Photo: Caitlin Cunningham

On the World after Ukraine

For three-quarters of a century, the international order has persevered. Now it suddenly finds itself challenged by Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, which has shocked the world.

Until recently, it was common to refer to the international system as a “liberal order” or at least a “rules-based order.” This system was created at the end of the Second World War as leaders of the wartime alliance sought to construct a world that would be the opposite of the illiberal order that the Nazis and their Italian and Japanese allies had imposed at home and threatened to extend to the lands they conquered. In time, that effort led to the establishment of the United Nations, to arrangements about the international economy that were agreed to at Bretton Woods in 1944, and to the setting up of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The liberal order aimed to be universal, but it inevitably became embedded in a broader cold war order, which resulted in further programs like the Marshall Plan and in alliances such as NATO.

Through it all, the international system has endured. It survived decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s, which enlarged the number of states in the system, and it even outlived the cold war. In fact, when the cold war ended, beginning in 1989, “liberal order” spread. What emerged after that was reasonably regarded as “liberal” in that it was led by the United States and its allies, who sought to promote democracy and free markets. The expansion was accompanied by economic globalization, which brought open markets and free trade to ever more sections of the world. Even China, which posed the most serious threat to the rules-based order, chose to pursue its interests cautiously.

For three-quarters of a century, then, the international order has persevered. Now it suddenly finds itself challenged by Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, which has shocked the world. It has been clear for some time that Russian revanchism and China’s determination to acquire geopolitical power commensurate with its waxing economic clout were a looming threat to the liberal world order. With the invasion, the order has now suffered aserious rupture that will not be quickly or easily repaired.

What makes repair so hard is that the war has brought about a fundamental reassessment of the regime in Russia and a change in its role in the international order. Political leaders and scholars have for years been eager to treat Russia as a great power with a legitimate role in the existing international system. The hope was that in treating it thus, it might actually become a better international actor. It has been understood that Russia has its own interests, that it is extremely sensitive about the eastern expansion of NATO, that it cares deeply about its so-called “near abroad,” and that there is considerable nostalgia focused on its diminished status after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However the Russia of today compares to its Soviet past, the country has continued to be understood to play a major role in the global order. And then it launched its disastrous war in Ukraine.

The justifications offered for the war utterly lacked credibility and made it clear that Russia’s “security concerns” were a ruse, a cover for a grand effort to expand Russia’s power and influence and, in the process, destroy a functioning democracy. Vladimir Putin and his supporters now argue further that Russia is involved in a clash of civilizations that pits holy and traditional Russia against a decadent West obsessed with commercialism and LGBTQ rights, and that Ukraine is not a real country with a distinct identify but a wayward part of the Russian world (Russkiy mir) governed by neo-Nazis. Putin has surrounded himself with advocates of this grand and nasty vision, and has bonded with the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church who bless this outlook and this war. His regime has also tightened control of the media within Russia and threatened to imprison those who even call the war a “war.”

Russia’s clumsy execution of its invasion, at least in its first phase, also stripped away the pretense that it was a sophisticated military powerhouse. It still has lots of guns and ships and planes and, most important, nuclear weapons, but the incompetence with which it wages war suggests that the inefficiencies, rigidities, and corruption of the state and society have infected its military. And it appears that military weakness has led not to restraint but to brutality and war crimes. The failure to advance on Kyiv, in particular, led to the bombing of civilians and civilian infrastructure and to revenge killings in places Russia’s beleaguered troops had occupied. Pictures from destroyed and terrorized towns like Bucha have served to encourage states supporting Ukraine to increase their aid and to tighten and extend sanctions on Russian banks, businessmen, and political leaders. Putin, long the poster boy for tough but effective strongmen—admired by Le Pen, Orbán, Trump, and various reactionary Christians—has been exposed as incompetent, an untrustworthy liar, and a thug and dictator.

All this means that whatever the outcome on the ground in Ukraine, the nature and functioning of the international order will be drastically rearranged. For as long as the current international order has existed, Russia has been a leading member of it, one of the world’s very few superpowers. But the country and its leader are now international pariahs who’ve been exposed as ineffectual and not nearly as powerful as we’d supposed, and it is difficult to imagine how they will escape the consequences of that status. Putin’s bet in deciding to invade was that his moves would be denounced at first, but then acquiesced to. The Ukraine resistance lost him that bet. The surprisingly united and forceful response by NATO was unexpected, but revulsion over the conduct of the war made it more resolute. Europeans, and Germans especially, buy much of their natural gas and oil from Russia, and might therefore be tempted to waver on the sanctions imposed after the invasion. But they seem more likely to stay the course and move toward ending their dependence on Russian fossil fuels.

To the extent that Russia remains an outcast internationally after the war, it will be forced to reorient and reorganize its economy, a painful readjustment that will leave the country weaker. It will also, presumably, attach itself more closely to China, but at what cost? The effect of that realignment will render the global order more multi-polar and threatening. The institutions through which it is governed will continue to stand, but they will be less often venues for bargaining and negotiation and more often sites of confrontation. It is not an attractive option, but it is the most likely consequence of recent events. 

James E. Cronin is a research professor in history. His research interests include the rise and fall of the cold war world order. His book Fragile Victory: The Making and Unmaking of Liberal Order will be published in early 2023.