It is frequently pointed out today that nations are dividing into competitive geopolitical blocs. However, this observation requires some clarification. It is not enough to say that this is taking place or even that the blocs—which are identifiable by geography, function, or a combination of both—intersect rather than strictly oppose other blocs. It must be understood how and therefore why they do those things.
There is another concept that may help further this understanding: regime. The French term refers not only to the structure and exercise of power—as in the ancien régime—but also, as it is more commonly understood today, to a system of norms, influences, obligations, and expectations. Nuclear nonproliferation, trade and investment, migration, and maritime affairs regimes were an important component of the international order during the last century when empires gave way to nations and, by the second half of the twentieth century, became the most important component of peaceful relations.
Regimes determine the behavior of governments toward one another and toward their own people. Regimes favor cooperation over competition and, ultimately, regimes transform geopolitical boundaries into peaceful economic and political borderlands designed to enhance mutual prosperity. This happens because consultations between governments create norms and expectations that act as a set of rules about how states within a system are expected to behave. A minimal level of institution-building can achieve this if consistency is attained by the governments of major powers and only if enlarging the scope of mutual interests beyond opposition to a common enemy takes place.
It is easy to conclude that, for the most part, this is not happening today. Boundaries, including physical walls, are emerging along many borders. Some of the most basic positive norms of international comity—bank reciprocity, for example, which was widespread even before the twentieth century—are breaking down or being replaced by negative ones. The blocs that are emerging from this state of disorder assert themselves as exclusive, closed, and possibly autarkic. They are the antithesis of a regime.
There have been similar devolutions in the past: Greece in the fifth century BC, Europe in the 1930s and again in the 1950s, and the Third World from the 1960s to the 1980s. But aside from war, either hot or cold, what options are available to nations or blocs where deep mutual hostility has become the norm? Surprisingly few, it seems.
Keeping blocs together and retaining the necessary degree of public support within democratic nations requires arguments that, as U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson once said, are “clearer than truth.” Embarking on negotiations to extricate blocs or nations from a war or crisis inevitably involves appeals to common unity, especially among democratic nations. For this reason, President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted on unconditional surrender as the only basis for ending World War ll. The same problem has appeared recently in the Russo-Ukrainian War. Maintaining the prestige of the bloc rapidly becomes an end in itself.
In an era when multiple nations possess nuclear weapons, including four that are now involved in the war in Ukraine, it would be wise to give serious thought to war aims and how democratic blocs go about ending wars. A study of how to limit and end wars in the nuclear era was not undertaken by the United States government until 1963, eighteen years after nuclear weapons were first used by the United States. With nine nations now in possession of nuclear weapons stockpiles, perhaps it is time for another review.
It is certainly worthwhile to carefully examine the channels that are open to blocs like NATO and the European Union (EU) and the conditions under which those channels should be exercised. Channels that have been used so far in Ukraine include the United Nations secretary-general and the leaders of several European nations. Leaders of the European Union’s international secretariat have been involved from time to time. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has offered diplomatic assistance to Ukraine, a member state, and had based a long-term mission in Ukraine before the war. Direct negotiations between Russia and Ukraine were conducted early in the war but discontinued. Negotiations to permit the resumption of grain shipments through the Black Sea were brokered with Russia and Ukraine by the United Nations (UN) secretary-general and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. To date, these talks have been the most productive.
Is this failure by the parties to communicate effectively an inherent problem for multilateral organizations and their efforts to supersede blocs? Probably not, although clearly during the wars in which the United States was the leading actor—Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan—managing talks between the opposing sides were not as difficult as they appear to be in the Russo-Ukrainian War. It is very likely that councils of war exist at some high level in NATO and the EU that are kept secret from the public. If not, there should be because the need for a more coherent approach to war management and termination is evident at this stage of the conflict. The Western bloc is not useful if it does not look after the interests of all of its members.
Nonetheless, intra and inter-bloc diplomacy, to the extent it now exists at all, would appear to offer little hope. But it helps to remember that blocs are dynamic organic bodies that continue to evolve and might take on the traits of a regime. Here are four propositions relating to how and why that may happen.
1. Today there appear to be two mega blocs led by the United States and China, as well as several mini-blocs, but the reality is more complicated. The China-Russia bloc has shown dynamism thanks to China but both systems are brittle. Neither major bloc has institutionalized its competition with the other, leaving the process in the hands of personalities, particularly heads of state as well as policy entrepreneurs within and sometimes outside of state bureaucracies.
2. Blocs, even small blocs, tend to suffer from internal divisions. The challenge for members of the bloc and for non-members seeking entry is to resist the attempts of other non-members to take advantage of those divisions.
3. Blocs compete externally but they also engage in their own related but separate competition. A regime may emerge from a bloc; a bloc comes about in the absence or decline of a regime.
4. A regime emerges from a bloc mainly from a bloc’s expansion and institutionalization. Without the latter, the bloc becomes a reactionary and, ultimately, hostile actor.
These four propositions have the following implication for foreign policy: So long as they are not openly hostile, the development of blocs should be encouraged by major powers so that the blocs develop to resemble regimes. Regimes, in turn, favor the harmony and prosperity of their members and peace with outsiders. A model of this development is the European Union. Already blocs like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) have started to become more institutionalized and, at the same time, declaring themselves open to as many as a half-dozen new members, mostly middle-income nations that are already part of several other groupings. Should that continue to happen, a functional harmonization of standards and practices will almost certainly need to take place among blocs.
The process of transitioning from a bloc to a regime is too self-conscious to be called natural but it is occurring nonetheless. For example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which was established for Central Asian countries in part to draw a distinction with non-Eurasian powers, has already entered into discussions about becoming a more general economic unit with common standards and policies for trade and investment. Like BRICS, the SCO has also broadened its institutional dialogue with other groups such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
This is how norms multiply and regimes are re-established. So do not fear today’s proliferation of blocs. The world must learn to live with them and to encourage the growth of positive regimes that may yet evolve from them.
James E. Goodby is a former U.S. ambassador to Finland and former head of the U.S. delegation to the Stockholm Conference on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures and Disarmament in Europe.
Ken Weisbrode is a writer and historian.