Opportunities and Pitfalls for a Revived Liberal International Order

Opportunities and Pitfalls for a Revived Liberal International Order

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the world—and the Ukrainian counterattack in Kharkiv Oblast may have changed it again. While it’s too soon to say what will ultimately end up happening in Ukraine, at this point the continued existence of the Ukrainian state (if not its borders) is essentially assured, as is the deep military and economic weakening of Russia. Even if the Russian state can use mobilization to turn the tide militarily enough to capture substantial Ukrainian territory and hold itself together, its military capacity will be noticeably lessened for years to come—and there is the possibility for greater changes still. This weakening of the Russian sphere of influence creates opportunities for a revived liberalism, but potentially serious obstacles still stand in the way. An effective American response needs to reward allies while moving beyond offshore balancing to the creation of hardy liberal multilateral structures around the world. 

Regardless of the precise outcome of the war in Ukraine, the world’s eyes will be on it. The Ukrainian state and its people have made profound sacrifices for their sovereignty, and overwhelmingly support a westward orientation for the future. Support for EU membership runs at over eighty percent, compared to a mere two percent supporting joining a customs union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. For many, the war is about both Ukrainian sovereignty and the ability of Ukrainian society to make the choice to align westward. While Ukraine has been granted ‘candidate’ status in the EU, existing EU states like France are much more lukewarm about granting Ukraine full membership, with French president Emmanuel Macron warning that the process could take ‘decades’. The United States needs to ensure that Ukrainians enjoy notable material benefits from their westward turn—even if the EU itself is unwilling or unable to allow Ukraine to join their ranks. This may carry a hefty price tag in terms of rebuilding—but the strategic cost of allowing a very public US ally to fall into deeper poverty once the war is over is much steeper. If, in a decade, Ukraine (and other long suffering European states like Bosnia and Kosovo) appears to be on its way to Polish prosperity, the message to the world will be that support for democratic liberal norms, even when done imperfectly, is rewarded. If by contrast Ukraine languishes, other countries will be profoundly discouraged from following a similar path. And it is almost certainly the case that many other countries will be faced with similar choices.

Already, a power vacuum is emerging where Russia had previously balanced against other regional powers or exercised regional hegemony. Russia had long headed the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), consisting of itself, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. This organization strove to serve as a Eurasian counterweight to NATO, but its future is unclear. Only Belarus has provided material support for the invasion of Ukraine, and Kazakhstan has been opposed on a rhetorical level and is seen by many as moving out of the Russian sphere. It is Armenia and Central Asia, however, which are now demonstrating the impotence of the organization: under increased attack from its neighbor Azerbaijan in a conflict that has spread outside disputed territories into Armenian territory, Armenia had (at this writing) received no substantial support from Russia, and Russian peacekeepers in its territory have proven insufficient to secure it or prevent Azerbaijan from occupying Armenian territory. By contrast, US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Armenia shortly after the conflict erupted and has thrown considerable political capital behind the fragile ceasefire currently in place there.  In Central Asia, the already tense relationship between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan has recently resulted in Tajik shelling of Kyrgyz territory—a notable escalation from previous clashes. Other Russian clients are struggling as well—Syria, for example, is being hit by repeated Israeli airstrikes which have gone so far as to knock the civilian airport in Aleppo out of service. And Iran, perhaps Russia’s most important close ally (and one of a very few that has supported Russia’s war with weaponry) has been rocked by a series of immense protests against mandatory hijab and, by extension, the morality police and Islamic government that rules over them.  

All of these cases, and others beyond, show both the danger and promise of a distinctly weaker Russia. The immediate outbreaks of violence are the expected result of a balancer losing its capacity to balance—but the lesson should be that some policy beyond ‘offshore balancing’ should be pursued. In situations like Armenia and Azerbaijan, the US should play a role similar to that played by President Jimmy Carter in the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt: bring the two sides together to commit to a binding peace—and sweeten the deal for both of them with improved American relations and aid. The leading role US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has taken in current peace proceedings is wise in this regard. 

