The Battle Between International Law and National Interests, Part I

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With Russia-Ukraine and Israel’s military assault on Gaza, 2014 seems to be the year of international crises.  Beginning in late 2013 with chemical weapons used in Syria, global crises seem to arise routinely lately.  This is nothing new, international crises have existed since even before the establishment of the nation-state.  However what is different about this current series of crises is the lack of an international response.

This is comparable to western Europe’s appeasement of Hitler before World War II. The world was recovering from the Great Depression and the United States was apathetic to Europe’s troubles, having embraced isolationism.  The burden fell to the western democracies of Britain and France who were weary of reliving another world war, and thus did nothing.

80 years later, the world is recovering from the Great Recession in a highly globalized and interconnected world.  The world is in a phase where countries largely keep to their own borders and are reluctant to act outside them.  This is why despite Europe’s outrage with Russia going back to Putin’s annexation of Crimea, the continent’s response has been lukewarm at best.  As with Syria, the US is trying to muster international engagement in a community of nations that currently pursues national interests above international norms.

But what distinguishes this situation from previous crises is the shifting balance of power.  This trend of globalization and ‘geopolitical isolationism’ is happening against a backdrop of changing polarity.  Which leads me to conclude the world is in a unique situation–a composite akin to pre-WWI and pre-WWII.

Part of the US’ difficulty in mobilizing an international response to global crises is the rise of other powers challenging American hegemony.  Russia, India, China are rising powers who not only want a ‘piece of the power-pie’ but whose national interests lead them away from the West.  The US does not agree with their actions, but cannot intimidate them either.  Despite Britain controlling 25% of the world’s population, in 1914 Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France and the Ottoman Empire shared power.  The fear of losing power and the desire to gain power caused the tensions that resulted in World War I.  A century later the US is trying to maintain its influence as other countries such as the BRICS demand shared power.

 The world before WWII was one where countries largely kept to themselves, so fearful of another global conflict and out of economic self-interest.  Likewise the world today is jaded by the international interventions that dominated the 1990s and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but is also still recovering from the Great Recession.

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Russia and China Set Out to Change the World Order As We Know It

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Russia and China’s developing alliance was in the news last week as Vladimir Putin signed two agreements while visiting Shanghai.  The first brings $450 billion worth of Russian natural gas to China over 30 years, in a demonstration to the West that Russia still has friends in the midst of growing political isolation.  Experts caution that this move is largely symbolic.  For the moment, Russia still needs Europe to buy its gas.  China, welcomes any natural resources it can access.

The minimal American media coverage focused on whether this deal threatens the United States, with US officials responding that not much should be made of this deal since there is nothing special about Russia and China having bilateral relations with each other.  Perhaps there is nothing special about a deal that is largely symbolic for now anyway.

The same cannot be said about the second agreement however.  Russia and China also agreed to bypass the US dollar in bilateral trade.  America’s financial hegemony partly comes from the American currency being the reserve currency in international trade.  This allows the US to spend beyond its means and have a significant influence abroad.  As the world becomes more multi-polar, there is a strong desire among the BRICS nations to change the status quo.  Russia and China agreeing to do just that is a first step, especially if more BRICS follow suit.

Russia is pushing this relationship as a show of power in the face of Western condemnation, but China can be described as a benevolent opportunist.  Its leaders appreciate the access to raw materials and a chance to challenge the US while at the same time not going beyond certain limits.  Russia-China’s combined strength is already felt in international diplomacy, as both countries use their veto power on the United Nations Security Council to stop resolutions proposed by other members of the P5.

Whether American leaders are willing to admit it or not, Russia-China’s new friendship is one to watch.  No it is not an ideological friendship but a marriage of mutual interests, which might be more effective than a union of affection.  The closer these countries become, the more they will resist US actions in the East and elsewhere, and be invulnerable to American retaliation.  Russian and Chinese leaders have come together for one common goal: to change the world order as it currently exists.