Bruised but not broken

Those of you who speak Russian can now have the pleasure of reading my latest article, which has recently been published in the Russian journal Neprikosnovennyi zapas. In English the title is ‘Bruised but not broken: the international order in the 21st century’. It is available online here. Numerous commentators argue that the international order is in crisis, maybe even on the verge of collapse. Others, though, are more optimistic. The point of the article is to determine who is right. For those of you who don’t speak Russia, here is a brief summary of what I have to say.

The international order has been defined as ‘the body of rules, norms, and institutions that govern relations among the key players in the international environment.’ This may be seen as consisting of three sub-orders. The first is the ‘security’ or ‘political-military’ order. This promotes international peace and security. Its centrepiece is the Charter of the United Nations. The second element is the economic order. This regulates and encourages international trade, and is founded on a large number of international laws, institutions (World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), etc), and treaties. The third element might be called the ‘values-based’ order. This promotes good governance, democracy, and human rights, and is based on a body of international human rights law dating from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To determine whether the overall order is in good health, I therefore look first at inputs (i.e. the level of participation in the order) and second at outcomes in each of the three sub-orders (what are the results – is the world becoming more peaceful, more prosperous, freer, etc?).

Inputs: I note that while some treaties have recently been abrogated, most notably those to do with US-Russia arms control, states as a whole continue to bind themselves together with more and more agreements and through membership of more and more multilateral institutions. Specifically, there were around 10,000 international organizations in 1980, and 30,000 in 1992 when the Cold War came to an end. There are now nearly 70,000. States also continue to submit their disputes to international organizations (e.g. WTO) for resolution, and generally abide by the decisions. The nations of the world are therefore more intertwined that ever before. In terms of inputs, the international system seems quite healthy.

Security outcomes: A simple way to measure whether the international order is achieving its objective of international peace and security is to look at statistics concerning conflict. These show us that from 1992 to 2007 the magnitude of armed conflict worldwide fell by 60%. Since then it has been on the rise, but is still well below 1992 levels. Moreover, it is highly concentrated geographically (as is terrorism), with recent increases being primarily due to wars in the Middle East and North Africa. The conclusion we can draw is that we face a regional crisis not a global one. It is true that the situation worldwide is worse than it was 10 years ago, but it’s a lot better than 30 years ago. So, one’s opinion on whether the situation is getting better or worse in large part depends on one’s reference point.

Economic outcomes: International economic integration has stalled in recent years, with the collapse of the Doha round of WTO negotiations and with the United States returning towards protectionism in its relations with key trading partners. However, numerous regional economic institutions have recently come into being (e.g. Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank), no major country is showing any interest in abandoning or reducing international trade, and worldwide rates of economic growth remain fairly high. International trade has yet to recover from the 2008 financial crash, and thus remains below its 2007 peak, but is still high by historic standards. Thus compared to 2007, things  are little worse, but compared to 20, 30, or 40 years ago, they don’t look so bad.

Values outcomes: After 1992, the number of states deemed ‘democratic’ increased sharply, while the number considered “autocratic” declined proportionally. The Global Report 2017 concludes that, ‘the global system … is more democratic than it ever has been.’ Likewise, the Global Peace Index 2018 comments that, ‘Over the past 100 years, democracy has spread, reaching a 100-year high.’ Viewed through a long-term lens, the values-based order seems to be in good shape. In the short-term, though, there has been some backsliding.  Freedom House has recorded a constant decline in global freedom over the past 10 years. The Global Peace Index measures ‘positive peace’ (i.e. factors such as well-functioning government, low levels of corruption, and acceptance of others’ rights), and concludes that, ‘The average level of Positive Peace increased steadily between 2005 and 2013 … However, this trend levelled out in the two years to 2015, after which Positive Peace deteriorated in 2016.’ Once again, the conclusion is much the same as with the security and economic orders – something of a deterioration over the past ten years, but a substantial improvement over the last 30.

