[a revised version of a previous post and AlJazeera article with a stress on the relationship between the Russian annexation of Crimea and a world order based on adherence to international law and the quest for global justice]
There is no more reliable guardian of entrenched conventional wisdom than The Economist. And so when its cover proclaims ‘the new world order,’ and removes any ambiguity from its intentions, by its portrayal of Putin as a shirtless tank commander with menacing features. No such iconography accompanied the last notable invocation of the phrase by George H. W. Bush in mobilizing support at home and abroad for a forcible response to the Iraqi invasion and annexation of Kuwait in 1990, the dirty work of Saddam Hussein. Here the elder Bush was suggesting that with the Cold War winding down that finally the UN Security Council could act, as originally intended, and meet Iraqi aggression with a collective response from the international community. For the first time since 1945 the UN would then be acting as it was intended to in response to aggression committed against a sovereign state. With only slight hesitation, the Security Council mandated the use of force to repel Iraq, and in the ensuring military operation fully restored Kuwaiti sovereignty.
In this central respect, there was some merit in treating Russia’s move to annex the Crimea as a distinctive 21st century challenge to international stability. In the Cold War period, it is unlikely that Baghdad would have dared to annex Kuwait without a prior green light from Moscow, and it is even more unlikely that the Kremlin would have allowed its junior ally to embark on such a predictably provocative adventure. In the highly improbable event that Iraq would have acted on its own or could have won approval from Moscow, the resulting crisis would have been of a purely geopolitical character with no claim to initiate ‘the new world order.’ It would have meant confrontation, escalation, and likely produced a frightening showdown similar to that which almost led to a nuclear World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
As it unfolded, this so-called First Gulf War of 1991 resulted in a relatively successful launch of this earlier edition of the new world order. The Security Council mandate was quickly fulfilled in a one-sided desert war, Saddam Hussein surrendered, agreeing to abide by the most punitive peace imposed upon a defeated country since the burdens accepted by Germany in the Versailles Treaty after World War I. We should recall that the Versailles approach was discredited. It came to be regarded as an international arrangement often given a large share of the blame for tipping the internal German political balance in extremist directions that ended up with Hitler coming to power. Bush claimed victory over Iraq in 1991, making what I found at the time a chilling geopolitically boast: ‘finally, we kicked the ‘Vietnam Syndrome.’ He meant by this that America could again believe that it had the tactics and technology to win wars quickly and at an acceptable cost in lives and treasure. Some ventured to suggest that this renewed confidence in militarism was the real new world order.
There were questions raised at the time about whether this use of UN authority to wage war really was compatible with the Charter of the Organization. Was the ‘shock and awe’ attack on Iraq really, as required by international law and the UN Charter, an instance of a defensive war undertaken as a last resort? Were all peaceful options truly exhausted? The argument of critics (and I was among them) was that the sanctions agreed upon after Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait some months early were working and deserved a longer time to achieve results without war. There were also credible reports that Saddam Hussein was ready to withdraw prior to being attacked if assured that an attack on his country would not occur in any event. The United States and its coalition partners never gave Baghdad such an assurance, but on the contrary, only sent the UN Secretary General on a constrained diplomatic mission to deliver an ultimatum to withdraw, which disallowed any response to Saddam Hussein’s inquiry about whether there would be an attack even if there was a full withdrawal from Kuwait.
Also, serious questions were raised about the failure of the American led military campaign to give the Security Council a supervisory role in relation to the scope and nature of the military undertaking during its operational phases. Questions were raised as to whether the United States command had used excessive force well beyond the limits of ‘military necessity,’ an allegation given weight by a respected UN report concluding that the industrial infrastructure of Iraq had been destroyed and the country bombed back ‘to the stone age.’ And then there were further questions raised repeatedly about maintaining for 12 years harsh comprehensive sanctions on a defeated country with a badly damaged water treatment systems. In the decade following the war as many as 700,000 Iraqi civilians died due to these vindictive post-war sanctions, which was quite widely condemned as an undeclared form of indiscriminate warfare that was not consistent with international customary law or international morality, and turned their back on the lessons of Versailles.
As well, the idealistic side of the new world order was quickly put back ‘on the shelf’ in the words of Thomas Pickering a prominent diplomat who represented the United States in the Security Council during the leadup to the 1991 Iraq War. In effect, Pickering insisted the United States was not prepared to repel aggression in the future in cooperation with the UN unless the exercise of collective security was consistent with national and strategic interests. The country was certainly not willing to allow the UNSC to make the call as to when international force should be used, or to play a role as the responsible leader in making the UN structure the foundation of a new post-Cold War framework for peace and security guided by international law.
