The Russian invasion of Ukraine into Ukraine was a wake-up call for liberalism advocates.
It challenged certain accepted ideas and revealed the fragility of the liberal international order. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, one could have had the illusion of a world order guided by simple economic motives, free from wars and military rivalries between major powers.
An order in which economic gain and mutual protection were guaranteed by law, the self-determination of peoples and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. International trade, cross-border investment, the creation of global value chains, and ever broader free trade agreements, were certainly motivated by a quest for individual and collective prosperity. However, they also had to have the effect of creating interdependencies, thus preventing or mitigating conflict, and promoting the spread of Western values.
This complex interdependence was to act as a stabilizing force in international relations, as economic growth and state security were inextricably linked. In such an international order, one might think that violence is controlled, wars between states are rare and that the invasion of one state by another is of little significance.
However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as if through a tectonic shift, is bringing to light the new deal in international relations. It is the largest conventional military attack since World War II, and it is the greatest challenge to the liberal order that has governed international relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Professors at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the Université Laval, and both members of the École Supérieure d’Études Internationales, our research focuses on the strategic dimension of international relations and the political aspects of economic development.
The False Promises of Liberalism
However, this invasion is not the first sign of the difficulties facing the liberal international order.
The trade war between China and the United States, the growing paralysis of international organizations such as the WTO, the populism that undermines the proper functioning of international institutions and the significant growth of defense budgets in many countries remind us that mistrust, even violence, of interstate relations did not suddenly reappear with the war in Ukraine.
These unfortunate trends remind us that the impact of liberalism’s globalization has not made everyone happy.
This order, however, was accompanied by a story from the West, based on the benefits of liberalism in economic, social, political and cultural fields. In fact, our generation, educated after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, finds it difficult to think outside the liberal framework, to envision a society based on different organizing principles.
Economic liberalism, which rests on the idea that demand should be the ultimate arbiter of useful innovations, is probably the system of organization of production that has made it most possible to improve human health, education and the satisfaction of our material needs. to improve. Political liberalism for its part, by subjecting our leaders to the regular sanction of votes and power changes, would oblige them to make decisions in the best interests of the greatest number, to avoid being trapped by major economic interests. Finally, cultural liberalism relied on natural selection in the large market of ideas, greatly increased with the advent of social networks.
The increase in financial crises in developing countries in the 1990s testifies to the dangers of too rapid liberalization. Democracy too often sacrifices to the economic interests of the richest, perhaps because of the socialization of our political and economic elites in the same schools, perhaps because it is the same individuals who successively occupy decision-making positions in the public and private sectors, perhaps because of the private financing of election campaigns.
Likewise, we gradually realized that the debate about ideas was never completely free from bias. For example, we knew that social media’s operating rules were open to manipulation, by big brands, by ‘influencers’, by ‘troll factories’, and even by certain political candidates in Western democracies.
Critics of the liberal order also come from outside. Certain radical ideologies, threatened by the success of the liberal ideology, have thus mobilized and used the methods of terrorism and political repression to combat it. It is sadly ironic to note that the sources of this criticism leave no doubt and are incapable of any self-criticism.
The end of the liberal order is not inevitable
Apart from this criticism and the invasion of Ukraine, the difficulties facing the liberal order have the same cause: changes in the distribution of power in the international system.
On the one hand, US power has reduced the number of interstate wars over the past 30 years. On the other hand, it is hard not to see in the 2003 invasion of Iraq a demonstration that this American power remained mainly at the service of the pursuit of its material interests.
However, since the economic and financial crisis of 2008, many works have fueled debate about the supposed decline of US power. The first is that this crisis has weakened the US economy. Budget deficits have forced Washington to cut spending and begin a relative withdrawal from international crisis management, a situation that contrasts with previous interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The second observation is that the multiplication of economic and political centers of power has made the currents of influence more diffused in the international system. BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are increasingly asserting their interests in their bilateral relations and in international fora.
Third, the perceived upheavals are caused by the staggering growth of the Chinese economy and its military confirmation in the Asia-Pacific region.
These multiple geopolitical tensions translate into an increasingly perceived opposition of certain authoritarian leaders to the liberal order. While the Ukrainian crisis has essentially demonstrated that US leadership is still effective, it is clear that its moral legitimacy is increasingly being challenged.
And in fact, many today are heralding a “realistic” new world order, defined by power relations and the zero-sum game.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point towards a world of competition among the world’s great powers. The idea of national interest defined in terms of security and power, rather than in terms of cooperation and growth, would regain the importance it had in the 19th century in justifying the great wars between European nations and colonization.
However, this new world order is not inevitable. The coming decades are not necessarily destined to oppose the West and China (Russia’s international prestige seems to have irretrievably diminished at this stage).
Conflict, cold or hot, is very expensive. Everyone has an interest in avoiding the massive destruction caused by armed conflict, in both life and equipment. Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine gives us food for thought to avoid such wars in the future.
The lessons of the war in Ukraine
- 1) The Great Powers must learn to better communicate with each other about their respective capabilities and ambitions.
Easier said than done, in a world where information and political statements can be manipulated for strategic purposes. The fact remains that two leaders of hostile countries who have different information, or who read this information according to two incompatible reading schedules, almost inevitably lead to disaster.
There is no better demonstration of the difficulty of communicating clearly than the flawed use of the famous “red lines”: between the red line established by Barack Obama regarding the use of chemical weapons, shamelessly and without consequence crossed by Bashar Al-Assad in Syria from 2013 and Joe Biden’s refusal to draw red lines during Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. In either case, the consequences of such miscommunication are disastrous.
- 2) States threatened with rapid dismantling are most likely to cause armed conflict
This observation was made by proponents of the power transition theory at the time and remains clearly relevant with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This reality raises the more general question of the rapid evolution of the balance of power and of the wars aimed at preventing an adversary from being the most powerful tomorrow. This is what is sometimes called the ‘security dilemma’: a state that arms itself to protect itself becomes a factor of global instability. In an arms race there are only losers. Once this is established, the great unknown becomes that of the United States’ response to China’s rise as a rival in international relations.
- 3) NATO countries will no longer be able to invest 2% of their GDP in their armed forces.
In the past 30 years, few Western countries have shouldered the cost of their own security and agreed to play a role in maintaining international order. In the current context, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify that certain members of the alliance, including Canada, do not contribute at least to the extent of their economic weight. In that regard, last February’s announcement by Chancellor Olaf Scholz of staggering growth in Germany’s defense budget is a step in the right direction.
The weakening of the liberal international order does not necessarily mean that the West will have to forego its benefits. For those of us who still hope to enjoy the prosperity and freedom it brings, the above three moderate lessons are crucial. They can make the 21st century look different from the 20th — or worse.
By Arthur Silve, Associate Professor of Economics, Laval University andFull Professor in the Department of Political Science at Université Laval, Université Laval
The original version of this article was published on The Conversation.