Conclusion: From this I conclude that the short term trends across the three elements of the international order are largely negative. In the past decade, there has been an increase in violence (albeit mostly in just one part of the world), a slowing, or slight reversal, of economic integration, and some regression in terms of democratization and human rights. However, these negative phenomena have only slightly dented the positive progress made in previous decades. Compared to the Cold War era, the current international system appears to be doing fairly well. The international order, in other words, is bruised, but far from being broken.

27 thoughts on “Bruised but not broken”

  1. Inb4 I will start nitpicing – do you, Professor, conflate “the system of international relations” with “the international order”?


    1. As stated above, I define the order as ‘the body of rules, norms, and institutions that govern relations’, which isn’t my own wording but is a pretty standard definition.


  2. What is happening in America?

    Seems to me this impeachment of Trump is part of a bigger crisis with regards to USA hegemony; and the consensus built over decades within the USA regarding what constitutes the world order.

    Same here in the UK where I live with Brexit – leaving the EU is creating a constitutional crisis, in the same way as the USA.


  3. Professor, thanks for another thoughtful post. A question: to create a truly inclusive and just global order, it may seem advantageous to strengthen the UN, and to endow it with actual powers to enforce the international law. In other words, to institute an actual “world government”. On the other hand, this path is obviously fraught with danger. To start with, such government is likely to overplay its hand early on, thus forever discrediting the whole idea. It could easily become a mere puppet in the hands of richest/strongest state(s). Or it might eventually become too strong, an instrument of oppression in the hands of global elites.
    Can you recommend anything thoughtful and, preferably, recent to read on this topic?


    1. If you have access to a good library you could try James A. Yunker, The Idea of World Government: From Ancient Times to the Twenty-First Century (Routledge 2011). It’s only about 130 pages.


  4. It seems to me that for an international order to exist, there has to be a field with a number of players (blocs) of roughly equal power. And it better be more than two players, because with only two it would look more like ‘confrontation’.

    It’s a bit like when the liberals contrast ‘democratic’ vs ‘authoritarian’. If you have one clique that is much stronger than all the rest (even if there are some minor tensions inside it), then it’s certainly an ‘order’, but hardly an ‘international order’…


    1. I think that an ‘order’ can take many shapes. It could, for instance, have just one big player and a lot of smaller ones who have to do more or less what they’re told. It might be a very unequal order, but it’s still an order.


      1. Whether such an unequal order could be stable is another matter. IR theorists disagree on this. Some would say that a balance of power is necessary for stability. Others instead support ‘hegemonic stability theory’, which maintains that hegemonic systems are more stable than balance of power ones. This is because in a hegemonic system most states prefer to ‘bandwagon’ with the hegemon rather than confront it.


      2. Of course it can be stable. But then eventually the hegemon will either weaken or start pushing too hard (which is basically the same thing, hubris), and then everything will start falling apart. Nothing is perfect.


      3. The history of the Roman Empire, IMHO, shows that there is no such thing as a perfect hegemon. There are always rebels and others who won’t bow down, like the Persians, for example. This forces the hegemon to keep sending troops to put down these regional rebellions.


  5. As chinese, I will have to go with “hegemonic stability theory”, mainly because there are no real cases of “balance of power” politics in East Asia in the past.

    It’s all China centric hegemony.


    1. As a hegemon, China often seems to be a stabilizing force; although even they have their rebels and enemies from time to time.

      On the other side: the United States as a hegemon is almost always a DE-stabilizing force in the world.
      The American elite are narcissists, they can’t see anybody else’s point of view, and won’t accept a compromise. Also, unlike the Chinese leaders (historically) the American polite elite are ignorant and have the mentality of a career criminal. Which is why they often resort to violence as their first option. What kind of world order could that possibly bring? It would be like having Don Corleone ruling the world. Hardly stable…


      1. If you ask Americans, they will say China is the destabilising force and the mafia boss trying to kill everyone while U.S. is the benevolent force providing stability and the public goods.


