Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker announce progress in Brexit negotiations, December 2017. (Credit: Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916/Flickr)
Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker announce progress in Brexit negotiations, December 2017. (Credit: Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916, 'Ireland given 'distinct strand' in Brexit trade negotiations'/Flickr licensed under ) (via:

2017 was a year of historical reflection. Looking back, the revolutionary process initiated in 1917 not only altered the international system’s structure of power but unleashed political forces which transformed the social and economic makeup of European societies from within.

A century later, a weakening of international rules and leadership has led to rapid changes, rising tensions, and growing unpredictability on the international scene.

Indeed, since 2016, several jarring game changers have troubled the international system, with consequences for European stability: Brexit, the Trump presidency, the loss of consensus within the European Union, the ongoing migration crisis, and most recently the results of the German parliamentary elections.

The events of 24 November 2017 caused shockwaves in Germany and abroad. For the first time since 1949, a stable government in Berlin seems unlikely, unless the Social Democratic Party (SPD) reverses course and once more enters into a grand coalition with the CDU and CSU. The so-called Jamaica coalition – the only other numerically realistic alternative – was proved unrealistic by its untenable internal conflicts. The liberal Free Democrats (FDP) left the coalition talks and ended a project which stood on shaky grounds from the beginning.

A new situation changing the political landscape is in the making. Regardless of whether Germany is ruled by a grand coalition again, or experiences its first post-war minority government, tolerated on an issue by issue basis by opposition parties, Merkel’s authority will be on the decline, and questions over European leadership concerning migration and EU restructuring remain critically unresolved. Stagnation and the search for a successor will trouble and immobilise Germany’s external relations.

That the nature of global leadership is also changing is an outlook is widely shared in US policy circles. For example, the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, recognising the US’ prevailing but weakened hegemony, made persistent demands for foreign policy “which needs to realize that globalisation means in essence ‘interdependence’ and ‘consensual leadership’”.[1] He insisted the US transform its global dominance into a ‘co-operative hegemony’[2] or ‘global community of shared interest’.[3]

In Brzezinski’s opinion, the foundation for such a community was already in place, he argued, in “the interwoven institutional and value-based binding interdependence between the EU and the US”.[4]

A US-EU alliance would stop nascent oppositional powers, for example, BRICS countries, from successfully challenging the hegemony of a US-EU bloc. Safeguarding and protecting US dominance in global affairs was and remains the main objective of US foreign policy.

Eastern and Western experts both agree that neither the bipolar order of the Cold War era nor the United States’ subsequent unipolar hegemony have succeeded in creating a peaceful world. On the contrary, world politics at present is increasingly unpredictable, dangerously complex, and packed with irreconcilable contradictions.

Although interstate wars are currently far from the norm, ethnic, religious, and separatist clashes involving warlords, opposition movements, and corrupt administrations are rife. Conventional warfare has given way to hybrid warfare, and other informal forms of military conflict.

Globalisation has contributed to complex and multi-layered conflicts which combine regional causes with external actors, making it difficult to demarcate between internal and external conflicts.[5]

As a result, international institutions are often neither willing nor able to intervene. The present situations in Syria and Ukraine demonstrate that such conflicts are constantly at risk of spilling over into adjacent countries and causing regional and international crises.

The former German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said piercingly, “Die Welt ist aus den Fugen geraten” (“the world is in disarray”).[6] Andrey Kortunov[7] agrees with Steinmeier’s point of view, and argues that in the second decade of the twenty-first century the “world has entered a period of chronic instability, regional and global turmoil, and a dramatic decline in the governability of the international system”.[8]

As a consequence, a backlash against post-modern theory and policies has taken place. A neo-modern paradigm prevails in international relations (IR) theory, reflecting the grim changes and conditions of the international system. While post–modernism focused on the advance of democracy and the “ousting of authoritarianism”,[9] neo-modern theory reflects the declining governability of the present international system. Emphasis has thus shifted towards themes of stability and security.

“For the majority of neo-modernists the question of democracy and authoritarianism is drifting into the background, giving way to an issue they consider much more important, namely the border between order and chaos in international relations.”[10]

There is little disagreement among experts that the bipolar system was replaced by a temporary unipolar world order that has gradually lost its power of coercion.

The unipolar order “is withering away”, emphasises Sergey Karaganov,[11] creating a “governance vacuum”. This power, he stresses, will be filled with a new order in which Russia will play a key role. According to Karaganov, Moscow “has re-established itself as a balancing influence within the global order”. Russia and China have been able to “build an increasingly robust partnership” that is challenging US hegemony.

