Can ‘revisionists’ rule the world?
14 Mar 2019|

Judgements about the changing shape of the global order are the stuff of current international discourse. We face a world order in transition. Our current order, built in the age of US primacy, is being undone by a mixture of power diffusion and US weariness and buck-passing—unsurprising after 70 years of sustained effort.

Agreement about what might follow is harder to come by. Some suggest that China will simply replace the US as global leader—though Graham Allison’s warning of a ‘Thucydides trap’ is a cautionary tale that hegemonic transition is never simple. Others don’t accept that the transition point is either inevitable or close: Oriana Skylar Mastro, for example, believes China aims to displace the US from the Indo-Pacific, rather than to replace it as the global hegemon.

We also shouldn’t forget those who believe that the liberal order, or some variation of it, can be sustained by a committee of middle powers. Since we can’t undo power diffusion, even within the Western world, this approach favours collective action by an assembly of second-tier Western powers—the proposed ‘G-9’, for example—to build a new motor for the old order. Estimates vary wildly about the reliability of that nine-cylinder engine.

Following Mastro’s argument, the future world might well be a place where great powers impose different ‘orders’ within their regional spheres of influence—a globally disordered place rather than an ordered one. That seems a dark, gloomy vision. But there’s a gloomier possibility: a world order run by authoritarian states.

The Trump administration’s national security strategy portrays a world of accelerating strategic competition between the US on one hand and ‘revisionist powers’ (China and Russia) on the other. Some see in that competition a return to the days of the Cold War—namely, a grand strategic struggle for the soul of the world—although the document describes the challenge primarily in regional terms. The challenge becomes more global the more China and Russia cooperate.

So, let’s clarify the term ‘revisionist’, and then consider the prospects for Sino-Russian cooperation.

Not all rising powers are revisionists. Indeed, as Randall Schweller argues, rising powers are by definition countries which are doing better out of the existing order than everyone else. Logically, they should be supporters of that order. Schweller believes that rising powers can demonstrate three types of behaviour towards an existing order: supporter, shirker or spoiler. (Shirkers typically refuse to carry their fair share of ordering burdens; spoilers undercut the order.) Over time, China has demonstrated all three.

And just as rising powers aren’t always revisionists, so revisionists aren’t all alike. Schweller distinguishes between ‘limited-aims revisionists’ and ‘unlimited-aims revisionists’. It’s the second category which poses particular dangers for an order. Such powers not only press for substantive change in the existing order, they’re prepared to run risks and to use coercion and force to achieve it.

So, what sort of revisionists are Russia and China? It’s not easy to tell. For one thing, their ambitions seem to expand as US power and influence contract. So does their propensity for risk-taking. True, their use of force and coercion remains limited, but it has certainly been sufficient to put an end to earlier Western theories that both powers would one day ‘converge’ with the broader Western order. Still, it’s harder to imagine Russia as an unlimited-aims revisionist than it is China, not least because Russia’s a declining power. But just to be on the safe side, let’s assume that both are stealthy, unlimited-aims revisionists.

That takes us to the separate but larger question: could Russia and China cooperate to shape a new global order in Asia, Europe and the Middle East? That’s only a portion of the globe, but an important portion.

Well, Russia’s a European-centred state with a revanchist agenda focused on reversing its post–Cold War losses. That’s a big ask, though. The Soviet Union’s gone and it isn’t coming back. China, by comparison, is a rising power—and one that believes it’s entitled to a Sino-centric order in Asia, as a sort of latter-day compensation for the century of humiliation. It has both economic and growing military heft. Still, it remains an incomplete power, demonstrated most clearly by its relentless, state-organised theft of technology and intellectual property, and its large internal challenges.

It’s not obvious that Russia and China could build and sustain a new global order. Yes, they’re both permanent members of the UN Security Council. But neither attracts genuine ‘followers’ in the international community. They agree on what they don’t want—US hegemony—rather than on what they do.

They’re not driven by any shared ideology or common vision of what the world should look like under their leadership. Some suggest that they want to reverse the central tenet of the liberal order and make the world safe for authoritarianism, but that’s a negative, self-centred vision of the future rather than a positive ideational one.

Nationalism is a rising force in both countries, but that’s as likely to repel as attract.

Geopolitically, will the rising power cooperate with the declining one—except to secure its own backyard? Conversely, will Moscow see Beijing as its true strategic partner—as the Belt and Road Initiative extends Chinese influence across Russia’s soft Eurasian underbelly?

Where does that leave us? Frankly, a world order that turns upon close cooperation between Russia and China seems unlikely. Each is better placed to exert regional influence than global clout. And both are better placed to play the easy role of spoilers than the difficult role of architects. A world disordered by the joint efforts of Russia and China to diminish US power and influence—accelerated by some of the US’s own actions—seems the near-term reality we’ll be living through.