  6. Actually, looking at the latest developments: the UK shifting (via brexit) decisively into the US orbit, the new developments in massive Russia-EU energy cooperation, de-linking of the US from China, — it looks like it’s moving towards the Orwell predicted model of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia.

    Considering that his other predictions have materialized with uncanny accuracy – the newspeak and the thought police, the total surveillance, the anti-sex thing (metoo, etc.), the media/propaganda model (the ‘ministry of truth’ – the ‘fake news’), given all that, I would expect his predictions of the future ‘international order’ to materialize as well…


    1. It is almost as if George Orwell’s novel is being used as a manual on how to reorganise the present “International Order”.


  7. It seems to me, Professor, you live in a different world from mine. It’s strange how anyone in his right mind would think that today’s situation is mode “peaceful” than 30 years ago. Thirty years ago nobody would even think about bombing a city in the middle of Europe, or openly supporting the Nazis, or openly arming a Nazi-like regime in Europe and supporting its war against its own people. But today – no problem.
    Nobody then dared to talk about starting a nuclear war but today we hear about a winnable nuclear attack on Russia nearly every day. Not to mention all these preparations for an attack going on, again, every day in the Baltics, in the Black Sea.
    As to democracy – to be “deemed” democratic and to BE democratic are two entirely different things. Russia after 1992 was certainly “deemed” democratic but it was anything but. Today’s Ukraine – ditto. Out of the three Baltic states, two are apartheid societies and all three glorify the Nazi collaborators and are engages in cultural suppression – but they are deemed democratic. Israel, which is also a classic apartheid state and an aggressor, is hailed in West as “the only democracy in the Middle East”. The list can go on.
    Seems to me that the entire West has already departed through the looking glass. In the Western vocabulary, “democratic” only means “pro-Western”. You can wage wars, kill your political opponents, jail or murder journalists or anyone else, torture and what not, but as long as you declare yourself to be pro-Western and obey the dictates of the West you’d be “deemed” democratic. If you need an example, Saudi Arabia is the best of all.


    1. ‘ It’s strange how anyone in his right mind would think that today’s situation is mode [sic] “peaceful” than 30 years ago.’ – It undoubtedly is. Yes, new wars have started, such as that in Ukraine, but very many have also stopped, including many very bloody wars in the developing world. It you look at the globe as a whole, it is more peaceful. Watch my talk on the subject:


      1. This depends very much though on how we define wars: do we define as “wars” those conflicts that involve open fighting with numerous exchanges of gunfire by clearly defined protagonists and as antagonists in the same area, resulting in X numbers of casualties and injuries that have significant impact on civilians in that area, in terms of their ability to travel and work, over a period of Y number of months? – or if a conflict does not quite fulfill all the criteria by which the West would recognise a “war”, would it still be called a “war”?

        Examples of the latter would be drives by some governments in parts of Asia and Latin America to push indigenous peoples off their lands to seize and sell these lands to foreign mining and agribusiness companies. There have been plenty of low-grade conflicts in these regions.


  8. Instead of epigraph.

    “Беня! Если бы ты был идиот, то я бы написал тебе как идиоту! Но я тебя за такого не знаю, и упаси боже тебя за такого знать… Брось этих глупостей, Беня. Твой друг, гораздо больше, чем ты это предполагаешь, – Рувим Тартаковский”
    – Isaac Babel, “How it’s been done in Odessa”

    Disappointment. Enormous disappointment.

    Okay, seems like I have to start with saying most obvious, basic things, given the mess what is this article. Professor, previously I naively thought, that you understand that it is not enough to just translate your work into Russian. You have to adapt the text keeping your Russian audience/readership in mind. Meaning – either reworking or providing an amp explanation for the [conceptual apparatus] you will be using through the article. I was surprised and very, very disappointed, that you failed to do this – because in previous articles you, Professor, devoted much time and effort to describe, how Russian and the Western understanding of the same terms differs radically and how Russians won’t bow down to the Western conventions. Yet both sides will continue to use the same terms meaning different things and talking past each other.

