The Decaying International Order: Why Great Power War Isn’t Impossible

By Ben Mainardi

The US Navy 7th Fleet deployed to the Indo-Pacific
Image Credit: Ryan Breeden/DVIDS

In the twenty-first century, the world is undoubtedly more interconnected than ever before. While the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken interdependent networks, an international system with rules, norms, and a globally connected economy still remains. 

These foundations of what is often characterized as the “liberal international order” supposedly make the possibility of a major war between great powers virtually impossible. And yet, this conclusion generally fails to consider that nations benefit unequally from global economic interdependence and that domestic political or social agendas can override safeguards. 

Just over a century ago, much of the world was shocked by the outbreak of the First World War. However, right up to the marching of German forces through Belgium, there was a significant group of intellectuals and politicians across Europe convinced that war, at least a meaningful one, was impossible between the great powers. This perspective on international politics was most notable in liberal states such as England and France. 

Figures like John A. Hobson, Leonhard Hobhouse, and Norman Angell dominated this line of liberal internationalist thought. Angell, in particular, published the best-selling book The Great Illusion. His central thesis was that nations no longer benefitted from going to war as the economic repercussions of doing so would be too calamitous for the belligerents caused by the loss of one’s connections to major trade partners. 

Thus, Angell was an early advocate of economic interdependence and opposition towards the propensity towards war; a modern staple of liberal international relations scholarship. As a result, the eruption of the First World War is a quintessential case study for critics of liberal international relations theory such as Barry Buzan or Kenneth Waltz.

For contemporary and future observers, however, what generally fails to be considered was that the economic and political order of Europe, the epicenter of the First World War, was not equally beneficial to all actors, state and non-state. 

It was the actions of a non-state, revolutionary organization seeking to encourage Slavic unity and national self-determination, which led to open conflict. As major states scrambled to react, various miscalculations and alliance ties rapidly brought one state after another into conflict. 

What is most interesting about this case, however, is that the tipping point for the conflict came at the intended intervention of Russia, a great power, on behalf of Serbia, perhaps not even a third-rate power, which prompted preemption by the Central Powers. This is perhaps the most striking and relevant aspect of 1914’s prelude to war for modern American observers. 

Indeed, the United States maintains treaty alliances and security partnerships with no less than 67 states, representing roughly a quarter of the world’s population. Covering five continents, American security partners and allies brush up against many of the twenty-first century’s rising powers; China and Russia most concerningly.  

States like Russia and China have certainly benefited from the so-called liberal international status quo.  China, for example, is perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the international economic system second only to the United States. 

Nonetheless, the existing liberal international status quo is intrinsically antithetical to its authoritarian regime. Even more irreconcilable, however, is that key components of Xi Jinping’s much-vaunted regimen of national rejuvenation necessitate the denial of liberal democratic governance and individual liberties to territories and populations outside its current political control. 

The People’s Republic of China maintains territorial claims against no less than 17 of its neighbors, from India to the much more fraught case of Taiwan. The resolution of such issues likely cannot and will not occur under the existing international order. 

For its part, Russia is likewise a notable beneficiary of the international economic order. Yet it too maintains an authoritarian regime that is frequently at odds with the liberal democratic thrust of the international system’s leadership and values. Russian territorial and almost imperial irredentism central to Vladimir Putin’s legitimacy is similarly inconsistent with the rules and norms of the international community.

What becomes readily apparent is that the existing international order is incompatible with certain states’ national interests, despite the benefits they may otherwise reap from its continued existence. As their capabilities to rectify the uneven attainment of their national interests increase, the friction between authoritarian regimes and other states are only likely to increase.

The fruits of this phenomenon are already visible. Perhaps the most notable case was that of the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Ukraine was a nominal security partner of the United States with guarantees against foreign intervention. The “little green men” that swarmed over the border were indeed Russian forces. Yet the United States, aside from some sanctions and condemnations, did nothing. 

On the one hand, the Obama administration might be lauded for its reserved approach to addressing the aggressive actions of a hostile nuclear power. What a military intervention would have looked like is difficult to imagine and its proximity to the Russian homeland would have greatly heightened the potential for escalation. 

However, in opting for such a muddled response, the United States, in reality, ratified its occurrence, undermining the norms of the postwar world and signaling that perhaps the rules of the international order are not so much rules as they are guidelines.

Similarly, with the notable caveat that the actors involved had no treaty connection to the United States, the Obama administration’s “red line” over the conduct of the Syrian Civil War likewise produced anxieties over what it would mean for the line to be crossed. Would the United States escalate its involvement to boots-on-the-ground? If it did, how long would it be until American forces clashed with Russian elements backing the Assad regime? 

Of course, this did not happen. But it was a possibility that many among the apathetic American public failed to consider or demonstrate much concern for. While cooler heads again prevailed in the question of American intervention, the result is that the Assad regime remains in power ten years after the start of the civil war.

Considering the United States maintains military deployments in over 80 countries and alliances with 60 or more, there is no shortage of battlegrounds where it might be drawn into another conflict. This is perhaps most evident in the Indo-Pacific, as tensions continue to rise between the United States and China. President Biden’s recent pronouncement that the United States would intervene on Taiwan’s behalf against China is only the latest in a series of escalating actions and statements. 

Certainly, China is interested in resolving its territorial disputes, of which some involve American partners like Taiwan. Yet these tripwires which China might trigger carry potential consequences so immense that the United States is almost left with the choice between disaster by escalation or complicity by inaction.

In mulling over the implications of the geopolitical risks presented by numerous American ties to foreign powers, it emerges that the greatest barrier to continued peace is just as likely attributable to the increasing friction between major states as the trap decisionmakers often fall into as the stakes rise over international disputes and are deceived by miscalculations whilst in the midst of crisis bargaining; perhaps most succinctly outlined throughout Barbara Tuckman’s The Guns of August

What must be remembered in professional foreign policy circles as well as the public at large, is that war is not intrinsically a relic of the past. Its prospects are indeed very real, although it would be to the detriment of any great power today to engage in conflict with one another even if it could be assured that no nuclear escalation would occur.

It is likely that great power war, should it come, will not necessarily be the result of calm and clear-minded thinking, but of passionate and heat of the moment reactions. 

While episodes like the Cuban Missile Crisis offer glimmers of hope for the triumph of temperance, tragedies like the march towards war in August of 1914 are just as plentiful throughout the history of mankind. It remains to be seen whether the Great Powers of today will prove capable of averting conflict, and for how long they can do so.

Ben Mainardi is a postgraduate student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. His research has primarily focused on international security, naval affairs, and the Indo-Pacific region.

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