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The Russian invasion of Ukraine as a contestation of the liberal script? - № 9: Realism put to the test: A Critical Juncture? Putin’s War and the Future of the Liberal International Order

by Thomas Risse

№ 46/2022 from Mar 28, 2022

Thomas Risse outlines what Putin’s War against Ukraine means for the Liberal International Order (LIO). He argues that the LIO has already proven more resilient than many critics have assumed. Against those who envision that we are entering a return to 19th century spheres of influence and great power politics, he argues that the defense of human rights and democracy is not a “nice to have” add-on to Western foreign policy, but a hard-nosed security policy in a geopolitical and geo-economic sense.

A longer version of this text first appeared at Internationale Politik on 24 March 2022 (in German).

With the invasion and war in Ukraine, Putin destroyed the European peace and security order

With the invasion and war in Ukraine, Putin destroyed the European peace and security order
Image Credit: Image Credit: Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine that started on 24 February 2022 marks a critical juncture for the European peace and security order and for the Liberal International Order (LIO) in general. This day will probably be of similar historical significance as 09 November 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, or 11 September 2001, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City.

When Putin ordered the Russian army to invade Ukraine, he all but destroyed the European peace and security order, as had been mutually agreed upon after the end of the Cold War and enshrined in documents and declarations such as the Paris Charter of 1990, the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, or the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1998. In fact, even the former Soviet Union had accepted the peaceful resolution of conflicts and the inviolability of European border in the famous Helsinki Final Act of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in 1975! All this appears to be gone with the aggression against Ukraine.

What does this mean for the future of the Liberal International Order? Do we witness a return to a 19th century world of spheres of influence and great power politics as a result of which liberal values such as human rights and democracy recede in the background?[1] I suggest that this will not be the case.

The LIO dates back at least to the end of World War II when its main principles were enshrined in documents such as the 1945 UN Charter, the 1944 Bretton Woods agreements, and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[2] It has been developed further in countless global and regional agreements and firmly embedded into international law. The LIO is a global order to which many countries, including from the Global South, have contributed from the beginning. The LIO consists of four pillars:[3] First, it is based on the so-called “Westphalian” order establishing the sovereign equality of states and the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs. Second, political liberalism prescribes the respect for basic human rights, the rule of law, and collective self-determination. Third, economic liberalism institutes an open and free international economic order. Fourth, liberal internationalism connotes principled or rule-based multilateralism and commitments to cooperatively solving global issues such as climate change or pandemics. Note that tensions and contradictions between the four pillars of the LIO have existed from the beginning. E.g., “Westphalian” sovereignty as non-interference is at odds with international obligations of states to respect basic human rights. Moreover, international institutions interfere deeply into the national sovereignty of states, the EU is only a most extreme example.[4]

It goes without saying that Putin’s aggression against Ukraine has violated each and every principle on which the LIO is based, even including “Westphalian” sovereignty. However, the LIO has already proven to be more resilient than many observers assumed, even prior to the war in Ukraine when many predicted the end of the Liberal International Order.

First and foremost, no matter what happens on the ground in Ukraine, Putin and his cronies have already lost – together with Russia as a whole, unfortunately. Putin’s Russia has by now become an international pariah state, as the two recent resolutions of the UN General Assembly document. Russia will remain politically, socially, and culturally isolated from the rest of the world, as long as Putin is in power. The Western sanctions exclude Russia from the liberal international economic order for years to come. Russian oil and gas might be needed in Europe and elsewhere in the short term, but Gazprom and other Russian energy companies will be cut off from the global energy markets rather sooner than later. The world will move faster toward renewable energies, which now has become a matter of security policy in addition to being a necessity to combat climate change. China (and India) will be very ill-advised if they try to undermine the sanctions regime. Last not least, if Putin’s goal was to secure a sphere of influence of “neutral” states – i.e., friendly autocracies – in Russia’s neighborhood, he has failed, too. The EU has created a membership perspective of (democratic) Ukraine – Moldova and Georgia will hopefully follow.

Second, the Western security community as a backbone of the Liberal International Order has proven to be equally resilient. One has to go back a long time in the history of the transatlantic alliance – plus Japan and Australia – to find it as united as today. The Biden administration has shown that Europe is still central to US geopolitical ambitions. As to military security, Germany has committed to complying with NATO’s 2 percent goal for defense expenditures and to rearm the Bundeswehr [German Federal Defense]. The EU has started to seriously care about (military) security.

Third, the analysis that we are in transition from the LIO to a politics of international spheres of influence is plain wrong. Why did Putin invade Ukraine, why does he apparently want to install “friendly” regimes in the Russian neighborhood? Not because of some “objective” security interests of Russia, but because democracy and human rights in the Russian neighborhood threaten Putin’s autocratic rule. Democracy and human rights are contagious. Even companies have learned in the meantime that autocracy and repression are not good for business. No wonder that many Western companies disinvest from Russia as fast as they can.

Political liberalism, a liberal international economic order, and a peace order based on multilateral institutions are interconnected and are re-enforcing each other in the LIO. This constitutes an evidence-based scientific fact, which has been known for a long time.[5] As a result, and this is the lesson of the current critical juncture, promoting human rights and democracy has nothing to do with “fair weather” policies. It is in the hard-nosed security interest of liberal democracies in a geopolitical and even geo-economic sense. In other words: Putin’s aggression against Ukraine shows once again that it makes no sense to juxtapose a “value-based” and an “interest-based” foreign policy, as many pundits will have it. Defending human rights, democracy, and the rule of law remains an urgent necessity for Western foreign policy in the 21st century. We owe it to the Ukrainian people fighting for their lives and freedom.

[1] See e.g. John Mearsheimer’s piece in the Economist, https://www.economist.com/by-invitation/2022/03/11/john-mearsheimer-on-why-the-west-is-principally-responsible-for-the-ukrainian-crisis. For an excellent reply (in German), see https://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/ist-der-westen-am-krieg-in-der-ukraine-schuld-17877706.html.

[2] See e.g. Ikenberry, G. John. 2020. A World Safe for Democracy. Liberal Internationalism and the Crises of Global Order. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[3] See Lake, David A., Lisa L. Martin, and Thomas Risse. 2021. Challenges to the Liberal Order: Reflections on International Organization. International Organization 75(2): 225-57.

[4] See Börzel, Tanja A., and Michael Zürn. 2021. Contestations of the Liberal International Order: From Liberal Multilateralism to Postnational Liberalism. International Organization 75(2): 282-305.

[5] See e.g. Russett, Bruce, and John R. Oneal. 2001. Triangulating Peace. Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations. New York - London: W. W. Norton

Last edits for this blog entry were on 27 March 2022, 6:14 p.m. CEST.

A longer version of this blog has been published in German by Internationale Politik.

Prof. Dr. Thomas Risse is Director of the Berlin International College of Research and Graduate Training (BIRT) at SCRIPTS and Professor for International Relations at the Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science (OSI) at Freie Universität Berlin.