Why war in Ukraine means the end of the liberal world order

With Russia’s invasion, the world’s ‘rules’ no longer apply

Vladimir Putin.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

On the afternoon of Aug. 5, 1990, President George H.W. Bush appeared at a press conference on the South Lawn of the White House. After reviewing developments related to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Bush took questions from reporters. The last elicited the most memorable words of the crisis, and perhaps of Bush's whole presidency. "This will not stand," Bush insisted, "this aggression against Kuwait."

Bush's awkward grammar and delivery made the remark an object of satire, most famously in the Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski. It was memorable, though, less because it was funny than because Bush's words expressed a particular vision of international politics. Born in the wake of the Second World War but made plausible by the collapse of Soviet power, that vision promised an American-led world in which states would fight only in defense of recognized territorial boundaries, limiting their rivalries to economics, sports, and culture. In his address to a joint session of Congress in September, Bush would describe that vision as a "new world order". Others spoke of a "new global community", the "end of history", or the "rules-based international order."

Despite the apparent success of the First Persian Gulf War, the new world order never lived up to its billing. Within just a few years, a series of wars in the former Yugoslavia demonstrated that the ghosts of Europe could not so easily be exorcised. Elsewhere in the world, ethnic, ideological, and religious clashes continued with little relief. Sept. 11 reminded us that we were not immune to those tensions. The wars of occupation that followed raised justified doubts about whether our leadership possessed the competence or wisdom to meet the grandiose standards that they set for themselves. By the 2010s, the revival of great power competition with China was conventional wisdom. And the election of Donald Trump raised serious questions about whether the American public was willing to continue paying the economic, military, and political costs of liberal hegemony.

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Still, the Russian invasion of Ukraine that began on this week is different to these previous crises. Rather than a distressing violation of the post-Cold War norm, it feels like a decisive end to the era that Bush proclaimed on the White House Lawn. That feeling is partly a consequence of so-called recency bias, which makes the most proximate events seem more important than temporally distant ones. But there are at least three reasons to think something fundamental has changed — with consequences we still can't foresee.

First, the Russian attack is a paradigmatic case of interstate aggression, a form of warfare that was supposed to be relegated to the history books. As the very partial list above indicates, the last 30 years have not exactly been a paradise of peace. But there have been relatively few direct military clashes between internationally recognized sovereign states. Instead, much of the violence has been associated with civil wars, failed states, and non-state actors, albeit often proxies for neighbors or more distant states.

In recent speeches, to be sure, Vladimir Putin has made clear that he does not regard Ukraine as a legitimate state. In that respect, the conflict might be compared to ongoing tensions over Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway region. The differences aren't only that other major powers (including the US) also don't recognize Taiwan, or that China hasn't actually attacked it. It's that Russia promised to "respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine" in the so-called Budapest Memorandum of 1994. Despite the impressive language they often deploy, international agreements don't really have the force of law. Still, it's significant that Russia is renouncing an explicit international commitment, notwithstanding its claim to be defending the instant "republics" of Donetsk and Lukhansk.

Ironically, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 is another major exception to the general decline of interstate war. In that case, though, the United States sought at least the pretense of U.N. authorization and international participation, following the script established by the First Gulf War. Russia's conduct, by contrast, is not merely aggressive but also unilateral. Even China, has so far avoided endorsing the operation in principle, even as they continue to deflect criticism and offer indirect economic support.

Location also matters. Ukraine lies squarely in the zone where the worst atrocities of the 20th century were committed. Historian Timothy Snyder dubbed these environs "Bloodlands". Passed for decades between imperial, national, Nazi, and Soviet control, Eastern Europe presents the worst-case scenario of a world without recognized borders or effective sovereignty. (Direct memories of massacre and oppression are one of the reasons nationalist movements remain so powerful in the region). Even if it failed to take hold elsewhere, the post-Cold War settlement was designed explicitly to prevent those conditions from recurring where they had already done so much damage. That makes Russian revisionism fatal to the "new world order" in a way that bloody fighting in the Balkans — let alone Africa or the Middle East— was not.

Most of all, though, the present situation is distinguished by American powerlessness. As my colleagues Noah Millman and Damon Linker have argued, there's just not a lot that the United States and its European allies can do, and trying too hard to "do something" risks exacerbating the problem. The looming, if fortunately still distant threat of nuclear war is the decisive reason. The depletion of military resources and political will after the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan is another. Finally, high inflation raises the cost of sanctions on Russia's main export. According to recent reports, the Biden administration will not target energy, for fear of driving up already high prices at the pump and alienating European allies that rely on Russian natural gas. Liberal theorists have long argued that war is less likely between trading partners. They're right, but not with the geopolitical results they might hope.

This combination of factors explains the unfamiliar, nightmarish quality of the last few days. For the first time in a generation, major world events are proceeding without even the illusion of American approval or control. When Putin announced the beginning of combat operations early on Thursday morning (Moscow time), Americans also woke up to a new world. The old order had serious flaws and blindspots, including a naive refusal to acknowledge Russian interests and vulnerabilities that is a partial cause — although not an excuse — for the present crisis. Still, I think we'll miss it now that it's gone.

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