But the overall question and uncertainties remain. What will replace the unipolar, US-led order? How and by whom can the transition be managed?

Evidently, the international system is in transformational mode. Various stages of transformation have been distinctly shaped by the interplay of Washington, Moscow, Beijing, and to a lesser extent, Brussels.

Although the Cold War ended with the demise of the Soviet Union, several core elements of the bipolar order remained components of the succeeding unipolar period and have shaped the present tendencies towards a multipolar order.

The unipolar world order since 1992 has reflected:

  • US exceptionalism[12] at its core, based on both normative and hard power;
  • US military hegemony with global reach;
  • Liberal institutional hegemony based on the global spread of universal values;
  • The projection of US democracy through policy forums, media, Atlanticist institutions, and cultural and education programs, in order to influence the national elites of targeted countries and create “informal international governance structures”.[13]
  • Global US use of “techniques of co-optation”[14] and the “indirect exercise of influence on dependent foreign elites” to a degree far beyond that of earlier imperial systems.

The liberal institutional order, based on universal values, is now challenged by nascent counter forces which, if successful, will in time create a multipolar global order. This process is driven predominantly by China and Russia and other emerging economies, gathered either within the BRICS group or under the G20 umbrella.

It is doubtful that Brussels will influence the shape of the emerging global order, given the present state of the European Union – fragmented by uncontrollable external challenges and home-grown problems which have been eroding EU solidarity since 2009.

The loss of legitimacy, the rising anti-EU sentiment within Member States, the ongoing catastrophe of the refugee crisis, the unresolved Ukrainian conflict, and the impossibility of overcoming persistent financial crises all contribute to an immobilisation of Brussels’ capacity to act as a geopolitical power.

In addition, Brexit has weakened the EU’s main instrument of persuasion and soft power influence.[15] The recent victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential elections and the desired landslide success of his En Marche! movement in the parliamentary elections has met with triumphant enthusiasm from political establishments in Brussels, Paris, and Berlin.

However, it remains to be seen if such an undoubtedly positive development could be a game changer to jumpstart the EU’s restructuring process, promote a comprehensive order for peace, security, and welfare on the continent, or enhance its geopolitical influence.

Paradox of Progress, the NIC report published in January 2017,[16] combines its assessments of long-run ‘megatrends’ with responses to more recent game-changers like Brexit and the election of a new and – certainly as far as foreign policy is concerned – unpredictable president. The report revolves around the core issue of how changes in the makeup of international power are raising tensions at both global and national levels, affecting the stability of the international order.

Many of the 2012 edition’s trends are re-emphasised as unresolved problems. These include:

  1. Rising tensions within and between countries over the next five years;
  2. A slowdown in global economic growth, which despite the lifting of millions out of poverty by globalisation and technological advance, will accentuate the problem of the “hollowed out Western middle classes”;[17]
  3. Migrant flows will become an even greater drain on Western welfare systems, reinforcing anti-elite sentiments. This will fuel tensions within states and nationalism between states;
  4. A broader range of states, organisations, and NGOs will exercise geopolitical influence;
  5. The emerging global landscape is drawing the era of American dominance to an end; this decline will be accompanied by a weakening of the rule-based international order;
  6. Shared understandings of world events will be undermined by veto powers and collaboration will be blocked; international cooperation, therefore, will become more difficult. States will remain powerful actors but the most potent future actors will draw on networks, relationships, and information to compete and cooperate;
  7. The crisis in cooperation will affect all levels of government, locally and internationally, and will touch on issues including the environment, religion, security, and universal values. Diverging values will threaten international security.
  8. The imposition of order under conditions of chaos may be tempting but would be costly and would fail in the long run under conditions of slow growth and debt.
  9. In the coming decades, the threat from terrorism will expand as groups master new technologies and use them to their advantage.

As the driving forces of the emerging world order, the NIC report assumes that China and Russia will be “emboldened”[18] to “check US influence” through diverse methods of disruption, but conflicts will stay beneath the threshold of war.

In almost Hollywood fashion, the report consoles us at its close by stating that in spite of all the depressing assumptions, nothing is set in stone so brighter developments may occur.


The paper is based on the author’s contribution at the 16th Workshop of the PfP Consortium Study Group, ‘Regional Stability in the South Caucasus’: Between Fact and Fakery: Information and Instability in the South Caucasus and Beyond, Reichenau, Austria. 9 December 2017.

[1] Zbigniew Brzezinski. (2004). The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership. New York, p.IX, where Brzezinski speaks of “global military reach” and the US as the “ultimate guarantor of global stability”. He concludes that there is no “rival in sight”.Ibid, p. XI.

