from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Russia Assaults Ukraine—and the Liberal World Order

August 28, 2014

Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, speaks to the media on August 28, 201...ussian soldiers, on leave from their posts, are fighting Ukrainian troops alongside pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine.
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Accummulating reports that more than a thousand Russian troops are now engaged in combat in eastern Ukraine signals the definitive end of the “post-Cold War” world. That phrase, which framed a quarter century in terms of what it was not, was never a felicitous one. But it did come to suggest a new era in which great power frictions were in abeyance, as the focus of world politics shifted to the management of global interdependence, the integration of emerging economies, the disciplining of rogue states, the quarantining of failed ones, and (after 9/11) the interdiction and elimination of non-state terrorist actors.

Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, however disingenuously denied and creatively concealed, constitutes a frontal assault on the liberal international order that the United States and its Western allies have done so much to promote and build. It represents—along with Chinese assertiveness in East Asia—the resurgence of a more primitive form of power politics. The Wilsonian dream of a gradually but inexorably expanding liberal world order based on the international rule of law—a hope shared alike by George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, each in their own way—will need to wait.

For liberal internationalists, this is a bitter pill to swallow—or even to accept. “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext,” Secretary of State John Kerry fulminated on CBS’s Face the Nation back in March. Ah, but you do, if you happen to have a mindset more in keeping with Otto von Bismarck than Woodrow Wilson (to say nothing of Barack Obama).

The unfortunate truth is that unless and until a new, truly democratic regime emerges in Moscow (as well as Beijing), we are likely to see more naked assertions of power politics than we have experienced since 1989. This will not be a return to the Cold War—a point worth underlining. Neither Russia nor even China (whose leaders long ago abandoned the communist vanguard for the pursuit of profit) offer universalist ideologies capable of competing with free market capitalism. We are not in a “revolutionary” period of world politics, in Kissinger’s terms, in which a radical power—think revolutionary France, Leninist Russia, or Maoist China—pursues (at least for a while) dreams of world revolution. But if history as serious ideological competition is still “over”—as Francis Fukuyama claimed in 1989—history as geopolitical competition marches on. And the implications for world order are profound.

As this blog previously noted, Russia’s seizure of Crimea and now its further incursions into Ukraine challenge established norms of the liberal world order. These include:

  • the principle of sovereignty: Russia’s military assault on Ukranian territory infringes on the fundamental norm of nonintervention at the heart of the UN Charter
  • the sanctity of borders: Moscow’s intervention likewise violates the norm that no international border can be altered by force or without the expressed consent of the inhabitants, as determined by pacific processes
  • the illegitimacy of spheres of influence: Russia’s actions and Putin’s rhetoric are redolent of a nineteenth century view that great powers are entitled to special privileges in weaker, neighboring states
  • the supremacy of citizenship over ethnicity: Putin’s claims to be defending Russian “compatriots” elevate linguistic and ethnic identity above citizenship and, were it to become an accepted political principle, would result in the disintegration of multiethnic countries worldwide

It is this rejection of fundamental norms of international order that lends global significance to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The world is not headed for another Cold War, it risks regressing to an era more red in tooth and claw.The priority for policymakers in Washington will be to cling to as much of the substance of Western liberal order as possible, while carefully managing its rising frictions and differences with Russia and China.

There are historical precedents for such a period of great power rivalry—and how to handle it. At the risk of self-promotion, let me quote a passage from an article I wrote for the November/December 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs:

In the twenty-first century, the normative foundations for multilateral cooperation will be weaker. An imperfect historical parallel might be the Concert of Europe of the early 1800s. That arrangement leavened the traditional balance of power with a balance of rights, which helped bridge differences between the Western powers (France and the United Kingdom) and the authoritarian monarchies (Austria, Prussia, and Russia) of the Holy Alliance. Global cooperation today may follow a similar logic. The United States might need to pay less attention to regime type and tolerate nations in which democracy is lacking or absent…. Accommodating new powers while retaining as much of the old order as possible will be a constant balancing act, much like the Concert of Europe was two centuries ago.

This new era will not be easy for the United States to navigate, given a national political culture prone to dichotomizing other nations (and their leaders) into categories of good and evil. It will require pragmatism and the ability to compartmentalize—castigating and standing up to thugs on some occasions (as when they invade sovereign nations), while collaborating with them where necessary (on Iran’s nuclear program, for instance). And like the strategy of containment before it, it will require patience, and the biding of time.