International orders – like other organisations that are confronted with growth, change and differentiated growth of its departments (states in case of the international order) – have typical life cycles, and need periodic ‘upgrades’ to ensure their continued effectiveness and efficiency.
However, contrary to ‘normal’ organisations, international orders are anarchistic in nature and lack mechanisms to adapt in a non-destructive manner to changed circumstances, history shows.
Awareness of the underlying mechanisms of the System’s dynamics is required to avoid collapse of the United Nations, as I explain in this article.
As I explained, during the period 1495-1945, the System produced four accelerating war cycles, which eventually (in 1939) resulted in the collapse of the Europe-dominated System (1495-1939).
The collapse in 1939, produced a fourth systemic war (the Second World War, 1939-1945), which was instrumental in the (further) integration of Europe towards a non-anarchistic order, and in the globalisation of the System.
The outcome of the fourth systemic war was the United Nations international order, the first order with a global reach, dominated by the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France.
Although Russia and China also enjoy significant privileges in the current order, it should be reminded that the United Nations is above all an American ‘invention’, and it were (to a high) degree Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s negotiating skills which ensured that ‘Western’ allies would dominate the new international order.
The United States cunningly used the global crisis – the Second World War – to establish itself as the dominant power at the world stage, consistent with its expansive (economic) interests.
The United Kingdom and France needed US-support in their existential fight with Germany, to ensure their survival. US support came however at a price.
In exchange for US-support, the United Kingdom was forced to give up its colonial empire, which had to be restructured according to American principles (self-determination), as was already laid down by Roosevelt and Churchill in the Atlantic Charter (in 1941), an agreement that underpins the United Nations Charter.
This ‘concession’ of the United Kingdom (and later France) was later rewarded by a privileged position of the United Kingdom (and France) in the new international order, the United Nations.
Not only made these privileges the loss of empire for the United Kingdom and France more bearable, at the same time these privileges ensured that the United States with the support of two allies, could always dominate the decision making in the Security Council of the United Nations. Win/win so to say, given the circumstances for the United Kingdom and France.
By doing so, the United States had cunningly ensured a position of dominance. It is not overstated to characterise the United Nations international order as a ‘Pax Americana’.
Consequently, it should also not come as a surprise – despite Trump’s short-sighted self-destructive posturing – that Russia and China do not identify to the same degree with the UN, as the United States, the United Kingdom and France do (see above cartoon).
A closer look at the typical dynamics of war cycles during the period 1495-1945 – when Europe still dominated the System – shows that war cycles have a typical life cycle.
The current international order – the United Nations – reached its tipping point in 2011, and is now ‘charging’ for a systemic response. A systemic war becomes unavoidable if fundamental unbalances in the System are not addressed in time. Analysis shows that relatively stable periods – when an international order is ‘in place’ – are always followed by a systemic war, when accumulated tensions are used to reorganise the System by means of force.
Typically, a systemic war is followed by a relatively long stable period, when a more or less functional international order is in place. But that it is always just a matter of time, before a systemic war becomes ‘necessary’ again to balance – reorganise – the international order.
The two most important drivers of this typical dynamic are population growth and (increasing) rivalries between competing states. Analysis of war data concerning the period 1945 – present, shows that the current – first global – cycle now follows a similar pattern.
During relatively stable periods the System produces non-systemic wars to balance the international order that is in place. Non-systemic wars are ‘smaller’, local wars, in which not all Great Powers participate. In other words: The international order – the status quo – is balanced by means of non-systemic wars.
A closer look at the characteristics of these non-systemic wars reveals that the average size of non-systemic wars develops remarkably regular: Initially, following the implementation of an upgraded international order, the average size of non-systemic wars is still small, but then starts increasing.
However, at a certain moment in time a ‘tipping point’ is reached (not necessarily ‘halfway’ the life span of the relatively stable period), when the average size of non-systemic wars starts to decrease. The decrease of the average size of non-systemic wars continues to almost ‘zero’, shortly before the international order collapses.
Once the international order collapses, the System produces a systemic war (in which all Great Powers participate) to rebalance the order by implementing an upgraded order: Systemic wars are instrumental in ‘reorganising’ the System; other mechanisms – peaceful consultation – are not available in anarchistic systems.
It is important that this typical dynamic is recognised, to avoid repetition.
However, unawareness of the existence of this repetitive dynamic and its underlying mechanisms is not the only problem, another problem that hinders timely fundamental reform of the international order, is that international orders are designed to preserve the status quo and to promote (especially) the interests of privileged states.
The United Kingdom’s behaviour – including Brexit – sheds light on the typical behaviour of Great Powers and how they use their privileged position to maintain – cling to – the status quo.
Brexit – the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union – and the United Kingdom’s ‘new’ ambitious – but overextended – presence in the international arena, are indicative for its efforts to impress on the international community that the United Kingdom still is a Great Power to be reckoned with, and still deserves the UN-privileges it now still enjoys.
However, it is not difficult to recognise, that for example India – with its huge population, and ‘legalised’ nuclear weapons (it acquired illegally, according to UN standards) – should replace the United Kingdom, if the same organisational structure of the international order is preserved. The United Kingdom obviously will not agree with this idea.
Apart from the fact that the United Kingdom at present will never ‘voluntarily’ abandon its permanent membership of the Security Council, rivalries between India and China will also ensure that such an initiative is blocked.
Further development of the international order is now blocked by the United Nations built-in inability to make meaningful reforms: The permanent members will block every serious effort, but eventually at the cost of the international order.
What adds to these ‘dynamics’ – and considerations of privileged states – is that once the tipping point of the relatively stable period is reached, the ability of the system to regulate tensions and issues diminishes: Once the tipping point is reached a network effect – the increasing linkage of issues and tensions in the System – blocks the ability of the System to produce non-systemic wars, that could (potentially) solve these issues: Instead of being solved issues and tensions accumulate in the System.
The accumulated issues and tensions cause volatility (radicalisation, Trump, Brexit, fragmentation, more issues, etc.) in the System.
Once the tipping point is reached a self-reinforcing mechanism dominates the dynamics of the System, and will push the international order towards criticality.
The moment the System becomes critical, all issues are connected – calculations based on actual war data, and characteristics of the four preceding war cycles show this will happen around 2020 – and (even) a small incident will trigger a chain reaction and a systemic response.
During the systemic war (crisis) that follows, the accumulated tensions – energy – in the System will be used to implement an upgraded international order that again allows for a relatively stable period which enables further (population) growth and development of the System.
To stop this potentially self-destructive dynamic, decisive action is urgently required.