The Hierarchy of Equals
No. 4 2017 October/December
Pavel Salin

Director of the Center for Political Studies at the Financial University under the Russian Government. He holds a Doctorate in Law.

How to Overcome the Crisis in the System of International Relations

The view that the current system of international relations has reached an impasse is becoming commonplace in the world political discourse. I mean the consequences of the so-called “revolution of multitudes.” It was described, as applied to social processes, by futurologists, such as Alvin Toffler a few decades ago and specified in a recent book by Moisés Naím, The End of Power. Briefly, the essence of the “revolution of multitudes” theory is as follows. The number of active participants in social and political activities has increased so much that quantitative changes have become qualitative. Add to this the increased number of contacts and ties (transactions) between these participants. As a result, it has become difficult or even impossible for state institutions to control them by using classical tools. Naím describes this situation as “the decay of power,” when the authorities, while retaining formal levers of influence, de facto are much less capable of controlling anything than they were a few decades ago. Simply put, the “revolution of multitudes” has gradually made power less indispensable, because players it used to control are becoming more independent and able to do without it, communicating and making transactions with each other directly.

If we look at the crisis of international relations from the point of view of the “revolution of multitudes,” we will see that the problem is not that the system has physically worn out and that it should be mechanically renewed by replacing some key elements (states) with others. The intensity of international relations is increasing, along with the number of international players, more and more of which are non-states. This means that a new system is needed to balance their interests and actions in order to avoid the Hobbesian “war of all against all.”

Politicians reluctantly acknowledge that the present system is worn out and continue to adhere to the old paradigm, because their main social role is not to think but act, even if they do not have a clear plan of action. Experts are more outspoken, but almost no one goes further than giving a diagnosis. Treatment options remain unclear.

Moscow was one of the first to officially declare that the present system, embodied during the last 25 years in the so-called unipolar (and previously bipolar) world, is worn out. However, the only treatment it offers is a return to the geographical delimitation of spheres of influence, which existed in the 20th century and earlier. When these attempts meet opposition from the supporters of a unipolar world, who also happen to be its beneficiaries, the dialogue is reduced to the level of trolling.

Those who will be the first to propose a conceptual solution to the current crisis in international relations may be entitled to a reward in the future world order, since in any system it is its authors or those who joined it at an early stage that reap the most benefits. Considering Russia’s ambitions to return to the ranks of world powers by a combination of criteria, rather than military power alone, it should not focus on the question “Who is to blame?”, but offer a comprehensive and well thought-out answer to another question: “What is to be done?”


A state that offers a project for international discussion must fulfill one indispensable condition—it itself must be an example of success. A country’s own positive experience of development helps it strengthen its international position and serves as a fundamental soft power tool. For example, the domination of Western models in the late 20th-early 21st centuries was due to the power of their example. In the 1990s, the global leadership of the United States was guaranteed by the belief in the perfection of the U.S. democratic system, which was believed to be universal and acceptable to the whole world. When attempts to introduce this system in other countries began to fail, Washington reduced its soft power and gave preference to increasingly direct and undisguised types of military intervention. The U.S. policy of assertive imposition of its vision of the future on other countries quickly discredited itself, bringing the unipolar world closer to its end. It became clear that the American model was not universal.

The European Union’s way of promoting its project was somewhat different from the American one and was largely based precisely on the power of example. However, by the end of the 2000s, it had reached its limits, too, but for another reason. The European model of the welfare state, which is focused on elites and the middle class of other countries as its target groups, found itself in a deep crisis.

The advantages of this model turned into their opposites. For example, the principle of the welfare state and the striving for universal prosperity transformed into parasitic attitudes—partly within the EU (the “Ni-Ni” generation in Spain, commonly known as NEETs elsewhere), partly in relations between European countries (the Greek debt crisis is only the most eloquent but not the only example). Another fundamental principle of the European social model—the priority protection of the rights of minorities (not only sexual minorities as Russian propaganda states)—has brought about the current migrant crisis, with no way out anywhere in sight.

