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The Russian invasion of Ukraine as a contestation of the liberal script? - № 14: The War in Ukraine and Global Order

by Andrew Hurrell

№ 51/2022 from Apr 19, 2022

What are the implications of the war in Ukraine for the global order? The contours of the order emerging from this war are still hard to discern but, as Andrew Hurrell argues, it is not best understood in terms of a neat cleavage between liberal democracies on the one hand and authoritarian states and regimes on the other.


Image Credit: Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

War has long been constitutive of modern politics and of practices of global order. All wars are inherently unpredictable; modern technology has not lifted the fog of war; and the dynamics of conflict lead to shifting aims and justifications and ever escalating rhetoric. As Lenin argued, war is also the locomotive of history and history does indeed appear to have accelerated dramatically over the course of this current war. But what we are seeing is in fact the breaking to the surface of developments that have been gathering pace over the past twenty years.

Two competing visions of security

Most immediately the war has its origins in the desire of President Vladimir Putin to reassert control of ‘his’ near-abroad and the pattern of behaviour that runs from Georgia in 2008 to Crimea in 2014 and again to Ukraine today. But the backdrop was a deep clash between two visions of security: the one believing that modern and successful societies would become poles of attraction rather than of threat -- but, in the process, often evading difficult questions of borders and boundaries and of insiders and outsiders. And the other staying true to an older practice that sees security precisely in terms of borders, spheres and balances of power -- but evading the reality that modern societies cannot be coerced by outsiders into either particular domestic regimes or external alignments. This division in part tracks the division between liberal democracy and authoritarianism but is not reducible to it. Whatever the outcome of the conflict on the ground, any settlement will have to find an uncertain and shifting balance between these two conceptions of security and social change.

The West is united in this war, but remains fragile

Second, and to shift metaphors, conflict can appear as a flash of lightning that illuminates the landscape and reveals the true nature of contemporary events. There is no shortage of such claims: that we see revealed in the demonic and irrational character of Putin himself, apparently divorced from his own society and trapped within his own version of history; or that we should now recognize the absolute divide between liberal democracy and autocracy. Of course, the defence of Ukrainian self-determination and the alleviation of the atrocious human suffering unleashed by the war are fundamental goals. But the idea of a world neatly divided in a struggle between democracies and autocracies is both factually wrong and likely to prove counterproductive. Yes, the transatlantic West has come together in impressive ways and there are already those talking of the reassertion of the West, and even of Western hegemony – as happened successfully in the period from the 1970s. But the West remains fragile, especially in terms of US domestic politics.

And the broader global diffusion of power and political agency has not been reversed. Europe’s recently acquired position as a secondary region in the global capitalist and geopolitical systems has not been altered by the war. In many parts of the Global South – including in leading democratic states -- there is a broad unwillingness simply to follow the US and European lead. Sometimes this follows from specific national interest – as with India’s reliance on Russian arms sales. But it also follows from broader divergences, especially between North and South on issues from climate change, to technology transfer, to ideas of global justice; from the belief that this is not ‘our war’; from a strong and persistent distaste for the failings and hypocrisy of the ‘global liberal order’; from a desire for autonomy and even a new non-alignment; and from the powerful sense that we are indeed living in a post-western world. Securing a stable order in the 21st century is a global and not merely a transatlantic enterprise.

Neoliberal globalisation will not return

Thirdly, there is the politicization of economic globalization. Geopolitics has always shaped the trajectory of globalization, and both COVID and the worsening of US-China relations had already intensified economic nationalism and economic rivalry. Economic sanctions have taken these to a new level. Given the well-known limits to what sanctions can achieve but given, too, the absence of alternatives, western countries have found themselves having to escalate the range, depth and density of sanctions. These measures can only work if the sanctioning societies are themselves willing to bear very significant costs and, to be truly effective, they take us very close to something like economic war. But, once over, it will be far from easy to switch worldwide globalization back on once trade, investment, and other ties have been disrupted and so heavily politicized and securitized.

Moreover, if it is to be stable, any form of deglobalization needs to involve extensive and intrusive legal and institutional regulation – despite what the new sovereigntists and those wanting to ‘take back control’ might say or think. A conflict of this kind and the vastly increased role of sanctions and other economic measures can only be managed by an explicit focus on broad political understandings on the one hand – for example about traditional notions of intervention/non-intervention and relative gains -- and on the immensely detailed and technical regulation that is the hallmark of modern economic governance on the other. But the likelihood of a return to the neoliberal status quo ante is almost zero.

