Raw Power and Rules in a More Violent World?

To aid further the discussion on the interplay between raw power and rules today, a pertinent question to ask is why exactly is it that that “raw power” seems to have taken a hold over rules in what most agree has been a more antagonistic, unhinged state of affairs in global geopolitics as of late?

In a recent commentary for Project Syndicate, the thought-provoking assertion was made that in this day and age, “raw power, not rules, […] is the main factor determining today’s global dynamics”. This remark is the subject of this blogpost.

Not to favour raw power over rules at all in a discussion would (as an indication of the complexity of the matter), probably lead to the age-old discussions of “just war”, a critical account of the “rules” in question, combined with any underlying tensions that could then possibly encourage the use of raw power. In all cases, the peaceful resolution of conflict must surely take precedence, and should always be aimed for though, together with a cognisance of the very real possibility that political situations can and do unfortunately descend into violent conflict.

But to aid further the discussion on the interplay between raw power and rules today, a pertinent question to ask is why exactly is it that that “raw power” seems to have taken a hold over rules in what most agree has been a more antagonistic, unhinged state of affairs in global geopolitics as of late? What is it that has given rise to such an assertion?

For the purposes of this discussion, one can assume raw power to be synonymous with the use of military force where rules, in the form of international agreements (say in the form of ceasefires – including longer-term frozen conflicts – or established peace processes), are transgressed. It is from this understanding that the discussion proceeds. 

To invoke recent events that would have arguably raised such questions over the use of raw power in the first place, perhaps the recent resort to military intervention in unresolved conflicts or disputes such as the latest flare-up in Nagorno-Karabagh, has incited such commentary. Added to that would be the recent conflicts in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and possibly before then that between Russia and Ukraine. The list could, unfortunately, go on, which clearly raises the need to consider the time period in question.

In this light, the next important step would be to try and determine if any form of trend, pattern, or exceptionality, can be discerned when it comes to the use of, or perhaps preference for, raw power over rules.

On the general state of affairs in the world, it would be safe to say that most people hold that this is an era of heightened upheaval, antagonism, and the emergence of middle powers more willing to visibly assert themselves than ever before, especially in the form of military might. Is this all merely an artefact of the many flaws of media and media consumption; a cognitive dissonance festered by the sort of mindset that holds that “if it bleeds, it leads”?

To flesh-out a big-picture approach, Steven Pinker, the Canadian-American cognitive scientist and popular science writer, is known for his advocation that history is actually witnessing its most peaceful time. Across several publications, including over a thousand pages in Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity, the assertion, in essence, follows along the lines that in fact, “violence has been in decline for thousands of years”.

The argument has given rise to the expected counter-assertion, particularly as it concerns methodology and implicit points of ideological orthodoxy. John Gray asserts for The Guardian that war itself has changed, with a rise in the share of non-combatant/civilian deaths as well as overall death (including non-immediate death or shortened lifespans due to possible collateral damages of war), associated with other forms of violence beyond the battlefield. The historical record includes deadly episodes such as the Communist agrarian upheavals of the 20th Century that led to the deaths of millions in what was supposed to be peacetime.

There is quite a formidable literature out on there on how exactly to measure both peace and war. As only one example, the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme (UCDP) is said to be the “gold standard” for an index of organised violence that incorporates state-based, non-state, and what is given as “one-sided” conflict.

Here we enter the more esoterical yet nonetheless fundamental point; the measurement of what constitutes war and peace is a problematic area of consideration, consensus on the metrics used indelibly pivotal for any numerical synthesis, combined with any misgivings in the veracity of historical records. Another more granular but significant part of the discussion revolves around whether there should be a focus on the rate of death rather than absolute numbers. Such caveats and complexities lead to the antithetical argument, as presented by Braumoeller in Only the Dead which makes for necessary further reading on the matter.

Unsurprisingly, the full causal pathways associated with violence and conflict are amiss if one chooses to focus only on immediate battlefield deaths. In turn, as Gray notes, the causal narrative that cements a decline in violence with the advancement in development is highly problematic, together with the precise time-span in which data points are constructed over.