    That’s what you did here, Professor. I also strongly suspect, yet cannot prove, that you didn’t even plan for this to be published by the Russian outlet. It’s Highly Likely ™, that you wanted it be published by the Western outlet keeping western readership in mind. But you did what you did and I’m going to apply the critique from the Russian point of view whether you wanted it initially or not. Oh, and try to treat it seriously, although at time it would be hard.

    Let’s start from the begging. Russians (shorthand for the “Russian academic tradition”) does not use the term “world order”. We use the term “system of the international relations”. This is a very fine, but important distinction, about which you have to be aware, for the very Russian authors you are quoting in your article talk about the system of the international relations – but not about “world order”. “World order” is a loaded term, which became synonymous with the American Empire. Just as I expected, you tried to pull a sleight of hand here, Professor, by equating the American Empire (so-called “Western liberal order”) with the whole system of the international relations. Stuffing the deck in your favor, therefore, you got all the needed conclusions, which amounted to self-soothing “Keep Calm and The West Is Stronk”. Needless to say, because you published this article for the Russian readership, such claim can’t go unchallenged.

    Defining the system of international relations being “the body of rules, norms, and institutions that govern relations among the key players in the international environment” is okay, but not sufficient. It doesn’t cover the origins of such systems appearance in the first place. The reasons for the establishment of the system of international relations, are that not only “the key players”, but virtually every single IR actor (aka the states) pursues its own narrow egotistical interests, causing a constant competition with other actors. Naturally, ample empiric experience (aka wars and conflicts plus their aftermath) demonstrated, that there is a need for some sort of algorithm, which would provide at least some kind of framework and a common system of coordinates, for all IR actors to follow (or at least use as a reference).

    Fist systems of international relations appeared in Europe and regulated relations between European actors. This system rose in the aftermath(s) of large scale wars, and had been implemented by the so-called Great Powers, who were strong enough to impose these new regulations on lesser “players”. Therefore, more accurate definition of the system of international relations would be: “A set guidelines, traditions and legal mechanism that provides a shared framework and guidance for all international actors, established and enforced by the Great Powers in the aftermath of the last global conflict”.

    (Side note – you can’t have a system of international relations lacking active competing actors. Thus, a regional Hegemony or supra-state universalism precludes its development)

    Our current system of international relations was established in the aftermath of WW2 by the victors of that war. Not by the US, Professor. I know, you’d rather cut one of your ears, rather than admit that the USSR and its leadership was partial to world you’ve been born to, but that’s the truth. This system of international relations covered the whole globe – making it the global one. You call it “political-military order”, and then proceed to mention other “orders”. You are wrong – first, for using the word “order”, second for designating these “lesser orders” to be an equal and globally recognized part of the post war system of the international relations. These two “lesser orders” are just two crutches used from time to time to prop the American Empire – but they lack the legitimacy of the proper parts of what is the post war system of international relations. Russian academic tradition states, that the US and their client-states are trying to hollow out (sadly – often successfully) the legitimate international institutions and replace them with their organizations. If you are trying to have a meaningful conversation with the Russians, Professor, you, surely, should have thought this over.

    Then you wrote the following:

    “Аналогичным образом и в «Глобальном индексе мира — 2018» отмечается, что «за последние сто лет распространение демократии по планете достигло векового максимума»”

    First I just blinked at this incongruity. Then I laughed. Hard. For a long time. Nearly fell off my chair. And then I became really, really sad – and disappointed at you, Professor. To see you resorting to such cheap, hollow diatribes in order to prove your pre-set point – what the Hell, Mr. Robinson? First of all – your Russian readership won’t necessary share your (general “your”) Western view of what constitutes a democracy. Second – Russian trust in all sorts of “international rating agencies” responsible for determining other countries “freedom” or “level of democracy” is so low, that Mariana Trench looks shallow in comparison (hint – think said agencies treatment of the Ukraine and Georgia in recent times). Finally – just a blanket statement that “oh, lookey, mucho democracies ‘round the world now!” without a concise and reliable proof that this current situation represents a trend, is as useful as posing of the average temperature of the patients in the hospital. If you have a pre-set conclusion to draw (and you, Professor, have a pre-set conclusion to draw), then you point out to the world now, cherrypick random statistics and proclaim everything that fits into your narrative as the signs of glorious peremoga and everything that doesn’t fit, as “slight hiccups and bumps on the Road of Progress”. To which I ask – how many “democracies” were there in 1939?