In other cases, Russian allies like Venezuela and perhaps even Iran will be realizing their suddenly greater vulnerabilities. The approach to these states should also be magnanimous—lifting some sanctions (particularly if done in a way to induce human rights progress) will not only benefit the people on both sides but will improve US strategic position. Obviously, these countries will not be immediate US allies (though some, like Armenia, may be quick to adopt a more friendly policy, by necessity). However, if Russia is unable to regain its position as a great power, they may well see the wisdom of keeping friendly relations with both the US and China, rather than aligning entirely with China. 

The result may be somewhat cooler relations with states like Israel and Turkey that have benefitted from US hostility towards their enemies. This should not be seen as a terrible outcome, however: both Israel and Turkey have shown, over the course of the war in Ukraine, that they do not see their own positions as universally ‘west aligned’, but rather as being independent states already navigating between power blocs—as of course is their right. This is the reality to which the US should be reacting.

There is also an economic dimension to Russia’s weakening. Economically, Russia was a major member of the BRICS group—a loose organization of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa aligned to present an alternative to western banking and financial hegemony. But the increasing isolation of Russia and potential recession and economic softening in China presents an opportunity for the US here, as well. 

US and European global financial structures, however, should learn the lessons of the last twenty years and the relative success of Chinese lending: the IMF, World Bank, and other economic organizations, have come under increasing criticism for attempting to dictate terms on developing countries regarding privatization and other structural adjustments required for loans. A softening of this approach, accompanied by greater willingness to forgive truly odious debt, could help bring about a more liberal world in the longer run, rather than forcing through ostensibly ‘liberal’ reforms that often generate considerable blowback (such as the water privatization scheme in Bolivia that contributed to the rise of more radical left wing parties there). The US, Europe, East Asia, and other developed capitalist states should be actively ensuring that prosperity continues to grow worldwide, and that this prosperity translates into higher living standards for the working class around the world. This will, in the long run, create a more stable liberal order—and the current window, with Russia firmly on the back foot, provides a new opportunity for liberal democracies to take the lead in fostering that development. 

Finally, the US should learn from what has worked in Ukraine. Just as a broad liberal alliance of states in Europe—especially the UK, Poland, and the Baltic & Nordic states—has emerged to support Ukraine militarily and diplomatically, a similar coalition of proximate states should be organized to defend other areas vulnerable to expansionism and revanchism. Most immediately this means that Taiwan would be best supported by its own arms with backing from Japan, South Korea, and potentially other neighbors concerned about Chinese influence, like the Philippines or Vietnam. The ‘hub and spokes’ security arrangement leaves each east Asian country in a tight bilateral alliance with the US but largely without the expectation of mutual cross support with one another. This arrangement will not be sufficient if the US remains—understandably—unwilling to directly assist its allies against nuclear powers, as has been the case in Ukraine. Transforming this arrangement into a multilateral mutual defense organization should be a top goal of American diplomacy. 

Of course such a sweeping liberal policy towards a changing world will attract opponents. The major objections will, as ever, be that the US is getting ‘soft on anti-Americanism’ if we lift sanctions on Iran or Venezuela, and that the US is sinking too much money into parts of the world that are ostensibly ‘not our problem’. Others may claim that any US involvement, even if it comes with a lifting of sanctions and genuine efforts at economic development, constitutes American imperialism. Both claims must be strongly countered. The coming decade presents opportunities not seen since the early 1990s to produce a world that is friendly to liberalism and democracy, one in which these values can flourish even as countries around the world gain more sovereignty free of the domineering influence of Russia. The last time the US had such an opportunity, much of the progress made in building such institutions (and the resources needed to economically support allies) was squandered by the War on Terror. If the US instead invests its substantial wealth in equally ambitious peaceful initiatives, we can make up for many of the errors of that period.

Featured Image is The President of Ukraine Visits NATO