As Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops onto Ukrainian soil, the initial Western response was swift, if not underwhelming. Trade in Russian debt was curbed and a handful of oligarchs have had their assets frozen. Snarky tweets from an American embassy safely withdrawn to Poland, were also sent. While Russia rolled its tanks across the border, European cities lit up buildings in Ukrainian colours. Perhaps predictably, the threat of these measures and the diplomatic disapproval accompanying them did not dissuade Putin from further action. Hard power, and the ability and will to deploy it, count. Putin has all three; the West does not.
The appeal of sanctions and diplomatic condemnation lies partly in that they are visible and relatively low cost; they offer the trappings of serious engagement in international affairs and the execution of authority without having to turn to harder measures. These are the qualities that have made them the primary tools of Western foreign policy, and which also mean they will only work in limited circumstances. When something is a matter of national priority – obtaining nuclear weapons, returning ‘Russian lands’ – a fall in GDP is simply a price worth paying. Meanwhile diplomatic condemnation – the good opinion of countries that despise you, your values, and your desire to shake up the international order – is just background noise.
Even if the Western response has since been amplified, the initial reaction to Russian aggression in Ukraine was marked above all else by a sort of incredulity; this was simply not meant to happen in the rules-based international order. Vice president Kamala Harris observed in disbelieving tones that we were ‘talking about the potential for war in Europe… it’s been over 70 years’. While the various former Yugoslav countries might have thoughts about her timeline, the sense of unreality is fascinating.
It’s not as if we were offered no warning signs, no glimpse of what might be to come. After a decade of careful rebuilding, Moscow proved in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 that it was more than willing to put its renewed military might to use in pursuing foreign policy objectives. Despite this, policymakers across the West find themselves caught flat-footed; when we ask what more we can do, the answer is ‘very little’ because we conceded this fight long before it started.
Tony Blair, meeting Putin for the first time, told Alastair Campbell that here at last was a Russian leader who was going to be ‘OK’
When the Cold War ended and communism was at last defeated, the West set about assembling its own narrative model of history, one that it would come to believe in more devoutly than even the most fervent Marxist. While even Stalin believed that the USSR was merely the first stage of communist evolution, however inevitable, the new liberal history announced that their utopia had been attained. There could be no improvement or challenge to this model of government. Sure, there would be problems to iron out: countries to bring into the fold, trade systems to perfect, policy tweaks to be argued over by technocrats. But the fundamental problem of ‘history’ was over, we were told.
Embracing international trade would bring prosperity, and prosperity would usher in a middle class hungry for democratic governance. The revolution was inevitable, and would be televised by a free Western press. It’s easy to see how this model could seduce politicians; there is no conflict between growth and democracy, between trade and ethics. Enriching your enemies would defeat them as one by one they fell into line, Laissez-faire as the most effective foreign policy tool of its age.
While some authors felt a degree of unease – Robert Cooper noted in 2002 that the great unknown for Europe was whether Russia could be integrated into the whole – the prevailing view was utopian. And besides, as the Atlantic told us in 2001, ‘Russia is finished’: doomed to irrelevance in an American order.
We were arriving at last in a world free of the scourge of conflict between nations, as the Economist’s introduction to the world in 2001 put it. This view, if somewhat dented, survived 9/11. It even survived Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008; the government’s 2010 Strategic Defence review argued that we had failed to appreciate ‘the new security realities of the post Cold War world’, insisting on maintaining ‘scores of tanks in Germany’ rather than pivoting to the real world issues of fighting tribesman in Afghanistan.
Even Putin’s seizure of Crimea was insufficient to break this spell for some. The idea that the West should ‘rethink its optimism…that rising non-Western states can be persuaded to join the West and play by its rules’ resulted from ‘the illusion of geopolitics’. The seizure of Crimea was a signal of ‘Russia’s geopolitical vulnerability, not its strength’, and Moscow and Beijing could hope merely to be ‘part-time spoilers at best’. Events were occurring, but history remained frozen.
It’s hard not to see in this mindset an echo of Norman Angell’s ‘Great Illusion’; no matter how likely conflict between nations seemed, no matter how likely war became, it would be averted simply because economic interdependence would guarantee ‘the good behaviour of one state to another’. The rules-based international order was self-enforcing.
We can interpret the failure of this model through the words of three leaders. The first is Tony Blair, meeting Putin for the first time and telling Alastair Campbell that here at last was a Russian leader who was going to be ‘OK’. He was far from the only politician to make this misjudgement; Barack Obama, laid into Republican challenger Mitt Romney in 2012 over his assertion that Russia – not Al Qaeda – was the primary geopolitical threat facing the US. The 1980s were ‘calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years’.
The third and wisest of this trio is the fictional Captain Barbossa, who remarked in the Pirates of the Caribbean that the pirate’s code is ‘more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules’. He, at least, would have understood that the ‘rules-based international order’ that came into being after Nuremberg is, for all of the theory and structure built around it, dependent both on goodwill and the threat of meaningful enforcement. Britain, in particular, should have been aware of this point; it spent a good chunk of 2020 considering the possibility of breaking its withdrawal agreement with the EU.
The hope that people will buy into the system as it stood replaced its meaningful maintenance; a policy of walking softly with no stick. To repurpose Stalin’s question, how many divisions has the president? Well, plenty – but none that he is willing to use. It is this belief in American reluctance that is driving Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea; Rear Admiral Luo Yuan summarised Beijing’s view with his observation that what America ‘fears the most is taking casualties’. It has no stomach to stand up for the order it built.
It can hardly be surprised in turn that it is beginning to show signs of failure. Its challengers are marked by the possession of military force and the willingness to use it, its defenders by their reluctance. As Krauthammer put it, decline is a choice. While the West embraced it, Vladimir Putin did not.