The idea that the international order is stronger than ever is not shared by those often on the receiving end of its coercive tactics.
Amitav Acharya, Responsible Statecraft, MARCH 29, 2022
Among its wide ranging consequences for international order, Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion and its triggering of sweeping Western sanctions against Russia have spurred hopes for a revival of U.S. leadership and Western unity in global affairs.
As Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations has written, “In one fateful step, the Russian president has managed to revive Western solidarity, reenergize U.S. global leadership, catalyze European integration, expose Russia’s weaknesses, undermine Moscow’s alliance with Beijing, and make his authoritarian imitators look foolish.”
Putin has given the idea of “the West” a fresh lease of life, at least in Western societies. “Pro-Ukraine feelings in search of an organizing principle,” according to Slate’s Lili Loofbourow, are coalescing around a category of identification that hasn’t enjoyed real, popular international relevance in a good long while: ‘the West’—a category Vladimir Putin has long railed against, but which Westerners themselves haven’t, at least in recent years, claimed with much personal attachment or ideological loyalty.”
But Western analysts are not alone their assessment of a possible Western revival. From China, Hu Wei, vice-chairman of the Public Policy Research Center of the Counselor’s Office of the State Council, expects that as a result of the Ukraine crisis, “[t]he power of the West will grow significantly, NATO will continue to expand, and U.S. influence in the non-Western world will increase…[N]o matter how Russia achieves its political transformation, it will greatly weaken the anti-Western forces in the world… The West will possess more “hegemony” both in terms of military power and in terms of values and institutions, its hard power and soft power will reach new heights.”
Not so fast. There is another school of thought, that while the Russian invasion is deeply self-injurious, it could hasten the West’s decline, or at least create a more level playing field between the West and the Rest when it comes to moral leadership of the international order.
“One of the defining features of the new era is that it is post-American,” charged Fareed Zakaria after the invasion was launched. “By that I mean that the Pax Americana of the past three decades is over.” Zakaria himself had written about a “post-American world” since at least the 2008 financial crisis, but he was referring then to the rise of other powers relative to the U.S. Until now, he had refused to accept the breakup of the post-1945 U.S.-built liberal international order. In reality, as this author argued in 2014, the U.S.-led global system had been moving toward life support. And the Ukraine conflict has moved it closer to pulling the plug.
Aside from the fact that China, India, and South Africa abstained on the U.N. General Assembly vote on March 2 condemning Russia, those developing countries that voted in favor of the resolution were not, by doing so, voicing their support for the revival of this U.S.-led order. Among sub-Saharan countries, for example, voting on that resolution was 28 in favor with 17 abstentions.
At the same time, no matter how much Western leaders may dislike the term, “moral equivalence” between Russian invasion and past U.S. interventions is being drawn. To cite Amin Saikal, an Afghan-Australian scholar and a leading authority on Middle East: in invading Ukraine, “President Vladimir Putin has deftly observed and exploited the past misdeeds and current limitations of the United States…The Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan fiascos are a powerful reminder of the moral lapses and human tragedies that the U.S. and some of its allies were responsible for in those countries.”
In other words, it is not entirely inconsistent for the “Global South” to both condemn the Russian invasion on principle and express criticisms of Western “internationalism” and its double standards.
The sweeping sanctions on Russia, which were criticized by Brazil despite having voted for the resolution, remind developing nations of the coercive economic power of the West, which may be — and has been used — against them if they fail to protect or uphold Western interests and expectations.
African and Middle Eastern governments and media have also pointed to the harsh treatment of refugees from their own regions in Eastern Europe, including on the Ukrainian border, not to mention the issue of the West’s own record of military intervention. As Gilles Yabi, the founder of WATHI, a “citizen think tank” in Senegal, noted, “In Africa, we are… stunned by this invasion of Ukraine by Russia… This is unjustifiable, as were the interventions of the United States and NATO in many countries, sometimes under false pretenses and in flagrant violation of international law.”
The attempts by Western policymakers and analysts to reject any moral equivalence between Russian and U.S./NATO interventions are not entirely convincing to the non-Western world.
Some non-Western countries also resent the pressure from the West, as revealed in Pakistani premier Imran Khan’s “are we your slaves” outburst in March when confronted with a missive from Western ambassadors urging Islamabad to unequivocally condemn Russia’s invasion.
Much depends on whether the Ukraine conflict ends with the humiliating defeat of Russia or the collapse of European and Western unity. But a war at the heart of Europe that has already taken a terrible toll in human lives and inflicted major damage on both Ukraine and Russia is not a glowing advertisement for the approach to regional and international order that the West had envisaged. It shows the limits and dangers of the post-Cold War European project of continental peace and stability.
For background, as the Cold War ended, European concepts such as “common security,” pan-European identity, or “European common home,” as articulated by the Palme Commission in 1982 and promoted by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, drew global attention. U.S. presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton enthused about the vision of a Europe that is “whole, free and at peace.”
But as the Economist magazine noted earlier this month, “As much as the war’s reverberations are felt around the world…[it] has upended the idea of a continent “whole, free and at peace.” With this the idea of Europe (and the West) as a model of conflict management for other regions such as Southeast Asia, Africa, or Latin America, takes a beating.
In its most recent Strategic Compass issued on 22 March, the EU reminded of it being “a consistent leader investing in effective multilateral solutions,” of its “crisis management missions and operations operating on three continents” and its “global security responsibilities.” But if Europe cannot put its own house in order, how can it be taken seriously as a conflict manager outside.
Finally, while a debate rages over whether Putin’s imperial ambition or the threat posed by NATO expansion was responsible for the Ukraine invasion, it is also clear that many Western policy-makers, including George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, former Defense Secretaries William Perry and Robert Gates, and current CIA Director William Burns, had warned against the latter. That such warnings went unheeded not only smacks of America’s geopolitical arrogance or incompetence, or both, it also reminds the world of the perils of the U.S. entanglements in security alliances in general.