    Your article, Professor, published by the “New Literature Review’s” magazine Neprikosnovenniy Zapas (print run – 1000 copies) which focuses on the “establishment and development of the liberal thought in Russia”, is in the right place. In the place of fiction. For although your article is choke full of footnotes, quotes, appeal to authorities and occasional attempt to delve into high brow academia, it is shallow on science and proof. In fact – it reads like a sermon. Professor – Russians are chiefly not shy and conscientious liberals, political heathens hungering for conversion and Redemption. Even our so-called Russian so-called liberals might give you Westerners a pause for their “old-fashioned” and not politically correct views. Then why you did this? The article is one unholy mess of unsupported claims and stretches of logic so wide the entire ‘Murikan 6th flee could sail through it. In your sermon, you did nothing to answer the question WHY there is this “roll back of liberal values” happening in the first place. Therefore, you can’t prove that in the future everything is going back to “liberal normal”. Unless, of course, you start thumping your liberal pulpit with the exclamation “Deus Vult!”. But you can’t review your article as something normal, logical and non-contorted.

    (Un?)Fortunately, no one’s gonna call out Prof. Robinson from the Russian side for this article published in the “Neprikosnovenniy Zapas” magazine (print run – 1000 copies), for there is little chance anyone who is someone would really pay it any attention. And thus, this sermon might even fulfill its intended agitprop function, of fortifying “wide” liberal masses in Russia with a Good Word, that Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła the American Empire is bruised, but not broken. Hurray!

    Instead of epilog

    Then spake the Earl to that man whose name some say was Fin, but as others have it was of Finnish kith and kin. Exceeding apt was he as an archer, so spake Eirik unto him saying: ‘Shoot thou yonder big man in the narrow-hold,’ & even as he said the words did the arrow of Fin strike the bow of Einar just as he was drawing it for the third time. Then was the bow broken in twain, & Olaf said, ‘What brake there so loudly?’ & Einar made answer: ‘Norway from thy hand, O King.’ ‘So great a breaking asunder hath not happened yet, I trow,’ quoth the King; ‘take my bow and shoot therewith,’ and saying so threw he him his own bow, and Einar taking it strained it even beyond the arrow-head. ‘Too weak,’ said he, ‘too weak is the prince’s bow,’ and throwing it back again to the King took he his shield and sword, and fell to hand-fighting.
    – Olaf Tryggvason’s Saga.


  9. I am mostly interested in the point that countries are creating their own conduits for trade and the movement of capital which are outside the control of the United States. The latter has only itself to blame, since these measures were brought about by its swaggering conceit and casual segues to the use of force to solve any and all problems. America is not even close yet to being frozen out of global trade – in fact, it remains dominant – but there are little signs of rebellion with considerable potential for growth, and even its allies are taking steps to insulate themselves from its fits of wrath.

    Some say countries are analogous with their leaders, and that Trump, for instance, is America while Putin is Russia. I suppose it’s half-true; Putin does retain a degree of control over Russia, although I would be quick to dispute it as the iron fist of dictatorship. Putin leads through the respect of his electorate. Trump, on the other hand, is not in control of America. He gets to make a lot of very damaging decisions – and does – but in the area of foreign policy he is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Washington cabal.

    The emergence of parallel institutions is unfortunate in some ways, as it is unnecessary duplication. But there is little else that can be done under the present circumstances, and nations quickly learn that to become dependent on America for anything important is to expose oneself to unacceptable vulnerability.


