Does a New World Order Exist?
Interview with Prof. Manlio Graziano published on the IA Forum on 7th March 2024.
What was the inspiration for your book, Disordine mondiale. Perché viviamo in un'epoca di crescente caos, about World Order?

The situation in the world inspired me. We are living with increasing political disorder in the world and I thought that it was necessary to explain why. Another reason is that many people are still talking about a new world order and probably even more so after the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine War when Putin entitled himself as the leader of the new world order and then tried to expand the idea.

Essentially, every current political leader thinks that it is the moment to promote a new world order. However, it's much more of a slogan than a policy because the idea behind what they proclaim is really for their benefit: If this new world order is not realized, it's because others don't want it realized. But the core problem is that a new world order is impossible. The idea that all the leaders sit around the table and decide pacifically and harmoniously the new rules of the world never happened and never will.

Would you highlight some historical examples and major misperceptions of what leaders have proclaimed as a ‘New World Order’?

In my book I tried to demonstrate why the new world order is not possible. This conclusion isn’t very popular because people would like to live in an orderly world. I follow two lines of analysis in the book. One is looking at the attempts to realize a “new world order” historically and the other is analyzing why the mechanisms of our society prevent it from happening.

Looking at this from the historical background, the empirical evidence proves that the world order never existed. It was never an order, and it was never worldly. However, after at least three great “wars of extermination” - Kant's phrase - it was possible to establish what would be called more appropriately, a partial European order. In the sense that, for a while after these three big wars, there was a period a little more peaceful than usual, during which, at least, the great powers had fewer conflict among them.

The three wars I’m speaking about were the Thirty Years War which was followed by the Treaty of Westphalia; the Napoleonic wars which were followed by the Congress of Vienna; and a combination of the First and Second World Wars which were ultimately followed by the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences. In these three cases, it was possible to reorganize the world – to re-write the rules, as they say today – because in international competition, one of the competitors was annihilated. This is the only possibility to establish a sort of new world order. However, I insist that it was never really an order but a period less disordered than usual. The more we proceed in history away from these treaties, the more crises become numerous.

As an example, let’s take the period after World War II. In the first few decades after the war, the world was much more orderly than it is today because it was under control. Essentially, this control was exerted by the United States, which was able to destroy all its competitors in the First and Second World Wars. After World War II, the Soviet Union had received half of Europe, which was a real potential competitor of the United States: that “world order” was beneficial to Russia, which expanded more than ever in its history, and to the United States, whose most dangerous competitors were crushed and, in Europe, divided for forty-five years.

In the decades after World War Two the United States increasingly lost its capability of controlling and ruling the world, so the world became more disordered. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the fall of the Soviet Union did not help the United States because it meant the reunification of Germany and therefore the reunification of Europe. As an analogy, consider the post-Yalta world as a bipolar order with two legs, with one leg as the United States and the other leg, the Soviet Union. With the fall of one of the legs, the entire order started to wobble.

The basis of these prizes from the post-World War II order is part of the second aspect that I analyze in my book, uneven development. This means that all the countries develop at different rates, so relations between the countries continuously change.
This is probably the most important part of the book because there is the historical dimension, which is empirical, while on the other hand, there is the theoretical dimension. Uneven development is the real factor driving the change of relationships between powers.

You argue that a "New World Order", as proclaimed by many leaders, and the actual state of international affairs is disjointed. How has this impacted public perception?

Public opinion is craving a new world order. Today, politics is increasingly driven by the mood of people than previously. As the world becomes more disordered, people want more order. When a leader promises to establish or restore world order, the leader gains popularity. In general. People are scared about what is happening in the world, frightened by the future as well as the present. When a leader says, “Don't worry, I'll solve all the problems,” it gives them comfort. And politicians can gain popularity.

This is not only a slogan for their electorate but, as discussed, also a tool in international relations. For example, this idea of a “new world order” launched by Putin with the invasion of Ukraine was a plan for Russia and China, not really to create a new world order, but to put together some countries as an alternative to the United States. Countries such as India or Brazil can still view the United States as a friend but have this “coalition” as a viable alternative. In that way, the United States cannot instruct with the same impunity that it did previously. This is especially true in a scenario where there is a weaponization of sanctions because as long as the dollar is still the dominant currency of international exchanges, countries could feel threatened.

