Where to now, the “world order”?

Helena Cobban Blog, Russia, Ukraine, United Nations

(Cross-posted from my personal blog, “Just World News)

By launching a broad military campaign against Ukraine today, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has also launched a strong assault against the norms of the sovereignty-based “world order” that has been in place since 1945– or even, one might say, since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

Of course, the post-1945 order has been majorly contravened by numerous other powers over the past 77 years, most notably in 2003 when the United States used a phony pretext to invade Iraq and– foreshadowing Putin’s probable goal in Ukraine?– to topple and replace its leader. Washington and other Western powers have violated international norms many other times since 1945. (Suez crisis, anyone? Bay of Pigs? Overthrow of Allende?) Washington has also for many decades now given full-throated or more covert support to numerous illegal acts undertaken by Israel– against Lebanon, Syria, Iran, the Palestinians, and others.

In Fall 2004, the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stated clearly that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had been “an illegal act that violated the UN Charter.” It also brought untold misery to that country’s 25 million people and their neighbors. But U.S. President George W. Bush was never held accountable for that catastrophic crime of aggression by any bodies, domestic or international. The total impunity he has enjoyed since 2003 has left a deep, lasting scar on the post-1945 order.

So now, the Russian military is assaulting Ukraine, reportedly hitting the capital Kyiv, Odessa, and other locations in the eastern two-thirds of the country. Ukraine is not a member of NATO. No active-duty U.S. military forces are located there, so the risk of a direct confrontation between nuclear-armed superpowers is for now small. Pres. Joe Biden is probably right now, as I write this, laying out in detail the nature of the “swift and severe” sanctions that he will now, as previously promised, impose on Russia.

The big questions that everyone concerned about global peace and security should be asking now are:

  1. How can this assault be ended in a way that minimizes the suffering, does not threaten a re-eruption of violence, and assures a decent working relationship going forward for all the peoples of that region?
  2. How can the world’s nations now craft a workable arrangement for governing world affairs that is much more robust than the deeply dented post-1945 order, and that can most effectively help the world’s peoples meet the existential challenges of nuclear war and climate change that our species now faces?

The post-1945 order had its strengths, as well as weaknesses. It did provide a framework in which the big post-1945 struggle for power in Europe– that between the USSR and the United States– could be regulated, mediated (through a raft of “arms control” agreements), and finally dialed down in a peaceful manner. However, that managing of the Cold War between Washington and Moscow was achieved in part at the cost of allowing and inflaming a host of “smaller” wars in the global South that inflicted long-lasting harms on the peoples of Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, the Middle East, and many African nations.

The post-1945 order officially “encouraged” and in many cases even supported the dismantling of the sprawling global empires run by Britain and France– and that, though both those powers enjoyed veto power on the U.N. Security Council. But the promise of decolonization often bumped up against the continued ability of the colonial powers to wield economic control over their former colonies, and the issue of accountability or reparations for the preceding centuries of colonial plundering was never even raised.

But now, 77 years after the Allied victories in Europe and Asia and the concomitant founding of the United Nations, the post-1945 order is showing its age. The veto system in the Security Council is a relic of the Western imperial era– more redolent of the 1885 Congress of Berlin that simply sliced the whole of Africa up among the various European powers than of any arrangement built on the principle of human equality.

Moreover, the fact that the set of nations wielding vetoes rapidly became coterminous with the set of the world’s “recognized” nuclear-weapons powers has had the continuing effect of valorizing the possession of nuclear arsenals.

In the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement of 1970, those powers and the treaty’s 185 other signatories all promised “to pursue good-faith negotiations on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race, to nuclear disarmament, and to general and complete disarmament.” During the 1960s and 1970s, the United States and the former USSR did reach a number of agreements that curbed their nuclear arms race, and brought about a degree of nuclear disarmament. But neither they nor any of the other three nuclear-weapons states (Britain, France, China) ever reached agreement on the required complete disarmament of either their nuclear or their “conventional” forces.

Indeed, the situation regarding global armament/disarmament deteriorated badly in the decades after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1998, both India and Pakistan conducted very visible nuclear tests, joining Israel as the de-facto owners of nearly launch-ready nuclear arsenals. Then, in 2002, Pres. G. W. Bush unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which had been a bedrock of the whole arms control regime throughout the Cold War with Russia; and in 2019, Pres. Trump took the U.S. out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which had been a crucial underpinning of the strategic stability of Europe during the Cold War.

