Today, the concept of a legitimate international order is under serious and constant attack from many quarters. Merely to recount these attacks gives readers a sense of the unrelenting assaults upon the very idea. The invasion and annexation of Crimea and the Donbas; poisonings and assassinations of Russian dissidents and ex-secret agents, as well as innocent foreign citizens abroad; global cyber campaigns against American and European elections, critical infrastructure, and governments. China’s genocide in Xinjiang; encroachments on Japan and the littoral states of the South and East China Seas; suppression of democracy and violation of its treaty with the UK in Hong Kong. Civil wars, terrorist insurgencies, and failed states in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Ethiopia and in numerous Central African states. And autocratic dictatorships that bring countries to their knees as in Venezuela and Nicaragua. It is nowhere near a complete list of these attacks. Belarus recently forcibly intercepted a regular Lithuanian commercial flight, forced it down, kidnapped a dissident it wanted, and imprisoned him.
In all these cases we observe, as did the great dissident author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the direct connection between state-sponsored mendacity and violence. Hence, the war on truth is now a constant feature of daily politics in America and across the globe. The common denominator in these phenomena, especially those conducted by states like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran – which still proclaims its intention to destroy the state of Israel – is the aspiration to total power at home and foreign dominion for its own sake. These authoritarian states all feel themselves under siege from without because of their own self-perceived lack of domestic legitimacy. Therefore, they respond by constantly intermingling violence and lies with increasing domestic repression, veering back toward the totalitarian model and archaic ideologies that merely mask the will to power. Whether that ideology is Shiite Islam, Juiche in North Korea, Beijing’s cult of Maoism and the party, or a contemporary mélange of Nicolas I’s Official Nationality and late Stalinism in Russia, the outcome is the same, namely, a ruling elite determined to hold power unmoored from any other values.
Nihilism is not a Basis for Order
But, as philosophers have long understood, unchecked power ruling for its own sake amounts to nihilism and can hardly serve as a basis for order let alone a legitimate international order. At least some observers of states like Russia and China have grasped this threat. Already in 2016-17, an Asian Survey analysis of Russian foreign policy understood that “Putin has decided that his best tactic is to disrupt and reconfigure the international system rather than to rebuild it.” More recently, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, was reported in Tass to have admitted Putin’s initiatives aim at overhauling the system of international relations. Similarly, a Russian journalist, Alexander Skobov, notes that Putin is not aiming merely at subordinating Ukraine to himself and Russia but in forcing the West to recognize and acknowledge his right and power to do so, a recognition that would destroy the rule of order in the international system as such.
At the same time, as President Xi Jinping’s and the government’s recent statements indicate, China is equally truculent and aggressive.
The recourse to force, especially nuclear weapons, and the threat thereof is equally common. This is not merely a matter of North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, menacing as those may be. China has just been revealed by American analyst Peter Huessy to be building 145 nuclear silos, presumably to hold several hundred new nuclear weapons intended to put U.S.-based ICBMs at risk. Russia too has produced or is producing 20-23 new nuclear weapons, including countervalue and counterforce weapons that are tailored for all conceivable contingencies including short-range, intermediate range, and long-range strike. This program is part of a larger strategy of huge nuclear buildups.
Nuclear weapons remain the priority item for Russian procurement.
In December 2017, Bill Gertz reported, “Russia is aggressively building up its nuclear forces and is expected to deploy a total force of 8,000 warheads by 2026…according to Pentagon officials. The 8,000 warheads will include both large strategic warheads and thousands of new, low-yield and very low-yield warheads to circumvent arms treaty limits and support Moscow’s new doctrine of using nuclear arms early in any conflict.” In August 2019, then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters Rear Admiral (ret.) Peter Fanta stated, “The Russians are going to 8,000 plus warheads.”
Expanding Military Expenditures
Moreover, this huge increase in defense spending, absent any economic reform, imposes an immense burden on an already stagnating economy that has been gravely afflicted by the current pandemic. The size of this spending also dwarfs previously misguided estimates as the British scholar Richard Connolly revealed in 2019:
While market exchange rate-based measures suggest that Russian military expenditure was $61 billion in 2018, a purchasing power parity (PPP)-based estimate suggests expenditure was $159 billion in the same year. Second, PPP-based estimates show that the rate of growth of Russian military expenditure was slower than that suggested by market exchange rate-based estimates. Market exchange rate-based estimates indicate that annual military expenditure grew by 125 percent between 2005 and 2018, but the PPP-based estimate reveals growth to have been closer to 90 percent. Third, the rate of growth in military expenditure since 2005 was also lower than in other “emerging” powers, such as China and India. This is partially because Russia started from a higher base, but it also reflects the fact that China, India, Saudi Arabia, and many other non-Western powers have been engaged in a robust expansion of military spending. Fourth, after adjusting PPP-based estimates of total military expenditure for imported military equipment, Russia has held a steady position as the world’s fourth largest military spender, behind the United States, China, and India.
