Thanks to the last few days of Ukraine hysteria, you might be forgiven for having to think twice about what century we're in. A Los Angeles Times headline dubbed this "the dawn of Cold War II." The Atlantic's Peter Beinart declared that the future will be "more like the 19th century" than anything we've seen since. Both analyses assume that the basic problem in Ukraine is great power jockeying between the Western alliance and Putin's Russia.
Nonsense. The Ukrainian crisis is distinctively 21st century. The main issue is neither survival nor security, but rather a moral obligation to protect the global liberal order and innocent lives. Understanding why that's true — and, crucially, why that doesn't mean the West necessarily needs to "do something!" about the crisis — is critical to grasping both political morality and the basic defining challenges of 21st century world politics.
Take Beinart's "the past is prologue" argument, as it's particularly instructive in its wrongness. In his view, an angry Russia and a rising China will dominate American attention in the 21st century.
"China is geopolitically ascendant and Russia is not, but both are led by intensely nationalistic regimes willing to risk conflict with the West to define a sphere of influence over their neighbors," Beinart writes. "And it is this great-power tension that will increasingly define a new, post-war on terror era in America's relations with the world."
Yes, managing relations with China will be one of the United States' greatest challenges for the foreseeable future, but Beinart offers no evidence as to why the core of that relationship will be conflict over "spheres of influence." In fact, as I've argued previously, China lacks both the capacity and the will to challenge the American-led alliance system.
There will long be dark skies over Taiwan and the East China Sea, but those won't be the defining issues of the American-Chinese relationship. The two countries' relationship will more likely resemble an uncomfortable business partnership than 19th century struggles for geopolitical influence.
And who better to refute Beinart's point about Russia than… Peter Beinart. In his last Atlantic article, Beinart argued that Russia was lashing out at Ukraine from a point of fundamental weakness. "Geopolitically and ideologically, the West's frontier has moved further east than almost anyone could have imagined a couple of decades ago." In this view, while countries like Ukraine and Georgia are still vulnerable to Putin's predations, many former Soviet bloc countries rest comfortably under the West's wing.
There's devastating implicit tension between this argument and Beinart's claims about the return of the Concert of Europe. If Russia is fundamentally contained by NATO's expansion, than the West has no power politics interest in Ukraine whatsoever. Speaking in narrowly self-interested terms, the only Western interest in Ukraine is ensuring Russia doesn't gain enough power to threaten a NATO state. Since that's impossible, the West's concern over who controls Crimea isn't about old school power politics.
That's because today's dominant alliance is, in this case, concerned about morality. The United States and its European allies care about preserving Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea because they believe it's wrong for Russia to simply grab at the territory of another state. (To preempt: Yes, I've heard of the Iraq War, and the comparison isn't persuasive.) As long as the Ukrainian government is democratically elected and not slaughtering its own citizens, it should have rights against being invaded.
This reflects the structure of the international order. The United States and its allies have used their overwhelming military and political dominance to build an international system where states go to war less and respect the rights of their citizens more than they ever have. While the United States and its allies have a brutal record of contravening this vision, particularly during the Cold War, the fact is that the moral vision underpinning democracy itself impels these states to uphold the basic structures of the liberal order.
The real reason to be concerned about Ukraine, then, is the threat Russia's actions pose both to the norm against interstate war and Ukrainian civilians. Russia should not be able to use its military to seize territory because it wants to; Ukrainian citizens have a right to choose their own fate.
The basic strength of the global liberal order, including the disinterest on the part of states like China in challenging it, means that these sorts of moral concerns, not power politics, will set the agenda for 21st century world politics. How do we deal with instability and humanitarian crises caused by climate change? What's the smartest and most equitable way to structure global economic institutions? What should the United Nations' role be in addressing genocide, failed states, and border conflict in places like, let's say, Ukraine?
Now, a lazy read of the story I just told would suggest that Obama and European leaders are a real-life Justice League, banding together to uphold Truth, Justice, and the American Way in the face of Putin's Joker/Lex Luthor/insert comic book villain here.
That's obviously false. Western leaders do terrible things all the time; the fact that their jobs involve upholding a basically decent global political order doesn't make them heroes or even particularly moral people. And though Putin is clearly in the wrong here, it's too simple to reduce him to a mustache-twirling black hat.
The basic error of many American thinkers is assuming that because the American-led order works, the United States is justified in doing whatever it would like in this international order's name. More than justified, in fact: The United States has an obligation to use blunt military force in any case that contravenes the system's moral strictures or threatens its stability even a little bit.
This "do-somethingism" is, ironically enough, actively hostile to the moral principles that undergird the global liberal order. If the basic goal of all of these fancy liberal institutions is to reduce human suffering and maximize human freedom, then any action that hurts more people than it helps is by-definition not justified.
That's why, in Crimea, the notion of a "strong" American response — almost always code for military force or something equally aggressive and stupid — is absurd. Starting a war with Russia might "send a message" that invading other countries is bad, but it's a letter that'd be sealed in blood. If basic foundations of global politics are good and secure, then why risk a nuclear war in their name?
Sometimes, this type of tradeoff thinking can lead one to conclude that doing nothing about a terrible evil is the least-bad option (as in Syria, which everyone seems to have forgotten). I don't think that's true in Crimea. There are plenty of options short of war that can ensure Russia's actions don't go unpunished. I favor financial support for Ukraine's government and the threat of diplomatic and economic sanctions if Russia makes any moves to cement its control over Crimea, but it's a tricky call.
It's this kind of ethical balancing — figuring out how to address pressing global problems without doing more harm than good — that will define 21st century politics. The Cold War this isn't.