Post-graduate student of foreign policy and diplomacy
Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb
Transformation of the system of international relations and the European security system
The system of international relations is an arrangement of the actors in which interactions are patterned and where politics takes place. The main variable which determines the system is the power. Through changes in power, the system of international relations is rearranged and transformed. The European security (sub)system is a part of the international system. The essay analyses aspects of the transformation of the system of international relations and effects on European security (sub)system.
With power as variable of international relations, there can be distinguished three main types of systems of international relation: bipolar, unipolar, multipolar. Polarity is another way of describing how power is organized in the world. A pole in international relations represents independent military, economical, demographical, political, geographical and civilizational formation capable of strategic integration and the creation of identity. In bipolar international relations, two powers are confronted in constant rivalry for the first place on the world stage. The Cold War was such a period, where the United States and the USSR, were the most powerful subjects of international relations. After the collapse of the USSR, the US became number one world power with its influence rising on the wings of globalisation. Pejoratively it is called Americanisation or McDonaldization – since American values and “American way of life” were the main export of globalisation to parts of the world where those values and ideas are diagonally opposite of traditional ones). This period is described as unipolar world. The US is still the dominant world power (or hegemon) due to military presence all over the world. The counterargument is that unipolarity never actually existed due to other nuclear powers in the world.
On the other hand, there are two sets of arguments that unipolarity is over. The first one argues how 9/11 terrorist attacks finished the era of unipolarity since first hegemon of the world is not able to protect its own citizens. The second sets of arguments are based on the rising power of other states like China and Russia in the 21st century. Those arguments are based on the new idea of a multipolar world in which there are several strong international subjects (states or unions) where people have different unique traditions, values, worldviews, policies and organisations. Multipolarity is based on the philosophy of plurality – meaning that there is no universe, but pluriverse, which ensures diversity and multiculturality, unlike modern (or Western) understanding of a multicultural society in which all cultures live in the same (Western) model of states (institutional isomorphism). Multipolarity leads to abolishment of imperialism and forcing foreign values (from another pole) to cultures that do not nurture those values. The counterargument is that the poles are imperialistic structure or domination of certain centres in defined areas, so they are geographically limited empires unlike traditional empires, based on expansion. Furthermore, after the Cold War and the rise of the private sector and commercialisation of politics, especially great influence of technology industry (Silicon Valley) the current international system might be non-polar (anarchical).
What causes transformation of the system of international relations?
Several different (often interconnected) processes changed international relations in the last two centuries. One is industrialisation which expanded the global market and enabled the wide availability of goods and services around the world, connecting the subjects of international relations through trade and economy. Ideologies changed the world order several times in the 19th and the 20th century, like liberalism, nationalism, fascism, socialism which generated new entities, actors and institutions (e.g., civil society, multinational/transnational companies). They either reconstituted old institutions (e.g., the state), or undermined them (e.g., dynasticism). However, the main process or phenomena and the primary force of a transformation of the system of international relations is war. The global order has historically been changed as a result of wars and changes of power balance in international relations. The contemporary system of international relations is based on two main foundations: 1) the consequences of the 2nd World War and the victory over national-socialism and fascism; 2) the end of the Cold War which changed the balance of the power in 1990’s from bipolar to (quasi)unipolar. The European security system was in the centre of both transformations. Is there transformation of system of international relations present today?
The (re)escalation of conflict between Ukraine and Russia in 2022, started the process of transformation of the European security system. Firstly, the Cold War rhetoric, processes (remilitarisation) and the actors re-emerged. Secondly, the NATO (whose role and existence was questionable after the Cold War) has found its purpose once more returning to the original (Cold War) defence settings against the new-old enemy – Russia, the successor of the USSR. Thirdly, crises have shown how there is little (or even no) place for neutrality. Thus, Finland has become part of the NATO in April 2023 and Sweden is still in the process of negotiations due to Turkey and Hungary. Switzerland and Austria are often criticized because of their neutral positions in Europe.
These processes in the European security system are influencing the system of international relations in general. Russian Federation is getting closer to other world players, such as China, through different types of cooperation and trade. To the US and their European partners, this is a threat, however there is a clear division between the main actors inside the Euro-Atlantic partners. The main dilemma lies in the question: Who is a greater threat, Russia or China? For one side that is Russia, due to the crises in Ukraine and for others that is China due to its potential to become a great (or first) world power.
What could be future outcomes to European security architecture? There are three situations in which we could find ourselves looking through the glasses of theories of international relations:
First one - liberal theory of international relations:
- The West will pursue the promotion of democracy and liberal values around the world, which can lead to Neo-Cold War bipolar architecture where Europe is again a polygon of the great powers – USA (through NATO) vs. Russia (+ China and USA rivalry within the Pacific area). This represents the path to (neo)bipolar international relations.
Second - realistic theory of international relations:
- There will be pragmatic stand between the West and the rest (Russia, China, Iran, etc.) defining clear red lines and borders of influence based on their interests. This represents the path to the multipolar world. However, it leaves open questions about Europe (security system) - should it become one of the poles in multipolar international system (with its own military) or polygon - divided between some other poles (actors).
Third - constructivist theory of international relations:
- The main feature of this theory is the unpredictability, since the international order and thus European security system is constructed (behind closed doors) by (political and economical) elites.
Perhaps the last one is the most accurate one since the main constant in international relations is the unpredictability, because of the main constructive materials of international politics: humans, who are by nature unpredictable. Changes in the European security system are interconnected with the transformation of the international order, and it is difficult to separate them since they are both manifesting simultaneously, like two sides of the same coin.