    1. That’s quite a rant.But nothing you say negates the facts in the article – that states are working together in a growing set of multilateral institutions, that the magnitude of global conflict is substantially lower than it was 30 years ago, etc. Frankly, your rant seemed entirely irrelevant.

      And you are wrong that this article wasn’t originally intended for this journal. It was specifically written for Neprikosnovennyi zapas by prior agreement with the editor.


      1. “That’s quite a rant.”

        Which is fitting for your sermon, Professor.

        “But nothing you say negates the facts in the article – that states are working together in a growing set of multilateral institutions”

        Which does not mean anything. Really. The question is “how’s the sytem of the international relations established after 1945 is doing nowadays?” not “how the states are doing?”. One can only recall the existence and, ahem, “greater involvment” of the NATO’s members, as a clear sign that some “multilateral institutions” are really destructive to the legitimate system of the international relations (think – trying to supplant it).

        You are not even sure what you are meaning by this “world order” of yours (general yours, meaning “Western”), Professor. Yo deemed to quote W.R. Mead’s (a notorius hack, like all others in the FA’s stable of contributors) claim, that “«Китай, Иран и Россия так и не приняли геополитический порядок, утвердившийся после “холодной войны”, и теперь всеми силами стараются ниспровергнуть его»”. First, that’s a funny way to translate the original: “China, Iran, and Russia never bought into the geopolitical settlement that followed the Cold War, and they are making increasingly forceful attempts to overturn it.“. You really like your Odrnung, don’t you? Second, by implying that the “liberal world order” only began after the Cold War, you are commiting a Heresy, Professo – or streatching for quotations, without thinking. For the very next Westerner derived quote in the same paragraph by you mentions insane Arch-ZioNeocon Kagan (not Kaplan – I know, I know, them lot are easy to confuse) that “The liberal world order established by the United States a little over seven decades ago is collapsing,” And that’s just only 1 (one) incosistency that I will mention here. OTOH, these incosistencies are necessary for pushing your narrative. And the flock to which you preach are not the most thinking, when graced by the appearance of the White Western Sahib.

        I’m saying, Professor, that simple ennumeration/cherry-picking of the facts without analysis and, yes, passing some kind of judgement, makes your whole article academically worthless – but a good fit for ideologically charged outlet for Russian “kitchen liberals”, with their cargo-cult worship of anything Western. Normal people in Russia would have found your “article” severely wanting, but, like I said previously, It’s Hardly Unlikely that they’d even notice it.


      2. Lytt.
        Yo deemed to quote W.R. Mead’s (a notorius hack, like all others in the FA’s stable of contributors)

        Analysis (looking at existing arguments, in this case) is not necessarily advocy.

        The above is one of the standard arguments by Pat Lang. Now true, it sometimes felt as if it isn’t so simple lately in Pat’s case.

        But PaulR is definitively only summarizing existing arguments and then offering his own look at matters.

        Concerning your well known argument inside the bracket, Russian leaders would be ill-advised to ignore the, yes, somewhat narcissist hawkish positions of those men. I am not familiar with all authors and/or contributors to FA, but I would assume that a scholar of international relations is well advised to be familiar with their positions. All of them hacks?

        That said, I agree somewhat with Mark Chapman considering the US of A’s expansive extraterrestial legal powers, which results in pressure on aligned nations to economically follow the USA. It surely helped to trigger deeper reflections about alternative structures. In Europe’s case I do not see an easy way out. Iran in mind here.

        Intended: Regime change not at the point of a gun but by indirect means? I do not think it will work.


    2. On your last point, I do say in the article that the growth in multilateral institutions is seen by some as not necessarily a good thing, precisely because of the duplication issue. Nevertheless, the architects of these new institutions are for the most part quite careful to say that they are designed to supplement, not supplant, existing ones.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Regarding war & conflict, a good case can be made that the reason that there is less official interstate conflict is that the economic elites of most countries (the 1%) have now joined together in waging war on the rest of the worlds population.

    (also using Freedom House as a source rather discredits any point being made – an organisation run for most of its existence by the former head of the CIA)


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