Tribalism and the emerging new world order

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've written before in this space about the breakdown of the world system as stateless income deprives nations from the rewards they once enjoyed by enforcing international order. Now I'd like to address the order that seems to be replacing the old system.

In areas where total peace is breaking out, such as western Europe, tribalism is reasserting itself. Catalonia, Venice, and Scotland once again contemplate independence within the European Union, confident that they will not have to defend themselves from rogue state actors. Their expectation is that matters such as currency and central banking can be left to the EU, and perhaps they can either enjoy the protection of NATO as free riders or even as participants.

Ethnically diverse states outside of such organizations are in trouble. Breakaway groups can make alliances with predatory states, as South Ossetia did with Russia in the Russo-Georgian War.

Vladimir Putin attempted to swing Ukrainia into the Russian orbit with soft power, offering money and cheap natural gas to the elected government as a reward for turning economically away from Western Europe and toward Russia.

In exchange for $15 billion and a 33% discount on natural gas, Putin got Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to agree not to sign the E.U. Association Agreement that was on offer. This led to riots that eventually led Yanukovych to flee the country, leaving behind documents that showed how much he'd stolen from the citizens he was elected to represent.

Faced with the fact that no one seems to want to link themselves with Russia except at gunpoint, Putin brought out the guns, which like the uniforms, trucks and armored vehicles of the Crimean invasion force, were not marked with their nationality.

This is making association with a larger protective association essential for countries with bumptious neighbors. The Philippines, which kicked out American military bases in 1992, has recently signed an agreement allowing the American military to build up its presence in the Philippines. This came after China became more assertive in its irredentist  claims to territory that has been governed by its neighbors.

The emerging order relies on organizations like the EU, NATO, ASEAN, SEATO and the African Union , some economic and some security related, to keep regional order. This represents a continuation of the trend for the replacement of a system of empires with one based on hegemony, of the soft power of voluntary association replacing the hard power of conquest. It also represents an end to empires based on conquest.

Economic associations tend to grow more rapidly than security associations, but the need for the latter becomes evident after the establishment of the former. Just as empires relied on economic feedback to support their military adventures, and economies relied on empires to protect their interests, economic unions lead to a need to protect trading partners. Putin understood that a Ukraine economically enmeshed with Western Europe would eventually want the protection of NATO.

Only the largest countries, such as China the United States, can afford to operate independent of such associations. Russia, with an economy smaller than the United Kingdom and Brazil, is clearly trying to punch above its weight, but with an economy about the size of Italy's, it is not clear that it can afford to sustain its aggressive posture over time. The use of maskirovka, or masked warfare, may be cheaper than an out-and-out invasion, but even such tactics won't keep costs down if there is sustained resistance.

One of the lessons of the Soviet war in Afghanistan is that a Russia dependent on hydrocarbons for income it spends on imported food is economically vulnerable. Russian farming isn't quite the disaster Soviet farming was, and the nation now provides itself with grain, but it still imports more food than it sells.

Russian interference with the Ukraine and Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea are going to test this new system. I don't know how willing voluntary associations will be to defend the Parcel Islands, but populated areas that are part of security organizations are probably going to be safe. Areas not part of such associations, not so much.

Voluntary economic associations are related to liberal ideas. They may include autocratic states such as Myanmar, but they then become a source of pressure on such states to institute liberal reforms.