So, the two leading Western models, which for the last 25 years served as examples for the larger part of the world, have reached their limits.

The hope that new models will come from other parts of the world, primarily the East, is highly exaggerated. For example, some observers view China’s New Silk Road project as a new global megaproject, similar to Western ones. However, this project is purely economy-centric. It is aimed at transforming the structure of global economic ties but is not based on values which would serve to improve social models in the participating countries. The project’s initiators say that it will largely smooth out conflicts between international players, which destabilize the current system. However, it means using the existing system of international relations and does not aim to help it overcome its crisis.


Russia is trying to use the present window of opportunity. We can speak of two variants of the Russian project.

One is promoted by the Kremlin. The essence of the official Russian project for transition from a unipolar to a more just system of international relations is a return to a world order similar to the one that existed in the second half of the 20th century, only somewhat more complex. In fact, Russia proposes dividing the planet into spheres of influence on a geographical basis, with some exceptions such as joint influence in some territories. In Central Asia, for example, China may have a “controlling interest” in economic matters, while Moscow, in military-political ones.

However, Russia’s claims have one yet critically important methodological restriction. They appeal to the country’s former status and past merits, namely, to the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazism, which is valued less and less in the rest of the world for many reasons, the simplest of which is that World War II is bygone history. The consensus, existing in Russian society, on the Soviet Union’ role in the war and, more importantly, on Russia’s moral right to participate in world politics as its successor is increasingly less shared by other countries, and this trend is irreversible. The crisis of the world order generates demand for a vision of the future (or effective present) but not the past, and Moscow has nothing to offer here. The hard power actively demonstrated by Russia in recent years, a vivid example of which is the operation in Syria, may bring tactical results but strategically it will not bring about a breakthrough. The solution of tactical tasks provides positions for geopolitical exchanges but it cannot create “crystallization points” that would help engage other players in Russia’s initiatives.

The second project is proposed by Russian intellectuals, mainly right-wing and left-wing liberals. It can be described as “organizing one’s home.” They propose borrowing from the European experience and creating a competitive social and economic system in Russia that would have advantages over analogues in other countries.

Methodologically, this concept looks more viable, but it has two limitations. The first one is the time factor. The creation of a competitive social and economic model, even if properly planned and implemented (which almost never happens anywhere), will take years, if not decades. As a result, the formation of a new system of international relations will be initiated by other players, with Russia falling behind and catching up again.

The other limitation is subjective and stems from the nature of the political regime in Russia. The liberal project provides for its fundamental transformation (no matter political at first or social and economic, which will inevitably lead to political changes anyway), for which the Kremlin is not ready and which may bring about fatal cataclysms. Therefore, the country needs to formulate and propose to the world a model of international relations that could be translated into life, subject to the stability and continuity of the political regime, during the next presidential term of 2018-2024.


Given Russia’s current problems, it can hardly offer anything meaningful for modernizing international relations. Moscow’s resources are too limited—in terms of time (for the project for “organizing one’s home”), economy and even military power—for other major players to agree to a geographical division of the world into spheres of influence.

However, there have emerged unique conditions for proposing a new form of international relations, which would prevent their radical transformation and help resolve the situation where the lower classes do not want to live in the old way and the upper classes cannot carry on in the old way.

In international politics, there has formed a basic demand for justice and at least relative equality. The former centers of power no longer enjoy moral authority, while new ones have not yet emerged and will hardly do so within the next decade. Realizing the erosion of such an asset as soft power, large players, primarily the United States, are moving away from the practice of multilateral alliances where they dominated to bilateral agreements where they can impose their will on the counterparty due to disparity in their capabilities. This factor explains the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. As a matter of fact, the New Silk Road project, despite its declared global dimension and numerous potential participants, will most likely also consist of bilateral agreements with states in each specific part of the route. This change of tactics for ensuring the domination of the centers of power will hardly please minor players in world politics, as it is an attempt to pour old wine into new wineskins.