In effect, it was a return to business as usual! in relation to peace and security, and in this fundamental sense, a reaffirmation of the old world order. James Baker visiting Princeton for an off the record meeting on foreign policy not more than a year after this war in the Middle East, gave invited faculty the chance to ask questions. When my turn came, I asked,”What ever happened to ‘the new world order’?” His response was interesting: “We made a mistake. We should not have associated the new world order with the UN, but with the fact that the whole world would like to have an open economy and constitutional democracy like ours.” For Baker what was worth defending was a neoliberal globalizing world economy, not a law-oriented system of collective security. In effect, for Baker, Bush Sr’s able Secretary of State, the ‘new’ world order was not much different than the fashionable idea being disseminated by Francis Fukuyama on the theme of ‘the end of history,’ that is, the universal triumph of the liberal ideas of governance best embodied in the United States, but the now revealed as the purpose of the long historical journey into the present. Baker was invoking this vision of an integrated global capitalist economy in the context of waging a successful war, although he perceptively viewed the real calling of the United States was to ensure the stability of the world economy.
Of course, invoking ‘the new world order’ also had some uglier earlier resonances, especially, its association with the extravagant claims made on behalf of the Nazi version of fascism during its triumphant phases in Europe up through the early phases of World War II.
So what shall we make of this invocation of ‘new world order’ as descriptive of Putin vision in the aftermath of the Ukrainian intervention, followed by the Crimean annexation carried out by the combination of pre-deployed Russian ragtag military units and local pro-Russian militias that played a role in blocking Ukrainian military installations in Crimea. There is no doubt that from a statist perspective, Russia violated international law by non-defensively using force to acquire territory belonging to another sovereign state, international legal wrongs accentuated by breaking a treaty signed by Russia with Ukraine in 1994 to respect existing borders. This agreement was also regarded as notable because it included the commitment by Ukraine to transfer their stockpile of nuclear weapons to Russia for safekeeping following the breakup of the Soviet Union. If thinking as a Ukrainian nationalist, I would wonder at this point whether the Ukrainian borders might have been more respected had the Kiev government retained this weaponry. Thus what Putin might have unwittingly done is to rekindle an interest in nuclear weaponry as a security deterrent beneficial to secondary states. Thinking back to the Iraq War of 2003, it seems rather unlikely that Iraq would have been attacked if it had nuclear weapons, an assessment strengthened by the cautious response to North Korea’s acquisition.
By and large the Economist berates the vision thrust upon the world by Putin as a dangerous repudiation of international agreements upon which international law rests, and a kind of ‘revanchism’ in which hard power is relied upon to challenge the territorial integrity and political independence of a neighboring country. It is alleged that Russia’s argument for intervention could be used in many national setting throughout the world to rescue unhappy minorities that find themselves subject to a national governance structure that is not to their liking. In The Economist’s call for firm leadership by Obama that takes the form of imposing heavy costs on Russia the stated purpose of the editorial writer is to salvage for people spread around the planet “the kind of world order they want to live under.” The magazine expresses its understanding of the central issues at stake in the following passage: “Would they [the attitudes of people toward world order] prefer one in which states by and large respect international agreements and borders? Or one in which words are bent, agreements are borders ignored and agreements broken at will?” [March 22, 2014, 9] This choice is put rhetorically, and avoids the observational outlook that seems to suggest that a widespread public interest exists in having Russia obedient to the discipline of international law while keeping the options of the West open and unconstrained.
There are two clusters of issues raised—conceptual choices and policy options. On conceptual matters, there is the matter of coherence. Should Russia be expected to abide by agreements when the West seeks to challenge the internal dynamics of self-determination in an important country on its border? The Economist makes no mention of a variety of covert efforts to destabilize the admittedly corrupt Ukrainian government headed by Yukanovych and entice the Ukraine to accept Western credit arrangements and a European alignment. In turn, such a move is a reinforcement of the incorporation of East Europe into the European Union and NATO via ‘enlargement’ and to deploy defensive missile systems in countries surrounding Russia. To have a world order based on international law that The Economist and the West abstractly favors in this context would seem to imply that these advocates are prepared to live by a similar set of rules and agreements, but there is no indication of such reciprocity. Putin referred to the Kosovo precedent as a quasi-legal justification for acting in Crimea, and this has some plausibility, although there was a strong argument that Serbia had over a period of years forfeited its sovereign rights in Kosovo by the commission of crimes against humanity in the course of resisting the breakup of former Yugoslavia.
