In recent weeks, watching Western leaders denounce President Vladimir Putin for Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine has been a surreal experience. Russia’s annexation of the Crimea has been called “a violation of international law”, a throwback to an era of imperial land grabs. In the 21st century, countries that want to be taken seriously simply do not go about bullying smaller nations. Such thuggish behaviour supposedly violates some geopolitical ethic that most of the world could be forgiven for being ignorant of. In response to Western sermonizing, one can easily imagine Allende, Mosadegh, Saddam, Gaddafi and Lumumba and many others in the Valhalla of imperially-liquidated heads of state gasping incredulously at the self-righteous blather emanating from White Hall and the White House.
To be sure, Russia is guilty of aggression towards Ukraine. She has violated the latter’s territorial integrity and is definitely a bully towards her Eastern European neighbours. But Putin’s conduct is hardly novel. International law has long been the protean plaything of great powers, and invoking it in this case may have had impact were it not for the long list of international incidents in which the US and her allies gave it short shrift. Invocations of international law suggest a global legal order in which all nations are bound by the same rules. Instead it masks an order defined by American exceptionalism and the primacy of Western interests in which America operates as a lone-ranging super sheriff that is above the law.
Military intervention in sovereign nations has long been common international practice despite the shock that many nations profess when it is perpetrated by others. From the Falklands Islands to the Suez Canal to Kosovo, major powers have remorselessly forced their will on weaker countries to advance actual or perceived vital interests.
In 1983, the US invaded Grenada claiming that it was necessary to protect Americans and cited as legal basis for the invasion, a request by the little-known Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS). It ignored the Organization of American States (OAS) which handles matters of collective security in the region and which was formed expressly to protect the principles of noninterference and national sovereignty. The US used its veto power in the United Nations Security Council to kill a resolution condemning the invasion as “a flagrant violation of international law and of” Grenada’s “independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity”. President Ronald Reagan’s position was that the US can and may use force to challenge regimes that threaten American security. It is possible to transpose the rhetoric and the justifications used by America on that occasion with those deployed by Russia for its recent aggression against Ukraine. They are virtually the same, and for good reason. Russia is not an outlier. It has acted imperially as her fellow major powers often do. Indeed, Russia possesses as much belief in her uniqueness as America does in her own exceptionalism.
The problem of the international order goes beyond Russian expansionism or American vigilantism. The big five of the UN Security Council exercise special prerogatives in similar ways. Russia sees the former Soviet republics and chunks of Eastern Europe as her sphere of influence just as the US sees Latin and Central America as her own geostrategic backyard. Britain remains prepared to use military force against Argentina to keep hold of the Falklands which is almost 13, 000 kilometers away from the British Isles and only about 160 kilometers from Argentina. China projects its power in South East Asia. France looks upon its erstwhile colonial possessions with Napoleonic affection.
An international law that equally binds all nations is far from evident. Russia bullies Ukraine and Georgia. America bullies Venezuela and Cuba. Britain bullies Argentina. China bullies Taiwan and Tibet. France relives her imperial heydays with interventions in Africa. In fact, France’s longest land border is not with Germany or Spain but with Brazil due to her colonial territory of French Guiana.
With regard to Ukraine, Russia is in a strong position. She is Europe’s major energy supplier and under Putin is intent on restoring the lost glory of the Rodina. The West is war weary, exhausted by exertions in the Middle East and Central Asia. Western publics are not as credulous as they were over a decade ago when George W. Bush and Tony Blair sent their armies into protracted wars at great cost and for uncertain ends. The austerity measures undertaken after the global financial crisis and accompanying defence cuts have also dented national confidence on both sides of the Atlantic. There is no enthusiasm for military confrontation, least of all with the Russian juggernaut. As the American political scientist, Michael Mandelbaum once sardonically observed, “The worst possible maxim to follow in geopolitics is ‘Pick on someone your own size.’” The feeble sanctions imposed on Russia by the West indicate the latter’s impotence.
The lesson from the Ukrainian debacle is that an international order based on American supremacy or the primacy of the big five is no longer sustainable. The challenge is not Russian expansionism; it is an unequal international order that permits imperial exceptionalism and vigilantism. Until a genuine global democratic order emerges, in which all nations are treated equally, the world will continue to witness unilateral military actions. Emerging powers will be tempted to execute military solutions in furtherance of their strategic interests and without recourse to international institutions which are often no more than the talk shops of the impotent. The 21st century’s main geopolitical challenge is the democratization of the international order.
(All images sourced online)