There is a need to decentralize relations between international actors, avoiding their present chaotization. Most of the players that are not “centers of power” now increasingly feel and behave like “free agents” (I explored this phenomenon in more detail in an article published in this journal in Issue #1 2017), rather than satellites of sovereigns. But they have also formed demand for the moderation of their own activities in order to avoid a “war of all against all.”

In other words, the world needs not a hierarchical (with one or several centers) but network organization of international relations. This need has been reflected in official doctrines, for example, in Russia’s new Foreign Policy Concept approved late last year. However, as it often happens, there is a gap between doctrinal provisions and political practices due to the inertia and clichéd thinking of the bureaucracy.

Technology is developing at a galloping pace today, but social and political mechanisms, including those in the sphere of international relations, are stagnating, if not degrading. This kind of thing already happened time and again in the past (suffice it to recall the notorious Dark Ages in European history in the second half of the first millennium AD), but it has not been observed in recent decades, and politicians do not know how to deal with this phenomenon.

The result is that “technical” technologies, or rather principles of their functioning, penetrate into the humanitarian sphere, radically changing it and solving systemic problems. The Internet may serve as a vivid example of that. At the time of its emergence in the 1970s (as a solution to the technical problem of ensuring a fast data exchange between points A and B), it was merely an application, but over the last 15 years it has become a full-fledged social environment that changes the rules of public communication. So the future lies in technological practices introduced into the humanitarian sphere (naturally, not literally and mechanically, but by adapting the principles of functioning).

Adapting the blockchain technology to this sphere would help resolve many conflicts in world politics and meet the demand from the growing class of “free agents.” Over the past year, much has been written about this technology, but most authors understand it in a narrow sense—only as a way to produce cryptocurrencies. However, as in the case of the Internet, it has a much broader scope of application. The already existing examples from the use of cryptocurrencies, cited below, are to prove the functionality of blockchain principles that could be gradually introduced into international relations.

The essence of the blockchain system, in addition to the proverbial anonymity (which cannot be applied to international relations), is the decentralization of decision-making (the issue of cryptocurrencies) and the fact that this decision-making concerns all interested parties. In other words, the technologies created to date allow a large number of actors, engaged in a certain field and located far apart from each other, to simultaneously participate in decision-making and take legally binding action instead of holding negotiations, for example, through video conferencing, which can be done without blockchain technology and which has long been actively used.

Importantly, this makes it impossible for  major players to strike backroom deals to the detriment of minor players, as information about transactions is duplicated by all elements of the system in real time. There are no intermediaries between those who make decisions and those who implement them as all elements of the system participate in both processes simultaneously. In other words, using blockchain principles would hypothetically allow the heads of state and other international actors to conclude agreements in real time, minimizing the time for their preparation.

The circumstances in which the blockchain technology appeared in the financial market are similar to those in international politics. The main reason for the emergence of cryptocurrencies (speculative interest appeared somewhat later, when cryptocurrencies became popular) was the loss of confidence among financial market participants in state-issued fiat currencies (there is too much paper money in the world that is not backed by tangible assets). A similar crisis of confidence in modern international relations exists with regard to the founders of the former system which continues to exist by inertia—the system of centers of power.

Naturally, there is no question of transferring blockchain technology to international relations literally. But some of its fundamental principles could be used selectively. For example, although a network organization minimizes hierarchy, it does not rule out it completely. A network includes nodes, which, if we speak of international relations, may stand for nation states.

In addition, the principle of decentralization is not always absolutized in issuing currencies. Apart from the proof-of-work principle, when a currency is issued by an element of the system with the greatest computing power, there is also the proof-of-stake principle, where participation in currency production requires having a certain account balance. The second principle can be used to preserve elements of hierarchy in introducing blockchain approaches into international relations. This will allow sovereign states to have a “blocking stake” in the decision-making process. According to this principle, successfully applied to cryptocurrencies, international actors that will initiate the integration of the blockchain system into world politics will have greater influence in the development and adoption of decisions

Moscow cannot offer the above theoretical constructs, however relevant and logical, to the global “market” without trying them first in practice and proving their efficiency and capability to meet the new demand. These ideas could be tested in the post-Soviet space or, rather, the part of it that is engaged in Eurasian integration projects—the Eurasian Economic  Union (EEU) and, possibly, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. In addition to the fact that the countries participating in these projects have the basic level of trust necessary for such testing and well-established ties, the authorities of some key countries are psychologically ready to adopt this technology. For example, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, unlike the leaders of many other countries who are wary of the growing popularity of cryptocurrencies, has proposed ??creating a single global cryptocurrency. In addition, experience shows that Moscow’s allies in the Eurasian integration process feel increasingly burdened by their strategic commitments and prefer to act ad hoc, depending on the situation. The blockchain could first be applied to such a traditional institution of international relations as a depositary of international treaties. Instead of one country, all parties to a “test” treaty could be its depositaries.

The next, more systemic and larger-scale step in the Eurasian space could be testing the blockchain in certifying transactions in the EEU framework. At first, the blockchain could be used in government procurement—announcements about winning bidders will immediately lead to the conclusion of contracts between them and customers, and information about these contracts will be included in the interstate system of document circulation. Later, the blockchain could be extended to the sphere of private international law within the EEU.

If using the blockchain in international cooperation demonstrates its efficiency at the regional level, Russia, together with its partners, will be able to propose using it on a larger scale. There is a macro-region that is beginning to play a central role in global politics and where an effective decision-making system is particularly needed. This is the Asia-Pacific region where primary importance is assigned to decision-making in general and in the field of global security in particular, but where there is a critical level of distrust between players that have interests there.

The experience of creating a similar system in the Transatlantic region in the mid-20th century cannot be mechanically applied to the present situation in the Asia-Pacific because of the lack of consensus among the countries in the region. Western European countries sacrificed part of their sovereignty in exchange for U.S. guarantees of protection against hypothetical aggression from the Soviet bloc. There is no such consensus among the three main groups in the Asia-Pacific (the U.S. and its allies, China and its allies, and non-aligned countries), and it is unlikely to emerge in the near future.

It should be noted that there is a factor that may help introduce blockchain principles into the system of relations between international actors in the region. This is the absence of a psychological barrier between the governments of many key countries there. For example, unlike Western countries which are wary of cryptocurrencies, Japan has recognized the bitcoin as legal tender, and the governments of India and Singapore are about to follow suit. Beijing has recently taken an increasingly tough stand on cryptocurrencies. However, this is due not so much to its rejection of the blockchain technology as such, as to its well-founded fears that corrupt officials may use cryptocurrencies to funnel assets out of the country. As regards traditional currencies, China has made significant progress in recent years in blocking capital outflow channels.

However, an inevitable burst of the cryptocurrency bubble, which has reached alarming dimensions of late, may be an obstacle to introducing the blockchain technology in international relations. The collapse of the bubble will cast a shadow on the technology itself. However, it is important to remember how the Internet was created and developed. The dot-com crash in 2000, which gave rise to skepticism about the very principles of the Internet’s functioning, did not nevertheless prevent the Internet from turning from a simple technology into a full-fledged social environment. Moreover, it even accelerated this process as it helped analyze and correct mistakes within a short period of time.

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The introduction of blockchain principles into the practice of international relations will help resolve many conflicts between their actors and meet the demand for networked relations among “free agents,” their greater freedom and the absence of strategic commitments. At the same time, this technology does not mean complete equality of all participants and renunciation of hierarchy. Any network has key elements, or nodes, and nation states can be viewed as such with regard to international relations.

If Russia initiates these changes and proves their relevance and efficiency by personal example, together with its Eurasian allies, it may hope for a systemic and full-scale return to global politics. To this end, however, Moscow needs to revise its attitude to the key element of the former world order based on the centers of power—the concept of zones of exclusive influence. This will also help it, among other things, neutralize negative processes in the post-Soviet space, a region which it considers a zone of its exclusive influence and where Moscow is increasingly and latently turning from the subject of ongoing processes into their object.