To colour this point on temporality in particular, Cirillo and Taleb (2016) give the example of the “Mongol invasions”. Is this to be treated as a singular event, a discrete data point of time on par with other events, or must the time-period that underlies the event be considered as well? The authors argue that if the Mongol invasions occurred over more than a century and a quarter, then this “swelled the numbers per event over the Middle Ages and contributed to the illusion that violence has dropped since, given that subsequent ‘events’ had shorter durations” (2016, 3).

Violent competition between states and the nature of contemporary globalisation is another area of relevant enquiry which may not, of course, translate into all-out war but can actualise in the sort of “trade-wars” or economic sanctions or systems of exploitation that can have numerous material and social repercussions down the line. The article cited at the start of this blogpost, for instance, posits that China and the US do not wish for a conventional war, but that regional and global institutions are “weaponised” instead, becoming the forums or channels through which competition and antagonism occur. Again, a lot depends on what exactly is measured in the name of war, violence, or conflict, and the myriad of causal pathways that can have life or death repercussions.

Violence has been an unfortunate hallmark, but not the only hallmark of the human condition, and any lull in violence does not necessarily mean through the process of induction that the nature of the human condition has essentially changed. Further still, to illustrate also geographical boundedness, the European Union (EU) has been an admirable and enviable success project in terms of peace especially as non-war, with over seventy years of peace that when placed in recent historical context seems all the more unique. The violent conflict between Russia and Ukraine, however, renders a condition of peace on the European continent more broadly, perhaps wanton.

In an ever more antagonistic state of global geopolitics, states seem to be more inclined to take matters into their own hands or grow in terms of the capability and the tendency to exercise a steadily-accrued agency that projects power beyond their borders. This all comes as we acknowledge but not find much reason to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the “weaker than it should be” United Nations. The popular rationale is the over-assumed U.S. retreat from its “traditional” role on the global geopolitical stage, which ushers-in latent “geopolitical energies” – thank you Mr. Badran – of states that have expanded their agency over time in a more geopolitically inter-connected world. 

States themselves have never exactly been bounded power containers, separated in mutually-exclusive fashion from each other by rigid or tightly controlled borders ubiquitously across the world, especially amidst contemporary globalisation. The agency/capacity to act beyond one’s borders – to project power or influence of some sort aligned with national interest to the possible detriment of others –  of rising powers or developing economies has increased. One wonders whether or not the full meaning or ramifications of the development of states was ever foretold, and exactly why regional geopolitical events are greeted with shock. To promote astonishment then that any particular state (especially in the contemporary era), acts beyond its borders as is, therefore, some sort of an outlier in the world of international affairs seems naïve.

The third discussion point is thus: what of the rules against which raw power is juxtaposed. What exactly, for example, is the relationship between the rules-based international order and “liberal order”, a neoliberal economic order, or as part of a far grander discussion, the notion of liberalism itself? Developing countries now have more power in the global economy, liberalism (the excesses and disadvantages thereof) is being more vocally challenged both at home and abroad. One of course cannot live the counter-factual of what any sort of alternative global order would look like. Rather than the sharp binary of a rules-based international order / multilateralism, or its antithesis, perhaps there will always be order to a degree and chaos to a degree. Institutions such as the United Nations or WHO certainly have a role to play, and any failures had in tackling global challenges should signal reform. Josep Borrell, the current High Representative of the EU, writes that:

“A rules-based international order makes states secure, keeps people free and companies willing to invest, and ensures that the earth’s environment is protected. The alternative—‘might makes right’—has been tried for most of human history, and its horrific record is the best argument for the multilateral system”.

But the world is facing challenges, even amidst what we presume to be a “rules-based international order”; the alternatives spoken of above have ensued throughout. As such, there will always be nuances and caveats that problematise binaries such as that between rules and raw power. It is perhaps from this realisation that a more cogent discussion on the relationship above can be had in order to strengthen the multilateral world order, such that latent geopolitical conflicts are tackled early on, and that any frozen conflicts are not left to be indefinitely frozen as a solution.


Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of the TRT World Research Centre.

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