The Return of the West?

(NOTE: a shorter version of this essay was first published in Responsible Statecraft on MARCH 29, 2022. But key passages from the original essay were deleted due to the word limit, especially some lines concerning the effects of sanctions and the unity of “the West”, which are included in this draft.)

Does Putin’s invasion of Ukraine revive the fading idea of the West, or hasten the demise of the Western-led international order?

Amitav Acharya

American University

Among its wide ranging consequences for international order, Vladimir Putin’s of Ukraine adventure, triggering sweeping Western sanctions against Russia has rekindled hopes for a revival of US leadership and Western unity in global affairs. As Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations writes “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. Writing in Slate, Lili Loofbourow notes, “Pro-Ukraine feelings in search of an organizing principle 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 in thinking of this possibility. 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, “The power of the West will grow significantly, NATO will continue to expand, and U.S. influence in the non-Western world will increase…no 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. While the Russian invasion is deeply self-injurious, instead of reviving the West’s dominance of world order, it could hasten its demise, or create a more level playing field between the West and the Rest

The Ukraine conflict shows that Europe is no longer immune to major conflict, as it was during much of the Cold War. There is now a major war at the heart of Europe. The idea of the West as peaceful as well as prosperous has taken a beating.

The conflict also demonstrates that there is nothing special about European values or European approaches to institution-building and stability that is fail-proof or protects it from disorder. There was once much enthusiasm about Europe’s concepts such as “common security”, pan-European identity, or “European common home”, articulated by the Palme Commission in 1982 and promoted by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as the Cold War ended. US presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton endorsed the vision of a Europe that is “whole, free and at peace”. Today, Europe is neither whole, nor free nor at peace. As The Economist magazine noted on 4th March 2022, “As much as the war’s reverberations are felt around the world, though, they sound most strongly in Europe. The invasion has upended the idea of a continent “whole, free and at peace”.

The implication is that European values, no matter how noble they may seem, are not universally shared, even without the larger European region. Instead, if pursued dogmatically, without regard to the interests and identities of others, they could cause conflict.

Second, the war in Ukraine if not resolved soon, will cost both Russia and the US dearly. While Russia reels from unprecedented sanctions, the US and the West will not go unscathed due to the interdependent nature of the global economy. Russia’s role as supplier of energy and critical minerals is not trivial, and they have already forced the US to look for support from such adversaries as Venezuela. This cannot be high point for America’s moral standing in the world.

Furthermore, the freezing of Russia’s assets, coming on the heels of those of Afghanistan after the return of Taliban, would send chills to those who keep their reserves in the US, such as China, who would consider reducing their holdings and developing alternatives financial arrangements. This would not be easy, but bilateral arrangements such as those between China and Russia may well dent the global dollar hegemony. 

As columnist Fareed Zakaria wrote commenting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine: “One of the defining features of the new era is that it is post-American. By that I mean that the Pax Americana of the past three decades is over.” Zakaria himself had written about the “post-American world” in 2008, but this was mainly about the rise of other powers relative to others. He had until now refused to accept the end of the liberal international order the US had built. In reality, as this author had argued in 2014, the US-led world order was in peril. The Ukraine conflict puts another nail on its coffin.

The Ukraine conflict may revive NATO, but that also means raising Europe’s defence burden, with Germany taking the lead with a major increase in its defense spending. This would dissipate Europe’s economic resilience. Higher energy prices would further stoke inflation, including in the West undermining post-pandemic recovery.

The Ukraine conflict confronts the US, the leader of the West, with a two front war; with Russia and China more closely aligned than at any point since the 1950s. The only difference is that this time, China’s is the senior partner, in terms of wealth while also being a significant nuclear power. And China is a much more comprehensive adversary of the US than an economically anemic and isolated Soviet Union. The Ukraine crisis may undermine if not reverse Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy which had built on Obama’s pivot to Asia and Trump’s considerable investment on the Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogues (QUAD), which would be seriously compromised if the US was to retaliate against India’s purchase of Russian air defense missiles or its refusal to condemn the UN General Assembly resolution against Russia of 2 March, 2022.

Moreover, while condemning Putin’s aggression, the developing countries are not necessarily supporting the revival of the US-led liberal order. Aside from the fact that China, India and South Africa abstained on the UN General Assembly vote on 2 March condemning Russia, among African countries, voting on that resolution was 28 in favor with 17 abstentions.

The sweeping sanctions on Russia, which was criticized by Brazil despite having voted for the UNGA resolution, remind developing nations of the coercive economic power of the West, which may be used against them if they stray from Western interests and expectations. African and Middle Eastern opinion also points to the harsh treatment of refugees from these regions in Eastern Europe, including on the Ukrainian border. Then there is the issue of the West’s own record of military intervention. As Gilles Yabi, the founder of WATHI, a “citizen Think Tank” in Senegal, notes, “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.” This shows attempts by Western policymakers and analysts to reject any moral equivalence between Russian and US/NATO interventions, are not entirely convincing in the non-Western world.

Some non-Western countries also resent the pressure from the West, as revealed in then Pakistani premier Imran Khan’s “are we your slaves” outburst in March when confronted with a missive from Western ambassadors to condemn Russia. 

One of the rays of hope amidst the gloom of the Ukraine crisis must be noted. It is not a “clash of civilizations”. In fact, the late Samuel Huntington, who coined that phrase, had written in his 1996 book, “If civilization is what counts, violence between Ukrainians and Russians is unlikely.”

Of course, violence has now taken place, but it is not due to a civilizational clash. Russia’s grievance against the West (real or imagined), Putin’s miscalculation of Ukrainian resistance, and the geopolitics of NATO expansion, are more important factors behind the conflict, which Huntington’s thesis had underestimated. Indeed, condemnation of Russia’s invasion cuts across cultures and continents: including Islamic Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia, Buddhist Thailand and Cambodia, Catholic Philippines and Brazil and Christian-Muslim Nigeria. 

For the same reason, the Ukraine conflict does not imply a global breakdown of norms against war and imperialism. The nations that abstained on the UNGA resolution, such as India and South Africa, for their own reasons of national interest, have not endorsed Putin’s action. In short, the Ukraine conflict paradoxically highlights the importance of global norms against aggression and conquest, which is not surprising, since as I have argued elsewhere, those norms were not the West’s unique creation, but were crafted jointly by the West and the Rest.

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