A nuclear world needs a shared language between its opponents

Are there any grounds for optimism? Yes, albeit thin and fragile.

First, the war has to teach us – the global we -- again about the deadly realities of living in a nuclear world, but one in which technological change has made the political and technical conditions of stability far harder than during the Cold War.   But the apparent clarity of a moment in time can obscure the reality of moment through time. The period from the autumn of 1945 to the early summer of 1946 saw the crystallization on both sides of perceptions of what the Cold War was ‘really’ about, with Kennan’s telegram [1] capturing in apparently stark terms the new Western understanding. But what followed was something different. Through a series of extremely dangerous crises the two superpowers came to certain fragile understandings about the rules of the game and how crises might be contained and managed, even as rivalry persisted.

The greatest – indeed frankly terrifying -- danger at the present time comes not just from possible inadvertent escalation or misplaced brinkmanship, but rather from the absence of a shared language in which the parameters of nuclear and WMD [2] relationships can be made mutually intelligible and in which claim and counter-claim can be rationally assessed and negotiated.

A global order needs secure rules

Second, even those most suspicious of the so-called global liberal order must recognise that their world of sovereignty and pluralism needs secure rules – both to place limits on the use of force and to underpin security of property and possession, both national territory but also economic assets. This need not have anything specifically to do with a liberal order. Rather it is rooted in a basic minimal interest shared by all states. And one of the primary functions of the United Nations is to give expression to shared interests of this kind, even if the organization remains necessarily limited in what it can do in the face of a veto-wielding major state such as Russia. The great dilemma for the international legal order may well lie in tensions between this pluralist minimalism on the one hand and the desire to deploy in this conflict the normatively far more ambitious resources of the contemporary legal order on the other, for example in attempts to involve the International Criminal Court and to prosecute war crimes.

Hope lies in Putin learning a late lesson from the Afghanistan war

Third, even if a military ‘victory’ can be achieved, the capacity of Russia to turn this into anything approaching a politically stable situation appears remote. For most of the 20th century the talk was of the declining utility of military force for traditional Great Power purposes – as evidenced in the end of European empires and the lessons of Vietnam and Afghanistan. The unipolar moment after the end of the Cold War appeared to reverse this trend. But this was illusory. Even at the height of its military dominance, the US has either lost or failed to secure its objectives in all of the wars of the post-Cold War period. The hope must be that Putin comes to relearn the lessons of Russia’s own Afghan War and that those tempted to support Russia see the danger to their own hard national interests of the increased economic and human ‘spill-overs’ of large-scale war within a still closely integrated world.

What a successful global governance depends on in the future

Fourth, a major part of the complexity of the present and likely future global order has to do with the interaction of the ‘old’ and the ‘new’: of the impact of new technologies and of new forms of scientific knowledge (on economics, on weapons systems, on patterns of connectivity) on ‘old’ logics and dynamics, especially the dynamics of international political competition, geopolitical rivalry, regime insecurity, nationalist self-assertion and war. Even if gloomy realist predictions of continued major-power conflict prove wrong, all more elaborate forms of global governance will depend on stable understandings amongst the major states of the system. A global order involving spheres of influence, major power arms control, mutual geopolitical restraint may therefore will have to sit side by side both with the inevitability of the demands for freedom and social change and the equally powerful inevitability of those intrusive forms of institutionalized global governance that are needed to tackle the existential planetary instabilities of the 21st century. This is a historically unprecedented challenge.

[1] An 8000-word telegram describing “basic features of post-war Soviet outlook”, sent by George Kennan from the United States Embassy in Moscow to Washington, where it was received on 22 February 1946. See https://www.trumanlibraryinstitute.org/kennan/ (accessed 31 March 2022).

[2] Weapons of mass destruction (WMD)

Last edits for this blog entry were on 19 April 2022, 1:12 p.m. (CEST).

Professor Andrew Hurrell FBA is Einstein Visiting Fellow associated with the Cluster of Excellence “Contestations of the Liberal Script (SCRIPTS)” and a Senior Research Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and the Law Faculty, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.