Editor's Note, 2/24 6 a.m. EST: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a "special military operation" against Ukraine Thursday morning local time and his forces have been entering the country and attacking military infrastructure across Ukraine, drawing international condemnation. This is a developing story.
In recent years, the world’s great powers have increasingly placed their own narrow interests and their deepening competition with one another ahead of the well-being of the wider international order: the United States reiterates its lofty principles without truly addressing the security concerns of its adversaries; Russia pursues destabilizing actions to gain an edge in its asymmetric contest with the West; and rather than embrace the role of defender of globalization and multilateralism, China has chosen the path of assertiveness and has hunkered down for a long-term standoff with the U.S.
In such a context, middle powers ideally should play a role in restraining the impulses of the world’s most powerful states. However, in the current crisis over Ukraine, Euro-Atlantic allies (apart from France’s Emmanuel Macron) have opted to prioritize demonstrating “unity,” rather than pursue creative diplomacy with Russia which might have averted a war.
As great power competition has increased in the Pacific theatre, middle power actors such as Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have opted to pursue a mostly restrained and de-ideologized approach to their “Indo-Pacific” strategies, favoring an American security presence that is engaged but does not needlessly provoke China or push the region toward bloc politics. The same cannot be said of Washington’s European allies, where “unity” and “resolve” are often seen as ends in themselves.
This veneration of unity over substance has at least three sources. The first concerns the outsized role accorded to economic sanctions in Western policy. During the initial Russian incursion into Ukraine eight years ago, sanctions against Russia represented one of the few examples of unity among EU member states, at a time when the bloc was facing internal divisions over migration policy and eurozone governance. There has thus been an incentive to keep these sanctions in place, even if they have not succeeded in changing Russia’s behaviour.
Similarly, in the current crisis, sanctions are perceived as a key tool due to the West’s unwillingness to commit to the military defence of Ukraine — and transatlantic unity is viewed as imperative to ensuring their effectiveness. Yet despite the significant degree of Western coordination on display earlier this week, when new sanctions were enacted in response to Russia’s recognition of the two breakaway republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, there is already growing consensus that these measures will not deter Moscow from pursuing what it sees as its core interest in avoiding geopolitical defeat in Ukraine.
Second, a common refrain is that authoritarian states seek to drive a wedge in the transatlantic alliance and between EU member states. As a result, preserving Western and European solidarity is seen as a substantive policy goal in itself. However, this view mistakenly assumes that Moscow is pursuing a coherent strategy when in fact its behaviour is mostly reactive.
Europe’s post-Cold War security order has consolidated in a fashion that largely excludes Russia, giving Moscow little stake in upholding the status quo. NATO and EU members can use their collective bargaining power to wield outsized influence in Eastern Europe at Russia’s expense. Moscow’s natural response is to seek to disrupt the West’s ability to exercise its collective clout. Yet because Russia’s disruptive behavior is viewed as being the result of its regime type or the man at the top, Western states prioritize demonstrating “unity” and “resolve” over constructing a more inclusive European security system. This creates a vicious cycle of confrontation with no obvious endgame, leaving the ultimate purpose of Western unity unclear.
Finally, the evolving structure of global politics has buttressed the rationale for greater unity among Western states. During the Cold War, although the core aims of the capitalist bloc were geopolitical, the means employed to achieve those aims were, to a significant extent, economic. The task of containing the Soviet Union depended on sustaining a belt of integrated and wealthy economies along the Eurasian Rimland, most notably in Europe.
Yet with the gradual rise of the non-West, U.S.-Europe economic ties have now declined in relative terms, rendering the military dimension of the transatlantic relationship more important. The post-Cold War era has also featured significant swings in U.S. foreign policy priorities between Democratic and Republican administrations, making it more difficult for middle powers to undertake the strategic planning necessary to conduct a more independent foreign policy.
With unity being venerated for unity’s sake, Macron’s efforts to avert a disastrous crisis through diplomacy have been sharply criticized. Admittedly, the French president has done himself few favors in recent years, launching a separate Franco-Russian rapprochement to little apparent effect, calling NATO “brain dead,” and (along with Germany) proposing a relaunched dialogue between the EU and Russia at the June 2021 European Council without consulting European partners. Macron’s more recent efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis over Ukraine have been coordinated with Western allies, yet a chorus of European voices continues to reject any notion that Europe should actively pursue its own vision of continental security, even in a fashion complementary to NATO.
The West’s emphasis on demonstrating unity has resulted in a complete refusal to discuss the status of Ukraine. It is difficult to imagine that this is truly a matter of principle, namely respecting Kyiv’s “right to choose” its own path. Nearly 14 years have elapsed since the Bucharest summit at which Ukraine was first promised NATO membership and its accession to the Alliance does not appear likely for the foreseeable future. Rather, NATO’s open-door policy appears to be driven by political inertia, a desire for the Alliance to retain maximum room for maneuver its relations with Moscow and, above all, a refusal to disavow the notion that the West won the Cold War and therefore has the right to dictate the rules of the game in Europe.
Faced with the gravest security crisis on the European continent in decades, the foreign policy of Western states has been largely reduced to rhetorical and romantic appeals to the “rules-based international order.” That Western states have bent and broken the rules on numerous occasions since the fall of the Berlin Wall only adds to the irony. But if this crisis has revealed anything, it is that Western unity is unlikely to remain a sufficient condition for upholding order in Europe, to say nothing of the constraints that liberal values and Western hegemony will face in a multipolar and truly global international order.