Russian invasion could change the world order
I was wrong several weeks ago when I suggested that Vladimir Putin did not plan to invade Ukraine but merely wanted the West to address his security concerns in Eastern Europe. He evidently wants to turn the whole country into another satellite like Belarus, and perhaps to add them formally to Russia within a few years.
Exactly what he can accomplish militarily is an open question. Kyiv lies close to the border and Russian troops have reportedly entered it on the second day of fighting, but Ukraine is a large and populous country, and the United States has found out how difficult subduing such a country can be. Rather than speculate about the military and political outcome of the invasion, I would like to suggest that it is a turning point for the international system — the next chapter in a story that began with the collapse of Communism in 1989, and whose roots go back at least until 1919.
We easily forget today that both the League of Nations and the United Nations originally aimed not to organize wars against aggressors, but to find alternatives to war. Negotiation, arbitration and conciliation were the preferred alternatives in the era of the League, but they failed when the Japanese refused to accept League recommendations in Manchuria, and when Mussolini defied the League and a threat of economic sanctions after attacking Ethiopia. President Truman hoped publicly that the UN would settle disputes peacefully in 1945, but had to recognize a few years later that differences among the great powers were making that impossible.
In 1950, the UN Security Council actually authorized war to halt North Korean aggression under a US commander, because the Soviet delegate happened to be boycotting the council when the war broke out. That attack convinced the US that it faced an irredeemably hostile, expansionist Soviet Union, and that it had to rely on alliances and military force to stop it.
George H.W. Bush was a 21-year-old veteran when the UN Charter was adopted, and President in 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait as the Soviet empire was collapsing. For one brief shining moment, Bush managed to get the whole Security Council behind war to remove Saddam from Kuwait, including both the USSR and China. Yet both the neoconservatives in his own party and the foreign policy leadership of the Clinton administration took this not as proof not that an original UN model could work, but rather that the United States could use its political, economic and military power to assure any outcome it wanted anywhere in the world.
That was the theme of UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s book, Unvanquished, in 1999, and in that same year, the United States, unable to secure Russian or Chinese support in the Security Council this time, used NATO to fight a war against Yugoslavia under Kosovo. Four years later, we went into Iraq with almost no UN support at all. By that time the George W. Bush administration had asserted a right to attack any nation that was developing weapons we did not think it should have in its 2002 National Security Strategy. And although Barack Obama had opposed the Iraq war, he undertook regime change in both Libya and Syria without UN authorization himself, with results ranging from mixed to disastrous.
Vladimir Putin has rejected the “unipolar” system of U.S. power from the beginning, and in Georgia, Crimea, and now all Ukraine, he has unilaterally used force to impose a preferred outcome himself. The United States and NATO are not challenging the Ukraine invasion militarily, but they want to compel Russia to give it up, it seems, with tough economic sanctions. In effect, they are gambling that in the age of globalization, their control of international economic and financial institutions — combined, perhaps, with determined Ukrainian resistance — will make it impossible for an aggressor nation to defy their will.
If that tactic succeeds it will vindicate the U.S. belief that it can work its will around the world on behalf of certain principles of law and self-determination. If it does not, we will face two large rival powers — Russia and China — who explicitly reject many of our principles and our leadership and who may at any time use military force to achieve local goals of their own. If Putin does establish control over Ukraine the Baltic States will be the next logical target, while the Chinese threat to Taiwan will become more acute.
What the United States can do, if economic power has failed, will depend upon local military realities. The Baltic States cannot easily be interdicted by the Russians are small enough to make NATO defense possible. Taiwan, on the other hand, is now very vulnerable to a Chinese attack and the U.S. might suffer disastrous naval losses trying to stop one. Meanwhile, the possibility of new great-power conflict will carry with it the possibility of a nuclear exchange.
There is nothing wrong with the principles of international law, respect for frontiers, and respect for the rights of peoples to choose their form of government for which the United States stands — even though the United States itself has violated those principles for various reasons at various times. The world that Wilson and FDR dreamed of, in which all nations accepted these principles, would be a better one. Yet it is not clear that in a world of three great military powers, one of those powers can force the others to observe them. That is the issue that is now at stake in this crisis, and if Putin does seize Ukraine, we will have to face a new world of superpower competition and continual threats of local limited war.