We have heard a lot recently about the ill-thought-through decisions taken by Pres. Clinton and his successors to expand NATO ever further east toward Russia’s borders, in the two decades after 1991. We need to understand that Pres. Putin and probably many Russians viewed those steps as very threatening. And they have viewed Washington’s dismantling of many of the pillars of Cold War strategic stability with similar alarm– as Pres. Putin has underlined in all the declarations he has made since last December. It seems clear that for him the present conflict over Ukraine is not only about Ukraine, but about reaching a strategic situation in the whole of Europe that is less threatening to Russia, and more like a reinstatement of some of the negotiated arrangements that existed during the latter half of the Cold War.

But in 2022, the strategic stability– or should I say, the survival– of the world is no longer determined only by the armaments/strategic situation in Europe. There are now two other big new players in the international game. One is China; and the other is a form of global soft power that is gathered mostly (though not wholly) around the challenge of the climate crisis.

Today, China’s capabilities and raw power have a huge impact on the Russia-NATO balance in Europe, making this balance very different from anything the world saw during the pre-1989 Cold War. One example: Bankers and fin-tech experts from China and Russia have been hard at work for some years now, trying to devise a way for their countries and others on the U.S. sanctions list to conduct international trade while bypassing the the US-dominated SWIFT system. If Washington’s upcoming sanctions on Russia are as severe as has been promised, then doubtless those counter-SWIFT efforts will be accelerated; and when a non-SWIFT means of payment emerges, that will bring a much broader swing away from the dollar’s current primacy in global finance.

It has been widely noted that China is traversing a complex tightrope on the Ukraine crisis. Pres. Xi Jinping has demonstrated effusive public support for Putin, most notably at the opening of the recent Winter Olympics in Beijing. And he must be delighted to see so much U.S. military attention being turned toward Europe these days, rather than to the South China Sea and its shores.

But he and other CCP leaders are also wary of Putin’s support for secessionary entities, whether in Ukraine or, earlier, in Georgia or Moldova. (Who was it who described Xi’s China as “the best support for the Westphalian system”?) And they may well welcome some slowing of the economic/tech decoupling from the U.S. that Washington has been hellbent on since the Trump era.

Indeed, it is quite possible that Chinese diplomacy might have a distinctive role to play in limiting and then finally de-escalating all the current (extremely harmful) Sturm und Drang over Ukraine. Let us see.

As for the other big new player I mentioned above, a form of global soft power gathered mostly (though not wholly) around the issue of climate change, I am not sure I would classify this yet as another “big global force” on the order of US/NATO, China, or Russia. But it is clearly a significant emerging force. It is enabled by the myriad new forms of global communications that have emerged since 2000, which can be molded or steered by governments or other coercive entities but never today silenced as completely as was possible during the Cold War.

This “global soft power” might well become highly mobilized by some of the sequelae of the Ukraine crisis. Gas prices in the west will almost certainly continue to rise; but why are Western economies still so dependent on carbon-emitting fossil fuels, anyway? Major military action, in Ukraine as in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Vietnam, will lead to ecological disasters; and the world’s militaries– with the U.S. military clearly leading the pack!– are themselves major emitters of CO2.

But above all, in a world in which large military blocs are confronting each other yet again, how can the goals of the global climate-change movement ever be successfully pursued?

So yes, in 2022, we are entering a new global era. It is one in which many of the arrogant, unilateralist practices that successive U.S. leaders had lazily fallen into in the decades since 1991– simply “because they could”– will need to be curbed, or reversed. There is no way the West can “win” the current conflict over Ukraine. It can minimize the harm suffered by Ukraine’s people(s); and this will best be accomplished through intensive diplomacy that builds on and reinforces some of the strongest of the principles on which the U.N. was founded. But make no mistake: reform of the U.N. itself and the institution of some very real forms of accountability in the conduct of international affairs should also be on the agenda.


The banner image above, by Mark Garten for the UN, is a scene from the session the UN Security Council held late at night yesterday (February 23), on Ukraine. It shows the UN Secretary General at left and Russia’s ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia at right. Nebenzia is this month’s President of the Security Council.