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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Ties That Do Not Bind: Russia and the International Liberal Order

  • Author(s): Krickovic, Andrej
  • Advisor(s): Weber, Steven
  • et al.

The world is experiencing an unprecedented shift in wealth and power away from the West and towards the developing countries According to some estimates the combined gross domestic product of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) will surpass that of the G7 nations by 2032. India's GDP alone is predicted to surpass that of the United States by 2043 and China's GDP will be almost twice that of the US by 2050. Rising powers are using this newfound wealth to expand their global influence. China has taken the lead in investment and development in Africa. Russia is consolidating its influence in the Post-Soviet space. India is flexing its muscle on the subcontinent. Brazil is pushing for regional integration in South America and promoting diplomatic initiatives to address some of the world's most difficult problems, such as the Iranian nuclear program.

What is the impact of institutions and regimes during periods of major power transition in the international system? My dissertation challenges liberal theories, which argue that the institutions and regimes established by the Western powers after World War II constitute a resilient and robust "International Liberal Order" (ILO) that will shape and restrain the behavior of rising powers. I develop a test of eight observable hypotheses for how the ILO should affect the behavior of rising and then test these against the behavior of post-Soviet Russia. I find that the Russian case fails along all eight hypotheses and that Russia has adopted a range of policies that undermine the existing order and work to transform it. The ILO's institutions and regimes have not shaped and constrained Russia's behavior in the ways that the theory predicts. Nor have the larger political and economic processes that ILO theorists believe bolster the existing order, such as global economic integration, the rise of transnational non-state actors (NGOs and big business) and the spread of liberal and democratic values, made Russia more amenable to integration into the ILO. Evaluated in this way, claims about the robustness and resilience of the existing order fail, suggesting that Russia and other rising states will look to use their growing power to bring about major changes in the international order.

Interestingly, it's not only Russia's behavior that does not conform to the ILO's expectations. The leading Western powers have not been willing to give Russia a seat at the table that would give it a real say over major political and economic questions. They continue to be wary of growing Russian power and suspicious of Russia's true intentions. As a result, Russia's leaders are unsatisfied with the existing order's ability to promote their country's interests. Instead of embracing the ILO, Russia has increasingly looked to preserve its freedom of action and has followed an independent foreign policy course.

The Russian case challenges the ILO's universalistic argument that all emerging states will simply find common cause within the existing framework of international institutions and regimes. It shows that rising states have a mind of their own and that they are ready to utilize a wide range of tools to realize their ambitions. They see the ILO as only one among many means to pursue their interests. But in many cases concerns about relative gains and their reluctance to enter into relationships of dependence will also make them question the wisdom of working through existing institutions. Rising states will often see the pursuit of their own power and capabilities - rather than strengthening institutional relationships - as the most reliable strategy for promoting their interests. They will also look to use their newfound power to transform international institutions so that they serve their interests more effectively.

Not only is there a demand for change on the part of rising powers, but they may also be able to effect change more readily than is usually acknowledged by either realist or liberal IR theories. Both realist and liberal theories assume that rising powers only have two strategies open to them: they can either accept the existing order or wage a full-out frontal assault to overthrow it (i.e., behave as Germany and Japan did in the lead up to WWI/WWII or the Soviet Union did after WWII). Proponents of the ILO argue that rising powers will accept the established order because they will find the costs and risks of pushing for change to be prohibitive. In examining Russia's behavior, I find that rising powers have a wider menu of effective strategies and tactics available to them - from simply ignoring the parts of the ILO that they do not like, to forming new relationships and institutions that achieve specific aims. These strategies allow rising powers to resist the current order and work towards its gradual transformation without having to challenge it openly and directly.

The future international order may take the form of a traditional multi-polar system where order is the product of power balancing between system's most powerful states. This does not mean that we will see a complete return to intense military completion between great powers, as some realists have claimed. Though liberal theorists tend to overstate their transformative effects, new technologies and other processes related to globalization have had a profound effect on international relations. Nuclear weapons and growing economic interdependence will moderate conflict between states and make the prospects of great power war - and even the type of hard balancing we witnessed in earlier historical periods - remote. Competition between states will be intense, though it will manifest itself primarily in the economic and ideological (soft power) realms. Nontraditional security threats will also continue to be a primary concern in the years to come. However, states will be more likely to address these threats through ad-hoc and bilateral cooperation, rather than through institutions.

Change can be gradual and can come through the decay and reform of old international institutions or the creation of new ones. This last point gives us some comfort and hope for the future as we enter an era of uncertainty and unpredictability in international politics. It suggests that Western leaders need not be afraid of change. Rather than insisting that rising powers accept the existing order, it may be in the West's own long-term interests to begin looking for ways to work with rising powers to transform the international order so that it better serves the interests of all of states.

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