As Russian troops amassed on Ukraine’s borders, foreign policy “experts” brimmed with confidence that Vladimir Putin would back down, that he would respect the balance of power established after the Cold War. After Russian tanks thundered across the border, they were sure that the flood of condemnations and sanctions would crush his regime and force the invaders to withdraw. Russian forces continue to close in on Kyiv.
Putin’s attack on Ukraine will have more serious repercussions than rising gas prices, wavering confidence that the United States can act as the world’s policeman or even the dismantling of a sovereign nation. It represents a shock to the system for the cozy “rules-based international order” that has for decades reassured the West that things like naked aggression are relics of the past.
Today’s foreign policy intelligentsia share the same outlook as those of the Great Powers prior to 1914. Diplomacy is too advanced, the global economy is too intertwined, technology is too advanced and the balance of power is too strong to allow a long, devastating war. They were devastatingly wrong then, and those who cling to the contemporary version of that worldview are just as wrong now.
They say this is unthinkable that a modern, European city like Kyiv could look like it does — bombed out and filled with soldiers. But their grandparents probably remember a time when almost every major European city looked like Kyiv does, or worse.
The new order founded after World War II has abandoned the idea of war as a legitimate extension of politics and national policy. In fact, the very term “war” has almost become a taboo. Instead, they are referred to as “police actions” or “counterterrorism operations.” Traditionally in international relations you have two paths, diplomacy and war. Diplomacy has always been the preferred route, but once it is exhausted, war is the only other option. That option was accepted as a viable means of achieving national goals for most of human history.
But that perception started to change after the carnage of World War I and the foundation of the League of Nations, which was specifically created to prevent any future conflicts between nations, but the League proved too weak to counter the aggression of the Axis powers. It came to a head after the devastation of World War II and the chartering of the United Nations. With all of Europe and the United States, which had refused to join the League, on board, the organization’s aims became enforceable.
As a result of the post-WWII order and the West’s victory in the Cold War, the foreign policy establishment now views foreign policy as a solved puzzle, in which every conceivable outcome can be accounted and planned for. They still labor under the idea that we have arrived at the “end of history,” in which liberal democracy’s primacy is inevitable and immutable. The tank treads of progress will crush all variables and reduce any individual choices or desires to irrelevancies.
This outlook gives them the illusion of control over something that is inherently uncontrollable.
On a practical level, that ideal has been disproven by the rise of China, the endurance of authoritarianism in Russia and the abject failure of nation-building projects in the Middle East.
But even in theory, it doesn’t hold up to human nature. It’s difficult to fully map interactions between individuals, much less between nations with complex histories, socioeconomic pressures and volatile politics. International relations naturally involves a level of guesswork that does not fit into the current model.
Instead of realizing that their outlook is the wrong way to view interactions between nations, many have explained Putin’s invasion away as an aberration, the nonsensical actions of a lunatic mind. Rampant speculation about Putin’s mental state and his physical health, however, is more of a desperate attempt to explain away his actions as an anomaly than a genuine appraisal of Putin’s decision-making.
“Oh, he’s just sick or he’s just crazy” vindicates their understanding of the ruling order and sidesteps the possibility that Putin is in fact a rational actor taking logical steps to achieve his goals. (The domestic political establishment retreated into similar modes of thought when Trump won the White House. There was no logical reason their order had been stampeded, Trump and his voters were simply crazy.)
Believing that he’s just evil, either a blood psychopath or a mustache-twirling cartoon villain, is similarly reductive.
Putin is bad, but he’s not dumb. He knew the U.S. wouldn’t directly intervene to help Ukraine mere months after the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. And he gambled that Europe would hamstring any attempt at truly crippling sanctions because of Central Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas. Sure enough, while Russian banks are being severely sanctioned, Russia’s real wealth — oil and natural gas — continues to flow.
A country as large, powerful and rich in resources as Russia is almost impossible to truly isolate. There will always be willing buyers who wish to prop up Russia as a bastion against the West. China signed a massive energy deal with Russia less than a month before the invasion and increased its exports of other Russian goods right after the fighting started.
Others are simply unconcerned about squabbles in Eastern Europe when they have more pressing economic considerations. India abstained during the vote in the U.N. to condemn the Russian attack.
But both are relatively unconcerned that Russia is breaking international etiquette when they are doing the same, in the case of China, or have an economic incentive to look the other way, as in the case of India.
It is idiotic to expect our adversaries, or even neutral rising powers, to play by the rules the West created for the West’s benefit. China isn’t going to play along with WTO rules that threaten to weaken their communist regime or bother with copyright laws that prevent it from catching up to Western technology. And India is going to take whatever shortcuts it can take to catch up to China and eventually the other global powers.
Putin refused to play by rules set by his adversaries. They drew a red line in Ukraine and threatened crippling sanctions if he dared cross it. He gambled that any reprisal would be similar to that levied against Russia after it seized Crimea in 2014. The West’s response this time has been far more robust, but, nevertheless, Russia’s fossil fuels continue to find a market in Europe.
China has similarly flouted economic rules, and it will be taking notes on Putin’s handling of the Ukraine crisis in relation to its own designs on Taiwan, islands in the South China Sea and the region of East Asia as a whole.
The international order expected the Chinese Communist Party to play by the rules when it was allowed to join the World Trade Organization. Instead, it has engaged in industrial espionage on a massive scale and succeeded in gutting American industry. The World Health Organization hoped China would be transparent about the origins of the coronavirus. Instead, it put up roadblocks to a serious investigation at every turn and used the WHO as a mouthpiece to deflect blame for the pandemic.
The fact that all of these actions were “unthinkable” or unaccounted for by Western foreign policy analysts shows that their current view is fundamentally flawed. Our rivals have no compunction about disregarding rules that they find troublesome, and unless we are willing to use military power or wage mutually devastating economic warfare, they will continue to flaunt those rules.
Hopefully the Russia-Ukraine conflict will wrest the U.S. and its allies out of the antiquated, and dangerously naive, consensus forged after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Only then can the West tackle foreign threats with a clear vision.
Hayden Daniel is the opinion editor at the Daily Caller.