The world system has been in transformation since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. In the wake of the bipolar world system, the United States, the victor of the Cold War, declared that it remained the only superpower and the world hegemon. However, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became obvious that it was quite difficult to maintain “the old system” due to the rise of some other powers and the emergence of new challenges.
After the ideological threat, namely communism, disappeared, some scholars underlined the importance of cultural units and the likely clashes between civilizations; many others considered international terrorism as the most imminent threat directed against the U.S.-led international system and the European civilization.
Especially after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the financial and political symbols of the U.S. hegemony in 2001, Western countries mobilized world public opinion against international terrorism, allegedly emanating from Muslim communities. It soon became clear that neither Muslim states nor Muslim nonstate political actors were real threats. The Arab insurgencies and revolution in the second decade of the 21st century focused the attention of the world public opinion on the Muslim geography for a while. Later, it was realized that none of the Muslim political actors has the power and capacity to influence the world system.
With the rise of Chinese political and economic power and with the Russian Federation’s return to the global balance of power after its military intervention into Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, respectively, the Western global powers have begun to worry about the traditional military threat emanating from nation-states. The West has tried to find an exit strategy and to develop counterstrategies to prevent the rise of alternative global powers. However, Western attempts failed since the rise of the challengers have continued.
The strong and the weak
As a result, we have found ourselves in today’s unstable and chaotic world system. Almost all global powers have been following revisionist foreign policy strategies. No global power, including states who established the system in the wake of World War II, is happy with the current world system. All states want to change the world system to meet their clashing expectations. No global power respects international law, order, principles, norms and institutions. The United Nations System and the European Union have lost their effectiveness since they cannot solve the international problems that concern their member states.
Today, we live in a world that is similar to ancient Greek times, during which the political game used to be played with the main principle of realpolitik: While the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. This principle lies at the heart of today’s unilateral policies of global powers, who offer no moral or legal justification for their invasions and interventions.
As a reflection of classical realism, global powers act solely based on their selfish and pragmatic concerns, which put all other states in a dangerous position. Small or middle powers are much more vulnerable against any possible unilateral move of stronger states. Alliances have lost their meaning; smaller and weaker powers have begun to perceive threats from any state. In other words, small and weak states have to take measures against all states, enemy and friend alike.
Luxury of small powers
Similar to the imperialist period in the second half of the 19th century, global powers have begun to compete with one another to get a bigger slice of the cake. While a global power unilaterally intervenes in the domestic affairs of a weak state, another global power invades another small state. This global rivalry will surely end up with a systemic war, unless they stop the rivalry.
Small and weak powers have some instruments and mechanisms to use against these detrimental systemic developments. First of all, the current global system allows them to play one global power against the other. Small powers have the luxury to follow flexible foreign policies.
Second, small powers try to increase their deterrent power by allying themselves with similar powers. This will lead small and weak powers to search for new partners with which they can establish regional or sub-regional alliances. Besides the limits put by other global powers, the formation of regional alliances will increase the cost of any military intervention in the affairs of other countries.