in suggesting that the old American world order may need to be revised.
After all, history is never frozen at any particular moment in time and, for the last decade, the American world order has been brachiating from one uncertainty to another. More importantly, the greater the diversity of ideas offered to mankind the better for our future as a whole.
The question is: what is the alternative that Putin and Lavrov are offering?
A visitor to Russia is surprised by the number of Russians who try to ape the Americans not only in their lifestyle but even in using names borrowed from American TV soap operas. Some in your hotel personnel in Moscow or Saint Petersburg wear name tags identifying them as ”Bob” “Tom”, “Sue” and “ Jackie.” In many places in Putin’s Russia it is easier to order an American-style hamburger than a classical beef stroganov. Look at the way Russians, especially the younger ones, dress and you have a spectacle in which Gogol’s hero wearing the famous Overcoat would find himself a stranger.
On a recent flight from London to Moscow announcements were given exclusively in English although a majority of passengers appeared to be Russians. Many of Russia’s nouveaux-riches hide their money in off-shore banks, including in Cyprus ultimately linked to the big investment houses in New York and London. Russians buying a chunk of Florida, where President Donald Trump has set up his alternative White House, have propelled real estate prices out of the doldrums they were in since 2009. The way the emerging upper and middle classes of Russia are behaving is a daily endorsement of the “American way”, not its denunciation as Putin and Lavrov seem to believe.
Is the Russian government offering an attractive alternative by bombing defenseless Aleppo into rabble in the forlorn hope of prolonging the fictitious rule of a sanguinary tyrant? Or would the alternative Russian world order embrace discrediting international sports by cheating at the Olympics? Should the new world order limit global trade to oil and gas and arms because Russia has nothing else to sell?
The Russian alternative world order also includes invading weak and often unarmed neighbors such as Georgia and Ukraine and snatching away parts of their territory, or at least, bullying them as is the case with Moldova and the Baltic States. It also means cuddling people like the mullahs of Tehran, the Taliban in Afghanistan and the ultra-rightist crackpots of Europe like Marine Le Pen or leftist Utopians such as Jean-Luc Melanchon and the SYRIZA dissidents. The way Moscow has behaved in the past few years indicates only one thing: The new “world order” it talks about is a dangerous caricature of the one in place since 1945.
Talk of a multipolar system is nonsense. Any shape with more than two poles has no poles in the geometric sense intended.
Lavrov may be right in opening the debate on the need to review and, when needed, revise, the “American” world order. Right now, however, it is still the best, or least bad, on offer and the hope should be that, with the Obama zigzag closed, the US might resume its leadership where and when needed. In the meantime, I believe that most people, including many Russians, won’t touch the Putin-Lavrov “alternative” with a bargepole.