The better precedent to test what the West really wants in relation to world order is undoubtedly the invasion and occupation of Iraq after being rebuffed by the UN Security Council in 2003. Here was an instance of blatant aggression justified by fabricated evidence and trumped up false premises, an intrusive regime-changing occupation, and the deliberate subsequent manipulation of religious and ethnic tensions by the occupying power so as to create the kind of neoliberal Iraq that it wanted to emerge. Is this the world that The Economist, and those of similar inclinations, have in mind, which resembles James Baker’s proposed new world order? When done by Putin behavior is seen as disruptive, but when done by the United States, uses of force are benignly described as “the aggressive pursuit of American values.” Such a pattern it seems to me set a worse precedent than the Putin worldview as exhibited so far in relation to Ukraine. When it comes to the Iraq War, the editorial writer for The Economist doesn’t ignore it, but air brushes the precedent by dismissing it as a momentary diversion, an ill-advised move “puffed up by the hubris of George Bush” in “’the unilateral world’” that followed upon the Soviet collapse, a venture that “choked in the dust of Iraq.” But is Iraq such a deviation from American approaches to the use of force ever since the Vietnam War? And don’t overlook the oppressive and bloody consequences of earlier covert interventions in a host of countries, including Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and Chile (1973)? And what about the unleashing of lethal drone warfare in such countries as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia? In the end, then, we have to ask the question as to what kind of world order has the United States pursued over the course of recent decades, and is it the same one that The Economist seems to be promoting. In light of such a reconstruction can it be claimed that pre-Putin, the dominant states in the West had displayed a consistent respect for international law. The Economist would have been more persuasive had it given a lecture to Washington as well as to Moscow
Of course, international law is habitually invoked as a matter of diplomatic convenience whenever it seems to support foreign policy, and avoided like the plague when it doesn’t. The United States is adept at mounting both kinds of arguments. The real test of adherence to international law, however, is the behavior of a leading government when international law poses an obstacle to its preferred course of action. To insist that the adversary adhere, while claiming discretion to act on interest, is a hegemonic form of world order that accepts as a prime norm, the inequality of states, and thus goes against the major premise of international law as presupposing the equality of states when it comes to applying codes of behavior. It is the leading state or states that sets the rules of the game in a statist structure, which either establishes a law-oriented world order or subverts it. The United States, and to a lesser extent Europe, have since 1945, and especially since 1991, wanted it both ways: freedom of action for themselves, rule of law for their adversaries. The Ukraine illustrates both sides of the argument, as well as its pitfalls.
In the current setting, ‘American exceptionalism’ has been unashamed of mounting a patently hypocritical argument. Benjamin Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, explains the G-7 banishment of Russia from economic summit events for “as long as Russia is flagrantly violating international law.” Until Russia is willing to reverse its policy on Ukraine it is, according to Mr. Rhodes, “outside the rules of the road.” [International New York Times, March 25, 2014] This is highly misleading. Russia is within the rules of the road so far as the geopolitical game is concerned, but if it were the case that international law sets the rules, then Russia is acting outside the rules, but so are those who now object to its behavior, and purport to act as impartial enforcers. Nothing is more corrosive of respect for international law over time than reliance on double standards, which is the hallmark of geopolitics, but also of hypocrisy in relation to the application of international law in relation to peace and security.
What remains to be considered is the policy response to the Putin moves. Here the facts and complications make any firm set of conclusions an expression of dogma rather than a nuanced interpretation of context. In truth, there are no guidelines, or rules of the road, when external actors destabilize and silently intervene on one side, and the other side reacts more overtly. The people are caught in between. As the African proverb puts it: “When two elephants fight the grass is destroyed.”
I believe that the sort of posturing that has been generated by the Ukraine crisis works against responding to the question put by The Economist: What kind of world order have we had, and what kind do we want and need? A more humane future could result from adopting an international law approach to peace and justice. but only if compliance is consistent and reciprocal. As matters now stand, the foreign policy of major states continues to be principally dictated by perceptions of vital national interests, and not by the obligation to obey the rules of the road as set by international law, and administered by the United Nations. The geopolitical logic at play is not only hypocritical, but tends toward producing escalating conflict spirals. In the current setting we hear loose talk about organizing the West to embark upon a second cold war, with all the embedded dangers, including the potential horror that nuclear weapons might be threatened and used in some future conflict. It seems strange that our most heralded realist gurus do not dare even explore whether nuclear disarmament offers a process that could greatly contribute to the avoidance of a catastrophic future, and erect a firm safety barrier for the containment of future wars.
All things considered, rather than view the recent events involving the Ukraine as a sign of ‘the new world order’ it would be more appropriate to regard these developments as depressing evidence of the persistence of ‘the old world order.’ And it is this continuity that we should be deploring. It is not only provocative behavior in violation of basic rules of international order, but it is a system of sovereign states preoccupied with the pursuit of national interests that encourages violence and predatory behavior, lacking a moral, spiritual, and vital institutional center capable of protecting globlal human interests whether the concern is territorial integrity of weaker states or the protection of the planet against the growing menace of climate change.