Political leaders are willing to consider creating alternative institutions, alternative banks, and monetary institutions. This is not because they want to break up with the United States, but because they want to have another door open to go through, if needed. This is called multipolarism and can become (and it became, indeed) a tool in international relations.

Is this a strategy that could be used by Putin in a post-Ukraine war scenario as well?
My comparison between the Second World War and the war in Ukraine stops here in the sense that Russia today is not the United States in 1991. I don't think it can be instrumented for the war in Ukraine.

Russians have always been very skilled at jumping from one ideological representation to another, such as in August 1939 when they became allies of Hitler. So, they can do it. If Putin says that this ideological tool of international war is no longer useful, it changes. Again, when Putin used that tool, it was when he saw that his expectations about the war in Ukraine were going downhill. The failure of the operation changed the perspective. At the beginning of the conflict, Putin labeled it as a war against neo-Nazis in Ukraine. When that didn't work, it became a war against Western aggression towards Russia. In this case, if you are aggressed, you say: we need to create a new world order because we need to escape the grip of the United States.

The book also explores the illusion of a democratic "world parliament" within international bodies. How does multilateralism, despite its democratic appearance, reinforce the positions of dominant powers?

This is nothing new because these considerations were made by Nicolas Spykman very clearly in the 1940s. He died before the creation of the United Nations so he was talking about the League of Nations at the time. The idea was essentially that international institutions work only if the great powers want them to. If world powers don't want them to exist or they withdraw from them, they can become an empty shell, as was the case with the League of Nations.

So, what is the difference between the League of Nations and the United Nations? For Roosevelt, the failure of the League of Nations was not the idea of creating a world parliament but of giving every country the same rights and trying to put them together. Roosevelt agreed with the idea of an assembly, a parliament of the world, but said that the only way to make it work was to also create a government of the world. The UN Security Council was formed from that idea. Fundamentally, however, the concept behind the League of Nations and the United Nations was the same.
But who made possible the United Nations, international organizations, and agreements like Bretton Woods or the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs? The United States. Almost all the institutions we still have today were created by the United States during or after the Second World War. And the other countries had just the option between accepting them or staying out of them.

Now, why are these organizations just apparently democratic? Let’s look at the United Nations, where 193 countries are represented. Delegates can meet in New York and vote about any international political situation and it looks very democratic. But they don't have any real power. The difference between the UN and the League of Nations is that it was clear since the beginning that they didn't have power. The League of Nations had the same power that the Security Council has today, but their capability of intervening and modifying the reality of international relations was nearly the same: nil. The reason for this is that they cannot find a common point of view because each state has different interests.

The five permanent members of the Security Council agree only when their main interests are not at stake. When they are, they don't find a common point of view. Kissinger said, in his book Diplomacy, “No act of aggression involving a major power has ever been defeated by applying the principle of collective security”.’ He was talking about the League of Nations and the United Nations. We have daily proof of that.

There is a rare possibility in which interests can converge. For example, the Security Council recently voted on a resolution about the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, because everybody, including China, is interested in the freedom of passage in the Red Sea. In this case, Russia doesn’t have a direct interest, but it won’t stand against China.

If a multilateral organization is created and in this organism almost all the countries in the world are present, it can be said that all points of view, all ideas, and all interests in the world are being represented, heard, and discussed. But those who finally make decisions are the dominant powers. When the organisms of collective security become an obstacle, they take their decision out of them. We saw the UN didn’t stop at the Iraq war in 2003, the Kosovo War in 1999, or the war in Ukraine.

Any final thoughts?

The general public should be very careful when we hear phrases, formulas, or slogans about a new world order. They are very attractive and easy to embrace. This is one of the reasons why I think politics deserves deep study from years of understanding to properly analyze what is before you. This idea of new world orders is very popular but it is a huge illusion. We need to clear the path to understanding what is really going on in the world because these ideas work as a kind of screen between us and the reality of the world. And only if and when we understand, we can act.