We are witnessing something that just should not be. In Europe, a nationalist autocrat has launched a war of naked aggression.
Vladimir Putin has not invaded Ukraine to secure its natural resources or to win Russia a better seat at the global negotiating table. He did not commit the Russian military to regime change in Ukraine because a complex web of alliances forced him to, nor did he make a thoughtful realist consideration involving the balance of power in his region. Putin is waging a war of conquest and territorial expansion to satisfy national ambition and prestige. He is prepared to subsume a whole people into a social covenant they do not accept. Moreover, if Putin’s desire to see to the “denazification” of Ukraine (a country so committed to Nazism that its elected president is Jewish) is any indication, he is prepared to liquidate those who resist. This just isn’t supposed to happen anymore. But it is.
In this one brazen display of hard power, all the diplomatic pieties of the modern world are dissolving like the gauzy fantasies they always were. Only a dedicated commitment to ignoring the evidence of one’s own eyes could lead observers to avoid concluding that the trappings of internationalism are a feeble veneer.
Take, for example, the United Nations. At the level of the General Assembly, the glittering talk-shop on Turtle Bay has been a lost cause for some time. Yet some critics of the institution still reserved judgment on the Security Council. Its five permanent members, whose status is a spoil of World War II and is therefore predicated on each state’s capacity to project force, were capable of maintaining the post-War order. That is, as long as that order was typified by a predictable power balance. It survived the end of the Cold War, when bipolarity was replaced with unipolarity, because both conditions lent themselves to predictability. But an emerging dynamic that involves a variety of poles engaged in great power competition has scuttled that bargain.
The world is now treated to the spectacle of Russia, the current rotating president of the Security Council, presiding over an emergency meeting in response to its own aggression. Who can still defend the value of such a useless institution?
What about non-treaty obligations and commitments to the supposed “norms” that govern the international order? Those have been on life support for years, and Russia has effectively pulled the plug. The United States and Russia are parties to an unratified 1994 treaty guaranteeing “the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine,” so long as Ukraine surrendered the nuclear stockpile it inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ukraine lived up to its end of the bargain, but Russia and America did not.
Is it any wonder then that the Ukrainians lament their failure to develop a nuclear deterrent? A nuclear umbrella is quite clearly the chief guarantor of security. You can bet that Ukraine isn’t the only nation living in the shadow of an aggressive neighbor that is coming to that same conclusion. What imperiled nation would allow itself to be negotiated out of its commitment to its own survival?
Pity the institutionalists who banked on a future dominated by geostrategic cooperation over luxury crises like climate change, arms control, corruption, and economic development. Statements like those made by Joe Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, expressing his “hope that President Putin will help us stay on track with respect to what we need to do for the climate” are laughably naïve. All of this was predicated on the fantasy that there is such a thing as “international law.” Raw, hard power was always the chief arbiter of events in the anarchic—that is to say, lawless—international environment.
The law is dispassionate. It is applied neutrally, and it is enforced by a constabulary empowered to preserve comity by virtue of a political consensus on its legitimacy. In the global environment, there is no consensus, no neutrality, and no constabulary. There is only force. “I thought we lived in a world that had said no to that kind of activity,” Kerry has lamented without acknowledging his terrible misapprehension.
We have not been thrust into a new world today because of Russia’s act of unprovoked violence. We’ve merely been reintroduced to the world as it always was. For decades, global peace was preserved by an international security architecture we all take for granted. That enterprise was underwritten by the preponderance of American military might, not some illusory matrix of diplomatic niceties, international agreements, and bureaucratic red tape.
If there’s any silver lining to be found in this horror show, it is that perhaps the West will wake up and recognize the delusions it has labored under for generations. A Western world resolved to check the threat posed by revisionist actors with overwhelming force—one that doesn’t put its faith in modern contrivances to do the work of compelling aggressors to abandon their perfectly rational ambitions—might emerge from this crisis with a more durable conception of how to preserve the peace. Maybe, but I doubt it.