Originally Published 2017-03-10 06:13:01 Published on Mar 10, 2017
As the liberal order yields to an age of uncertainty, a new initiative is needed if the nuclear taboo has to hold.
Stability in the time of change

In recent weeks, there has been a flood of commentary lamenting the demise of ‘the liberal rule-based international order’; the system that came into being after World War II and has since been led and shaped by the West under U.S. leadership for the last seven decades. While cracks in this ‘order’ have been showing up in recent years, it is after the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President that a conviction has grown that the seven-decade-old ‘order’ is dead and change is now upon us.

Yet the lengthening shadows of this change have been visible in other parts of the world for nearly a decade; at least from 2008 with the global financial crisis which presaged the unravelling of the Washington Consensus. History tells us that the wheels of change never stop. Sometimes, when they move slowly, it is only possible to judge the distance travelled by looking in the rear-view mirror, and at other times, like the present, change appears to be rushing at us through the windscreen even as we search for a ‘new stable and normal’ in the age of uncertainty.

Myth of the ‘liberal order’

But in mourning the passing of the old and familiar, a myth is being generated about this liberal international order. While it is true that there is greater volatility and churning in the world today than before, it is equally true that parts of the world have been going through these changes for much longer. What is new is that the tides of change are now lapping at the shores of the Western world.

West Asia has been in turmoil at least since the turn of the century when the growth of jihadist extremism seared itself on the global consciousness with 9/11 though its shoots were visible in the region a decade earlier. The reordering of Central Asia and Eastern Europe began with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and has now been unfolding for nearly a quarter century.

China’s rise started four decades ago and gathered steam after globalisation. It was facilitated by the U.S., initially justified as part of the Cold War logic which saw the USSR as the mortal enemy, and after the Cold War, on the hopeful myth that a prosperous China would gradually move towards a more plural political system, becoming part of the liberal order. As the myth evaporated in recent years, President Barack Obama was placing China in the category of ‘free riders’, while announcing the ‘US pivot to Asia’!

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China’s rise is accompanied by the rise of other emerging economies and a shift in the geopolitical centre of gravity from the Euro-Atlantic to Asia and the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Defining the characteristic of this change is a new report by PricewaterhouseCoopers that predicts that by 2040, the E7 (emerging countries of China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, Mexico and Turkey) will be twice the economic size of G7, the seven major advanced economies!

Out of sync

The post-World War II order marked the end of colonialism and was intended to be based on the democratic principle of equality of sovereign states, but this idea quickly fell prey to the realities of the Cold War. The UN became an arena for the power play between the two superpowers. By the time the Cold War ended, the institutional structures of the UN were out of sync with the new political reality. The U.S. became ‘the sole superpower’ but hubris and the decision to invade Iraq soon eroded the authority of its unipolar moment.

In hindsight, the liberal international order was not ‘global’ and consequently, ‘liberal and rule-based’ only in a small part of the world, the West. It is here today that populism, nationalism and illiberalism have emerged, reflecting a decisive rejection of the status quo. This is only partly due to economic reasons that got aggravated after 2008. The rejection of the status quo is equally a cultural rejection, a rejection of globalisation that enriched Corporate America but not the average worker in Middle America. It has contributed to the creation of a global elite and the backlash against it has taken the form of anti-immigration, nationalism and populism. A tired and ageing Europe, preoccupied with its experiment of a post-sovereignty EU, and Mr. Trump’s victory mark the end of the myth.

A post-West world

Populism breeds the politics of agitation often exploiting insecurities by distorting facts. In today’s age of information overdose, this has taken the form of making everything into a half-truth. A truth if questioned enough loses its shine and a lie if repeated enough times becomes a half-truth. Doing this in a 24/7 news cycle together with the echo chamber of social media has only become easier than before. This is why at the Munich Security Conference last month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov aptly described the current change as a shift to a “post-West world”.

The biggest challenge of coping with this shift is absence of credible multilateral institutions. Greater normative damage is done when the gap between myth and reality becomes unmanageable. A classic example is NATO, a creation of the Cold War but even today described in the West as a central pillar of Western, liberal order!

In such times of change, is the idea of stability an oxymoron? Much depends on how it is defined. Clearly, in times of change stability cannot be a defence of the status quo. However, breaking it up into crisis stability, deterrence stability and arms race stability makes the objectives relatively discrete and modest.

The nuclear dimension cast a dark shadow over the Cold War but the equation in a bipolar world was relatively simpler. In today’s world, with the focus on Asia and the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the dyad has been replaced by nuclear chains with variable linkages. New competitions are underway even as the firebreak between nuclear and conventional is getting blurred. Conventional precision-strike weapons can be as destructive and nuclear weapons can be designed for variable yields depending on the intended targets. Under such circumstances, arms race stability is hardly feasible.

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Therefore deterrence stability and crisis stability assume greater significance. Shifting from single-warhead missiles to MIRVed missiles and missile defence technologies impact deterrence stability which rests on mutual vulnerability. Today, more and more countries are exploring both areas. Soon, this will lead to doctrinal and deployment changes. Developments in North Korea provide easy justification for the U.S. (and South Korea) to consider deploying missile defences in East Asia but these can easily trigger concerns in Beijing. Unless addressed, China will find ways, both symmetric and asymmetric, to ensure that its deterrent credibility is maintained.

Ensuring crisis stability

In addition to deterrence stability, it is vital to ensure crisis stability. This requires communication links and risk reduction mechanisms which need to be designed and made operational sooner rather than later. This is not a question of legality, of claiming that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty recognises five nuclear weapon states, as China has been doing during the Nuclear Suppliers Group debates last year on the question of India joining; it is a question of acknowledging ground reality that demands that all states with nuclear weapons share an imperative to move towards establishing crisis stability mechanisms.

The Cuban missile crisis in 1962 helped drive home the realisation to the U.S. and Soviet leaderships that nuclear weapons were qualitatively different. It began the process of the search for strategic stability, arms control and crisis management.

The stability mechanisms put in place, together with a bit of luck, helped to ensure that nuclear weapons were not used during the last seven decades. But today’s world is an age neither of hegemons nor of prescriptive norms; it is an age of uncertainty and change which increases the likelihood of crisis escalation. A new initiative for a modest degree of stability is needed if the nuclear taboo has to hold. Given the growing convergence between the leaders of India and Japan, these two countries are well placed to launch such an initiative.

This commentary originally appeared in The Hindu.

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Rakesh Sood

Rakesh Sood

Ambassador Rakesh Sood was a Distinguished Fellow at ORF. He has over 38 years of experience in the field of foreign affairs economic diplomacy and ...

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