- By Jamie Shea
Russia’s jarring invasion of Ukraine has presented the West with a difficult question for the first time since the end of the Cold War: how can the West respond to authoritarian regimes with imperialist designs?
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West has underwritten a security order that has sought to rein in the medieval imperialist impulses of rogue regimes and contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In 1992, in fact, Ukraine itself had transferred its nuclear weapons to Moscow in exchange for a guarantee that its sovereignty would be respected. Several other US allies were brought under Washington’s protective umbrella, and America’s global military presence served to uphold a balance of power in different parts of the world, which resulted in a steep decline in wars between countries.
Much of this is now being upended by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine.
It’s not like the West was caught off guard. For months, Washington had warned of a potential Russian invasion, even dispatching envoys to European capitals to convince sceptical allies. Yet, crucially, the US took itself out of the fight even before it began, by publicly declaring that it will not militarily confront Russia on behalf of a non-NATO member.
This is a far cry from the world that had existed at the end of the Cold War
That was less of a strategic call and more of a political decision. Washington was already preoccupied by spiralling inflation at home, and beset by the war-weariness that had started in Iraq and hit new lows after Afghanistan. But uncertainty is a deterrent and America’s early abandonment of Ukraine encouraged Putin to calculate that he could undertake a relatively easy military operation, as in Crimea in 2014 and Georgia in 2008.
Some analysts have argued that Putin’s aggression has helped crystallise the transatlantic partnership, which the Trump administration had left in ruins. That is a fair case to make seeing as NATO has now rediscovered its military purpose, a traditionally pacifist Germany has vowed to spend over $100bn on defence, and Putin may likely leave NATO members unharmed for fear of pulling the US into the fight.
But outside the NATO member states, the world already looks different. In Asia, for instance, countries that are fearful of Chinese aggression are becoming progressively less secure. According to a recent poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, over 70% of South Koreans want their country to develop nuclear weapons, regardless of its drawbacks. Meanwhile, India has long felt that it can’t afford to stand up to China because it will have to deal with Chinese reprisals alone.
In ways both good and bad, this is a far cry from the world that had existed at the end of the Cold War. Back then, US military presence upheld a tenuous balance of power despite the ubiquity of border disputes — at least enough to discourage countries from invading one another. As a result, while about a million people died from wars between nation states in the 1950s, that figure has been almost nil since the start of the millennium. But on the flip side, America’s pre-eminence held the potential for hubris and overreach, which resulted in the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
US Democrats and Republicans broadly agree that their country’s militarism has run its course
When the global recession hit close on the heels of the Bush administration’s floundering and never-ending wars, Washington began to reverse course. Under Trump, the very raison d’être of the security architecture that Washington had underwritten was under question, with the White House asking allies to pay for their own defence.
For all their differences, US Democrats and Republicans broadly agree that their country’s militarism has run its course. But in order to make up for this retreat, the West has tried to use sanctions as a tool for deterrence. So far, that strategy has not only failed to deter aggression but has also proved counterproductive.
In response to being cut off financially by the West, China and Russia are already building a parallel world of their own, with a separate internet, economy and financial system. In recent years, the two countries have increasingly been looking to settle their trade in their own currencies in an attempt to reduce exposure to the dollar. In the first half of 2021, about 28% of China’s exports to Russia were based on the renminbi — up from just 2% in 2013, according to Reuters. Meanwhile, China has been diversifying its foreign exchange reserves and buying gold.
If the West seeks to preserve these norms, it has no choice but to initiate frequent and purposeful dialogue
Even allies of the West, such as India, have been reluctant to act against Russia. Early this week, New Delhi signalled that it intends to profit off of Russian fuel, made cheaper by Western sanctions.
The problem with sanctions is not only that they have a spotty record in changing the behaviour of regimes, but also that they progressively diminish the economic leverage that the West enjoys over those regimes, as they get increasingly disconnected.
In an increasingly multipolar world, the rise of non-Western powers, such as China and India, is diluting the post-Cold War world order that had resulted in relative peace and widespread globalisation. If the West seeks to preserve these norms, it has no choice but to initiate frequent and purposeful dialogue at all levels — especially engaging with civil society actors in the non-Western world — to build global consensus on the emerging world order.
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