[2] Ibid, p.217.

[3] Ibid, p.218.

[4] Ibid, p.219.

[5] Peter W. Schulze (Ed.). (2017). Core Europe and Greater Eurasia: A Roadmap for the Future. Frankfurt: Campus.

[6] He went on, “Eine alte Ordnung ist weggefallen, aber eine neue ist nicht an ihre Stelle getreten. Wir leben in einer Welt auf der Suche nach Ordnung”; translated: “An old order has disappeared, but a new one has not taken its place. We live in a world in search of order.”

[7] Andrey Kortunov is the director general of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and the president of the New Eurasia Foundation in Moscow.

[8] Andrey Kortunov. (2017). From Post-Modernism to Neo-Modernism: The World at the Crossroads of Two Eras. Russia in Global Affairs, 1, January/March.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Sergey Karaganov. (2017). Mutual Assured Deterrence. Russia in Global Affairs, 1, January/March. Karaganov argues that a “big troika” of China, the US, and Russia should create the conditions for a peaceful transition to a more stable world order. Such order should be expanded to other nations and based on “multilateral mutual deterrence”.

[12] Henry Kissinger. (2015). World Order, Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History. Penguin Books. p.276ff. Kissinger accurately defines the role the US has to play in world politics. According to him, all US presidents have “passionately affirmed an exceptional role for America in the world”. Furthermore, he adds that all “American principles” are applicable to the “entire world”. He goes on to state that world order rests on “American power”, buttressed by a consensus of US leaders on “moral universalism”. And he comes close to defining the basis of US power when stating that the US not only helped Europe to rebuild its devastated economies and created NATO, but “formed a global network of security and economic partnerships”. The fusion of “American idealism and exceptionalism were the driving forces behind a new international order”.

[13] Zbigniew Brzezinski. (2004). The Choice; Global Domination or Global Leadership. New York. p.214.

[14] Zbigniew Brzezinski. (1997). The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives. New York. p.25.

[15] On one hand, Brexit will undoubtedly aggravate the complexity of the European Common Security and Defence Policy. The UK could regress to a more interest-based foreign and security policy, coordinated with the US and reliant on the strengthening of the special relationship between London and Washington. Such an idea was proposed by the British prime minister, Theresa May, during her first visit to Donald Trump in February 2017. Acting in common with Washington would further remove restrictions on London’s foreign policy in areas defined as essential for the national interest. The UK’s role in the EU may evaporate slowly, but a withdrawal from NATO is not on the agenda. On the other hand, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU may provide a push for the CSDP and weaken the pro-Atlantic clienteles within the EU which clearly tread an anti-Russian policy line.


[17]  Ibid, p.X.

[18]  Ibid, p.X.

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Peter W. Schulze

Professor, Political Science Department, Georg-August University of Gőttingen, Co-founder of the Dialogue of Civilisations Research Institute,

Peter W. Schulze is a German academic and political scientist with a focus on international relations and Russia, the CIS, the Cold War and contemporary power constellations in the international state system. He is a member of the German-Russian Forum (Germany), the International Institute of Liberal Politics (Austria), the Institute of European Law (Germany), NABU, and is co-founder of the Schlangenbader Gespraeche on political security in Europe. He has published widely on domestic aspects of transformation processes in Eastern Europe. Peter W Schulze joined the German Air Force for two years to help fund his university studies, first in Contemporary History, Political Sciences and Geography at the Free University of Berlin (FUB), and later in Political Sciences and International Relations, receiving a diploma from FUB in Political Sciences. He took up a teaching position at the Otto Suhr Institute (Political Science Department) on Soviet Studies, Theory of International Relations and Comparative Aspects of Transformation Processes in European societies. His thesis on industrialisation, institutional changes and the creation of technical cadres/intelligence during the first three 5-year-plans of the Soviet Union, 1929 to 1938, was published in 1975. His subsequent research looked at the impact of socio-political movements on FRD’s New Deal in the 1930s. Schulze joined the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s research team on American Affairs in 1982, creating an analytical framework to study Reagan era US politics and provide political decision makers and social democratic deputies in the German parliament a more analytical insight into the phenomena connected with the rise of the NEW Right. In 1984 he opened and chaired a research and communication initiative at the University of California, in Berkeley, focused on US policies towards the Soviet Union, the third World and the European integration process. He led a similar initiative in London in 1987/8 to facilitate the relationship and collaboration between the German SPD and the British Labour Party, which he led until 1992, when he was appointed director of the FES Moscow Office - a post he held until 2003. From 2003 to the present day he has been involved in academic research and acting as a consultant to deputies and experts at the German Bundestag.