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The War in Ukraine: Is this the End of the Liberal International Order?

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought war back to Europe. The international ramifications of the war are clear, for instance now that President Putin talks about nuclear deterrence and the United Nations has condemned the invasion. This blog argues that a proper assessment of the war in Ukraine should take into consideration the dimensions of international order and the European security order.

The world woke up to hear the news of the Russian invasion into Ukraine in the early morning of 24 February 2022. The invasion followed on weeks of military build-up of Russian troops on the eastern, northern, and southern borders of Ukraine. Many commentators doubted the intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine, and had hoped for a peaceful ending to the confrontation. Putin’s televised speeches on 21 and 24 February attempted to justify the Russian attack of Ukraine on the basis of alleged activities of western countries to expand their grip on the Eastern European country, and ultimately include it in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) military alliance, as well as the domination of the Ukrainian government by hostile (‘Nazi’) rulers.

Around the world, people are currently following the horrors of the war in Ukraine with growing anxiety. Putin’s announcement that Russian nuclear ‘deterrence’ forces would be put on special alert, allegedly in response to statements by the UK’s Foreign Secretary about a possible clash between NATO and Russia, seem to forebode a return to the days of the Cold War. A resolution in the United Nations General Assembly, demanding the unconditional withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine, was adopted on 2 March 2022 by a 141 to 5 majority, with only Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Syria, and Eritrea voting against it. A proper understanding of the international ramifications of the war in Ukraine needs a focus on deeper-lying processes related to the international order and the European security system.

The post-World War II period has been characterised by what many call a liberal international order. This order applied mainly to the US and its allies during the period of the Cold War, as the Soviet Union managed to build a parallel order. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its military alliance created a so-called unipolar moment, with the US as the only remaining great power. During the unipolar moment, which is usually dated between 1990 and 2005, the Western alliance assumed growing pretensions regarding the spread of liberal political and economic principles. It is now well recognised that the liberal international order is under attack, and may be giving way for a more pluralistic order, where different principles are embraced by rising powers such as China. The statement issued by China and Russia on the opening day of the 2022 Winter Olympics referred to ‘international relations entering a new era’. The statement provided a clear vision for a new ‘polycentric world order’, where China and Russia would challenge the ‘attempts at hegemony’ of ‘certain states’, which try ‘to impose their own “democratic standards” on other countries, to monopolise the right to assess the level of compliance with democratic criteria, to draw dividing lines based on the grounds of ideology, including by establishing exclusive blocs and alliances of convenience’. Russia, however, may have overestimated the pledge, contained in the Chinese-Russian statement, that there would be ‘no limits’ regarding their friendship and cooperation, as China did not support Russia in vetoing the UN Security Council’s resolution on Ukraine, while it also abstained from voting in the subsequent General Assembly session.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine signals an attempt at overturning the European security order. The order of the past 30 years followed on the Cold War, during which an ‘iron curtain’ separated the Western and Eastern parts of Europe, and the Soviet Union’s military intervened in several member states of the Warsaw Pact. In the post-Cold War period, various countries in Central Europe as well as the Baltic states became members of NATO, a move that was seen as an expansion of democracy in the West. In 2014, the so-called Maidan revolution in Ukraine, which led to the eventual departure of the Russia-backed President, was embraced by a range of West European politicians – something that was questioned by some so-called realist scholars of international relations. Over the years, the legitimacy of the European security order was attacked by a variety of Russian commentators. For instance, the honorary chairman of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, Sergey Karagavov, referred to the ‘Putin doctrine’ that is aimed at ‘constructive destruction’ of the relations between Russia and the West. This doctrine aims at a ‘pivot to the East’, and the prioritisation of Eurasian relations over those with the West, alongside ‘a new kind of relations between Russia and the West, different from what we settled on in the 1990s’. As a clear reflection of Russia’s revisionism, the latter position includes a repudiation of the agreements that were signed by Soviet Union and Russia’s Presidents Gorbachev and Yeltsin, including the Charter of Paris (1990) and the Budapest Memorandum (1994), which provided clauses on freedom of association for previous member states of the Warsaw Pact and security guarantees for Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. The proposed security treaty that President Putin presented to the US and NATO in December 2021 similarly put in question the post-1990 security order in Europe, as it specified that Ukraine would not be offered NATO membership, and that NATO forces should be withdrawn from Central and Eastern Europe.

As the war in Ukraine is now in its third week, and the devastation of the country is increasing, the full implications of Russia’s military action are still unclear. What is clear, however, is that the war will seriously impact the international order of the years and decades ahead. At a minimum, one could expect a new Cold War to characterise political and military relations in Europe, certainly now that the war in Ukraine has led to the resolve of the German government to increase its military spending, and the indications by Finland and Sweden that they may consider NATO membership. Next to this, the call for revision of the principles of the post-World War II global order will continue, with clear support by China, but one can only hope that this will take a less violent turn, unlike the tragic events over the past weeks.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Wil Hout is Professor of Governance and International Political Economy at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam. He teaches on issues of international order in the Erasmus Minor Evolution of International Order and in the Masters course Politics of Global Development: Debating Liberal Internationalism. Together with Michal Onderco, he is currently co-editing a special issue of the journal Politics and Governance, vol. 10, no. 2 (2022), on ‘Developing Countries and the Crisis of the Multilateral Order’.

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