Times like these tempt one – almost irresistibly – to conjure up labels to describe the world, an everchanging world, a world in flux, which while re-orienting itself towards new possibilities brings in its wake the threat – the greatest of all – of disorder. If there is one idea that holds hostage the imagination of world leaders it is that of order. Ever since the first agrarian civilizations sprouted out of the earth the king, the priest and the aristocrat have had one concern above all concerns – how to keep the masses ordered, that is to say, in their place.
The Greeks called this idea the ‘Great Chain of Being’ which from heaven to earth – from star to dust – bound and kept each being in the place ordained by the nature of things. Thus, Aristotle’s defence of slavery as necessary for a society, such as theirs, the Ancient Greeks, so that while ploughing the lands and mining its subterranean layers, the slaves would provide the great men at the apex of the social – thus, intellectual – pyramid leisure for philosophical contemplation. For the father of logic, I should say, this is a very flimsy argument. One counter could be, say, why not each one does an equal share of work so a larger number of minds have larger amounts of time to think, thus enlarging the store of ideas in society? More minds thinking, more ideas thought, is it not? But that is not the idea! Only a few links in the ‘Great Chain’ – we must understand and accept – are wrought in gold, the rest are baser metals. Gold must shine, the others must bear the weight of being. Order is the name of the game. Order must not be shaken.
A similar concern with order operates in International diplomacy – (I don’t see International diplomacy – or, broadly, politics – and International relations as the same thing. The first is concerned with negotiations of power, primarily between major powers internationally, and power centres within states. The latter is broader, deeper and wider, or, it should be. The idea of International relations should be understood as relations between people across nations. The two could, in a way, be positioned in opposition to each other. More on this in a later essay.) In International diplomacy, the idea of order, at its core, is not much different from the ‘Great Chain’ I mentioned above. There is a nuance, there might be more than one chains.
One might be aware of these terms – uni-polar, bi-polar and multi-polar, and, the most interesting, anarchy. These terms refer to models of global order, and like all models, they are imagined, constructed and, more often than not, imposed. In most cases, models of global order, when proposed, are ideological. Rather than being statements of what the world is, they inform us about how the model-maker sees the world. With all respect to the scientific aspirations of the scholarship of the social, there can be no one true statement, logical, empirical or whatever, about human relations, which, after all, is what we are talking about even in discussions of global politics, albeit at the largest possible scale. That, in fact, makes social theory more problematic.
Let me stop. At this point I do not want to get into the larger debate about the possibility of a social science. My scope, and intellect, is too narrow for that. I return to the practice of model-making in International politics. The core of my argument is – since, models about the nature and configuration of International politics are presented as ‘facts’ they have a rigidifying effect on the way International diplomacy is conducted. Secondly, since there is ‘the way things are’ and the way ‘we are positioned’ in relation to those things, this ‘fact’ based conduct of International politics might then be justified as the right and the only rationally valid way of doing things. To clarify, the way International politics is configured, the position a major power occupies in that configuration, leaves a narrow range of diplomatic policy options for that state, if it wants to maintain the configuration of global order that it has committed itself to, or rather, ‘believes to exist‘. Conversely, a state that wants to change the configuration of global order that it ‘believes to exist‘, has a narrow range of options to bring about that change. And in many cases, especially when circumstances of change unfold, there is a limited ‘window of opportunity’ in terms of time for any actor to change or maintain global order.
I believe we are witnessing something of this sort in Ukraine. It began with mass movement(s) for change, emerging from within the society, however complex, of the country. Gradually, the EU was drawn in, sensing an opportunity to re-configure Ukraine towards the West. Russia sensed a threat to its perception of order, hectored for a while, then has all but invaded Ukraine. The West offers something, the East offers something. What began as a movement for re-creating the country, in the image of its people, has left in its wake a divided nation, staring at the possibility of nightmarish partition and civil war. I want to pose a question – who really broke the nation? A month or so ago, we were witnessing a sort of emergence, a spring to use an oft thrown about metaphor, of a genuine people’s vision of Ukraine, moving out of the shadow of the Cold War, into the 21st century. And now, history is back with a vengeance. The thing is – those at the top of the Great Chain, the ones who have the gold, they do all the thinking. Orders must be maintained. Gold must shine. All justifications are mere veils. Now, what matters is not Ukraine in itself, but the possibility of a new New Cold War. Again, what captures the imagination of diplomatists is the flux in global order, the end of the uni-polar moment in global politics, of the USA as a benign hegemon – whatever that is supposed to mean! – and the resurgence of Russia. Now we are talking about balance of power and a rationalization of spheres of influence. The labelling of the world – geo-labelling – is very tempting; after all by naming something one gets the feeling of control over it. It is exactly for this reason that we must be careful, critical and sceptical about descriptions of the world by those with the aura of authority. Reality is not a given, the nature of being is not cast in metal.
In the human psyche, there is an inherent fear of disorder. So, people often accept their ways of life, no matter how oppressive they might be, rather than challenge them. It is often the way to shut the door and die in the face of famine rather than raid the store-houses of the rich, as one of my teachers used to say. Disorder, or anarchy, is seen as a break in the natural way of things, an anomaly. However, if one thinks of it from a wider historical perspective, the break down of order is as important, if not more, as order. Disorder, in my view, is the key to progress. Only by doing away with the old is it possible to create the new.
The fear of disorder is to a large extent due to its association with violence. This is a valid concern. In modern democratic societies, however, we witness a sort of solution to this problem. The electoral cycle, with the formation and (peaceful) dissolution of governments is the route to peaceful progress, providing a political society periodic opportunities to re-think its present and re-orient its future. Democracy is very often, and rightly, a catch all solution to political problems. Why should it be any different when it comes to International politics?