International order is at stake in Ukraine

Until Russia invaded Ukraine, much of the Western elite envisioned us living in a “rules-based world order.” As Russia’s brutal aggression roughly reminded us, this beautiful aspiration is not the reality. But amid the heartbreaking carnage in Ukraine, there is hope that a nation’s valiant fight for survival could bring a rules-based world order closer to fruition.

The idea of ​​a peaceful world based on just rules has historical precedents going back hundreds of years. But its formulation as a practical program for modern statecraft began in 1918 with President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the platform on which the United States entered World War I. With that decision, America, having built the largest and most dynamic economy in the world, entered the world arena.

Wilson’s approach was unprecedented. Never in history has so much potential power aroused so little Imperial appetite. Despite occasional misperceptions—a rash intrusion here, an unnecessary use of force there—America was not seeking “possession goals,” in the useful terminology of scholar Arnold Wolfers (1892-1968), but “environmental goals.” ” It sought to protect its own security not by conquering territory, but by building a safer world around it.

The original blueprint was Wilson’s idea, the League of Nations, which failed disastrously. Its structure was flawed, and isolationists in the Senate blocked US accession. A second world war followed, more devastating than the first. After that, the US dreamed of the United Nations and turned away from isolationism, chastised by Pearl Harbor and the threat of another totalitarian predator. The US began a global policy of peacetime armaments, distant bases, alliances, foreign aid, free trade and more.

The UN, like its predecessor, was largely a flop, but America’s newfound internationalism and power created the first vestiges of a global order. The Cold War disrupted this order, but a third world war has so far been averted, although Stalin was eagerly awaiting it. “We’ll recover in 15 or 20 years, and then we’ll try again,” he confided to visiting Yugoslav communists as his forces routed Hitler’s in 1945.

America’s global efforts were rewarded with victory in the Cold War. The aftermath brought the “unipolar moment,” an unprecedented opportunity for America to promote or enforce its vision of a rules-based order. So it served to thwart attackers like Saddam Hussein when he tried to incorporate Kuwait into Iraq and Slobodan Milosevic when he tried to dismember Croatia and Bosnia. America also increased its efforts to help newly free states establish democratic systems and encouraged others to follow. Dictators around the world, whether they ravaged their own subjects or nurtured ambitions beyond their own borders, faced the daunting question: what will America do? The rules-based world order moved closer to reality.

But paradoxically, Americans took their own charitable achievement for granted, as exemplified by Secretary of State John Kerry’s naïve assertion in 2014 during Russia’s previous invasion of Ukraine that “You just don’t behave in the 21st century like you did in the 19th century, by… you’re invading another country on a completely fabricated pretext.” He seemed to think, like others, that the absence of interstate wars had become the norm all by itself. They never forgot or realized that this state of affairs was maintained by American power.

Presidents Obama, Trump and Biden have eroded that power and shrunk America’s global role. Mr. Obama has slashed the share of gross domestic product spent on defense by a third, pulled troops out of Iraq ahead of schedule, conserved arms for Ukraine, and obliterated his own “red line” in Syria after it was crossed . Mr. Trump sullenly weakened alliances and seemed to believe that money, rather than security, was the ultimate goal of foreign policy. Mr. Biden left Afghanistan to the Taliban and appeared to assume there would be no consequences elsewhere.

Various robbers and would-be robbers have smelled the weakness in America’s austerity. On February 4, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping released a manifesto hailing the “redistribution of power in the world” and the “transformation of global governance architecture and world order.” They added that their partnership “has no boundaries, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation,” a clear statement that these two will set their own rules in the new world order.

Accordingly, Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine in hopes of absorbing it into a restored Russian empire. Its success would tempt China to carry out its long-standing threat to invade Taiwan. And these aggressions would herald further threats and attacks in Central Europe and East Asia, as well as in other regions, by smaller would-be hegemonies like Iran.

But two factors could thwart this plan. First, much of the world responded as if the rules-based order were real. Contrary to Mr Kerry’s amused ramblings, European leaders vented their anger and outrage and took meaningful action. Germany is increasing defense spending and has begun to wean itself off of Russian power. Other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization rushed to Ukraine with arms. Sweden and Finland raised the prospect of joining NATO. Japan and Switzerland joined in economic sanctions. Even Mr. Biden showed surprising firmness and eloquence.

Second, and more importantly, Ukrainians have bravely defended their country with an effectiveness that confuses expert forecasts. Mr Putin seems to have lost hope of conquering Ukraine and instead decided to destroy or dismember it. If Washington and others do more to help, that grotesque goal may also be hampered.

The centuries-old American vision is at stake. The Ukrainian result will help determine his fate. If Russia is clearly defeated, the imaginary order will become more real than ever. Everywhere, including China, states will think twice before attacking others. But if Mr. Putin succeeds despite the initial setbacks, then the contract is history, an American dream that too few others have taken seriously and that America has not tried hard enough to nurture and uphold.

Mr. Muravchik is the author of Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism.

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