Not surprisingly all these states believe themselves to be in a war with the U.S. in which the use of cyber, influence, information, and other allegedly non-military but actually quite dangerous actions proliferate. Russia is the most overt example of this but any serious inquiry into North Korean, Chinese, and Iranian policymaking will reveal a similar mentality. In Russia’s case, Vladimir Putin has been at war with the U.S. and the West for over a decade. The nuclear weapons revival started already in 2004 – if not earlier. In January 2005, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told the Academy of Military Sciences: “Let us face it, there is a war against Russia under way, and it has been going on for quite a few years. No one declared war on us. There is not one country that would be in a state of war with Russia. But there are people and organizations in various countries that take part in hostilities against the Russian Federation.”
More recently, Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment, observed that, for some time, “the Kremlin has been de facto operating in a war mode.” Likewise, the July 2021 Russian national security strategy portrays an embattled Russia whose values and moral essence are threatened from without by an explicitly designated American enemy and is intent on mobilizing the country around the value system of nineteenth century conservatism. As the British analyst Mark Galeotti observed, this is a paranoid’s charter.
The Maritime Challenge
While these states simultaneously challenge the U.S., its allies, and the very concept of international order, globally and in multiple domains, the extent to which they learn from and emulate each other has not been fully grasped. However, the maritime domain and freedom of the seas, an increasingly vital issue, illustrates this process.
Russia’s provocation against a British warship conducting a perfectly legal freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the Black Sea on June 23, 2021, represented another Russian attempt to close the Back Sea and force everyone to recognize, pace Skobov, its rights there. The U.S. has also conducted many FONOPs in the South China Sea against China’s long-running encroachments there. But what must be understood is that these seemingly unrelated incidents are precedent and emulation-setting actions by these and other governments.
Thus, Turkey in 2019 forcibly placed its ships in Cyprus’s economic exclusion zone and started exploring for oil and/or gas to thwart Cypriot and other states’ plans to explore in those waters and extract the gas and oil they have already found for purposes of marketing them abroad. Iran repeatedly threatens to close the Straits of Hormuz and China regularly threatens Japanese shipping in the East China Sea – apart from its encroachments in the South China Sea. Upon the UN awarding to Russia the Sea of Okhotsk in 2014, Moscow promptly closed it to foreign shipping to create a precedent for the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic (NSR). Moscow clearly wants to repeat this tactic should the UN grant its extravagant claims to the waters of the Arctic Ocean beyond its economic exclusion zone and charge tariffs upon any international shipping there. Paradoxically China publicly opposes this Russian plan even though it mirrors what China aims for in the South China Sea.
All these states are emulating each other and the success of these gambits in undermining freedom of the sea and UN-sponsored resolutions and treaties is extremely dangerous.
If the existence of historic title, either in principle or in specific application, becomes a contentious issue for international politics, we may expect the formation of communities of interest among like-minded states to take shape as coordinated policy or operations. These juxtaposed communities of interest might tenaciously bind claimants to the Arctic and China, their counterpart in the South China Sea. The United States, EU, Japan, South Korea, and India are likely to oppose this grouping, given that history has been legally upended, and the scope of navigational freedoms curtailed. In this way, the South China Sea Arbitration may have potentially reconfigured international relations with respect to maritime law and policy.
The recent FONOP in the Black Sea, Russia’s national security doctrine, China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy and truculent party line, its genocide in Xinjiang and repression of Hong Kong, and the attacks on America’s and other countries’ critical infrastructure show that the attacks on the principle of international law, order, and legitimacy continue uninterrupted. They will continue until they encounter forms of resistance that impose disproportionate costs upon these malefactors. Under the circumstances, the rhetoric in Europe and here about mutual interests with these states, whether about climate change or other issues, is simply not credible. If China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea truly want a rapprochement with the U.S., they need to undertake tangible actions beyond saying so. Ultimately, countries founded on the nexus joining mendacity, autocracy, and violence behave like international criminals and often, e.g. in Russia’s case, the state resembles a criminal syndicate.
Like it or not, in international affairs as elsewhere, defunding and denuding the police only invites more crime, not peace.
Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute.