The New World Disorder
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Alexander Dubowy

Dr. Alexander Dubowy is Senior Researcher at the Research Cluster for Polemology and Legal Ethics at the University of Vienna  (the Austrian National Defense Academy); and Research Director of the Institute for Security Policy (ISP).

A Long Way Back from the End of History

This article offers a brief analysis of the current world order and prospects of multipolarity.


In order to understand the present and the future of the world order, an analysis should start with the last phase of the bipolar system, late Gorbachev era. That time was marked by the hope that a new, inclusive, and cooperative world order would be built after the USSR and Western countries mutually put an end to the Cold War. This new world order, that is, a new system of international relations, was expected to result from a convergence of formerly hostile systems through the establishment of new joint institutions in international relations. The basic principles of this system were outlined, inter alia, in the Charter of Paris and formalized in the UN Security Council resolution which enacted Operation Desert Storm.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, however, the idea of a “new world order” was challenged by George H. W. Bush. The idea of convergence lost its relevance. The harmonious end of the Cold War was interpreted as the merit and triumph of the West alone. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the breakup of the Soviet Union were celebrated as the “final victory” of the liberal world order. In the words of Francis Fukuyama, the end of the Cold War brought about “the end of history.” Ivan Krastev from the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia is absolutely right in saying that since the mid-1990s the European project was conceptionally deeply rooted in Fukuyama’s idea of the end of history and the idea of the liberal world order.[1]

This “new liberal world order” has been determining international relations over the past twenty-five years. However, it turned out to be a de facto unipolar world order under the global leadership of the only remaining world power, the United States. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the de facto victorious powers of the Cold War, primarily the U.S., did not seek to build new structures, rather they turned the remaining institutions of the bipolar period (NATO, the European Community, the Council of Europe) into main pillars of a new European and ultimately Western-dominated global order.

According to John Mearsheimer, this order can be interpreted as an attempt to establish quasi-global governance based on three main liberal postulates concerning international relations:

1. Prosperous and economically interdependent states are unlikely to fight each other;

2. Democracies do not fight each other; 

3. International institutions enable states to avoid war and concentrate instead on building cooperative relationships.[2]

These ideas have been repeatedly, openly or covertly, declared by U.S. officials since the Clinton administration. Today, these assumptions, together with Fukuyama’s idea of the “end of history,” have all proved wrong. As famous American academic Walter Russell Mead explicitly put during a discussion at the Bruno Kreisky Forum in March 2017 in Vienna, “history is back and it’s hungry.”

Today we are facing instability, a systemic crisis, and stepwise dissolution of the international order which emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. To put it more precisely, the last twenty-five years have proved to be a mere transition from the era of bipolarity to the “era of new global disorder.” It can also be called an “interregnum,” “a nameless epoch,” “a global thirty years’ war,” or, to quote Russian political scientist Sergei Rogov, “a multipolar chaos.”



The “era of global disorder” is characterized by confrontational multipolarity, tightening regional competition, flexible regional cooperation, and growing activity of non-state actors. Some Islamic terrorist groups and transnational companies are gradually turning into full-fledged actors of international relations.

The relative weakness and decline of the United States go hand in hand with the rise of powerful regional actors—“new regional powers.” This is, of course, China, but also Russia, Iran, Turkey, India, Japan, Germany, and Poland. What is new about these new regional powers? They have only limited claim to global power but almost unlimited aspirations to regional power in areas of their privileged interests.

There is no intense competition between rival or even antagonistic political, economic, and cultural-ideological systems, as it was the case during the Cold War and the “old bipolarity.” Today, no actor seeks to take the global lead from the U.S., no one wants the whole responsibility. But the problem is that the U.S. does not want the global responsibility either. What is even worse, as Stephen Walt has stated recently, the U.S. cannot be trusted anymore.[3] It is no longer a status quo power in international relations as it has been for decades. Today the U.S. is becoming more and more a revisionist power, ready to do what is necessary to keep its global influence from declining.

But what does the rise of the new regional powers and the relative decline of the U.S. mean for international security? The growing regional competition does not exclude cooperation in certain areas and cooperation in fighting common threats, especially in the present highly interdependent globalized world. However, since a clear delimitation of regional spheres of influence is hardly possible, readiness for confrontation is likely to grow. Moreover, in the new era of global disorder spheres of influence and demilitarized zones will once again become a legitimate subject of diplomatic negotiation in order to reduce tensions among new regional powers. These developments will manifest themselves not in the old Cold-War style but in a way consonant with Samuel Huntington’s and Vadim Tsymbursky’s ideas or Boris Mezhuev’s concept of civilizational realism.

And what about smaller states? Michael Lind from New America Foundation believes that “in the new global modus vivendi small and weak nations might chafe at the constraints on their independence such agreements impose, but their discomfort is unavoidable in a world that, regardless of models of domestic government, will always be organized largely by states on the basis of hierarchies of military and industrial power.”[4] Against this background the almost forgotten concept of permanent neutrality (re-interpreted as engaged or functional neutrality) might play an important role once again, especially for the so-called “Europe-in-between” states, first and foremost those in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans.

In the dawning age, firm alliances, such as NATO, will lose a great deal of their significance and give way to flexible regional partnerships, which to some extent might imitate the model of the Chinese-Russian relations. Dmitri Trenin from Carnegie Moscow Center has once called this kind of relations an “Entente model” which follows the principle: “Not always with each other but never openly against each other.”

“The talks on arms control are based on the notion of security symmetry, equal threat potential, and a comparable number of weapons systems. In times of ubiquitous hybridity and the massive changes in the security environment, the possibility of symmetrical responses to security threats is becoming less important and asymmetry is becoming more important. However, the asymmetric threat potential cannot be mathematically measured and balanced against each other. In addition, the cyber dimension creates a completely new level of security policy whose potential cannot yet be conclusively assessed. With the cyber dimension a whole new area of possible confrontation appears. For this reason, the international security negotiations should focus much more on the control and containment of the cyber dimension.

All these events are taking place amid a global shift of power politics from the West towards Asia. This global power shift can be figuratively summarized in the phrase: “The Pacific Ocean is the Mediterranean Sea of the 21st century.”



Today, the world is facing enormous common challenges and threats: proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Islamic terrorism, religious and ethnic disputes, struggles for natural resources, and migration waves. The fight against common threats cannot be carried out sustainably without a comprehensive reform of the UN, which is currently in a deep crisis.

Sergei Karaganov from the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy has defined two main reasons for the UN crisis: the change of the international situation after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and the emergence of new states. According to Karaganov, many of the newly independent states have never existed within their current borders and the struggle for their statehood and nation-building contribute more to global instability than to stability.

The reform of the UN must begin with the Security Council, whose mandate of 1945 is no longer feasible. But is such a reform even thinkable? The UN is, by its very nature, the result of very concrete historical events, the reflection of a particular historical era, a particular concept of the world order conceived by the world’s leading powers at a given time. The UN has de facto never been an independent structure superior to states. It is neither a world government, nor a world legislator. The central position in the United Nations is held neither by the Secretary General nor by the General Assembly, but rather by the Security Council and, more precisely, by the five permanent members of the Security Council that enjoy the right of veto. Yet the present five permanent members of the UN Security Council can neither draft a new vision of the world order that would be binding for all others, nor solve emerging conflicts on their own, even if they want to do so, which they obviously don’t.

The three most popular ideas for the reform of the Security Council are as follows:

  1. Dissolution of the Security Council. One bold proposal calls for eliminating permanent membership and creating a council of elected representatives from different regions;
  2. Abolishment of the veto right. The use of the veto right after the end of the Cold War has dropped off dramatically but the mere threat to use the veto has proved to strongly affect the final outcome of Security Council debates. So, the proposal suggests abolishing the veto right;

3. Expansion of the Security Council. The most well-known proposal is to increase the number of the permanent members (adding such countries as Germany and Japan, and also currently missing BRICS countries?South Africa, India, and Brazil) and to change the voting rules so that a veto would require at least two or three permanent members and not only one. According to this proposal, the number of elected members of the Security Council should be also increased, which would expand global representation and thereby bolster the Security Council’s credibility.

However, all the attempts to reform the UN failed in the recent years. The problem with all proposals is their absolute unfeasibility. Some fifteen years ago an idea was voiced to create a multilateral organization based on the G7 industrialized countries plus BRICS countries to face the new threats to international security. However, this project is hardly feasible nowadays. Institutionalizing another multilateral format, G20, and endowing it with executive powers might give an external impetus to UN reform. And there is just very little hope the UN could reform itself from within.

Any reform proposals that are not supported by the UN Security Council permanent members are doomed to fail. These veto-bearing countries will hardly share their power. Yet the interests of the “new regional powers,” which are not permanent members of the UN Security Council, should also be taken into account.

So the problem remains unsolved. Today we are facing a vicious circle: on the one hand, there is no serious danger to the UN continued existence; on the other hand, without a comprehensive reform there is the danger the UN can fade into utter insignificance as once the League of Nations did.

Therefore, the main task of the UN, and especially of the Security Council, is to provide a forum for dialogue, first and foremost, to prevent the outbreak of a global conflict.


*   *   *

Today, more than twenty-five years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the bipolarity, the world order established after the end of World War II and during the Cold War and the post-Cold War period (one might call it Yalta-Potsdam-Helsinki-Malta-Paris world order) belongs to the past.

The events that have taken place since 2013 show one thing very clearly. The peace and prosperity in the EU in the past twenty-five years were not a normal state of things but more of an anomaly in international relations. This anomaly has now given way to merciless reality. The world is no longer a Western-dominated one and is becoming even less stable than it looks. We are not just on the way from the unipolar to a multipolar world full of confrontation and disorder, we are already in there.

In this situation a “new European security deal” is unlikely to be reached any time soon. It would require a new balance of power and a fundamental agreement between the permanent members of the UN Security Council on the basic principles of a new world order. The interests of those new regional powers which are not permanent members of the UN Security Council will also have to be taken into account. Due to their political ambitions and divergent interests and ideas about the future world order one can hardly expect such an agreement to be reached in the short or medium term. If history has taught us anything, it is that chaos in international relations is an indispensable prerequisite for the emergence of a new world order. The current conflicts in broader Europe are just a symptom of a much larger problem. The entire post-Cold War European political, economic, security, and cultural architecture was not an inclusive one and was largely built just on two pillars?the EU and NATO. There can be no substantive progress without rebuilding the basic foundations of the post-Cold-War European architecture.

And one final point. Recently many experts and pundits have been speaking much about the positive prospects of multipolarity. From the point of view of realism, multipolar systems are more conflict prone than bipolar and, especially, unipolar ones. So, while speaking optimistically of a future multipolar world order, we should not forget about the dangers and challenges of multipolarity.

As for now, all we can expect is living through a period of new world disorder and confrontation, seeing not a “Concert of great powers” but a “Great Disharmony of new regional powers.”

[1] Ivan Krastev. After Europe. Penn University Press, 2017

[2] John Mearsheimer. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Norton & Company, 2014

[3] Stephen M. Walt, America Can’t Be Trusted Anymore: http://foreignpolicy.com/2018/04/10/america-cant-be-trusted-anymore/

[4] Michael Lind. America vs. Russia and China: Welcome to Cold War II. http://nationalinterest.org/feature/america-vs-russia-china-welcome-cold-war-ii-25382?page=7