In 2000 the eminent British diplomat Robert Cooper published a short book in which he declared the end of the European balance-of-power system and the imperial urge of the 19th century after 1989. Instead, he saw the emergence of three types of states: the pre-modern, the modern and the post-modern. According to Cooper, the main characteristics of the latter were the rejection of force in international relations, the irrelevance of borders and security based on transparency, mutual openness and interdependence. By contrast, the other two types of state either still represented classical nation states or had lost the legitimate monopoly on the use of force and produced chaos and disorder. To create stability, the post-modern West, including the EU, Japan, Canada and the US, would need to engage, so Cooper, in a kind of liberal imperialism by externalising its own institutions and fostering economic integration. The key question to be answered, however, concerned Russia: Would it become post-modern and join the liberal alliance?
In the past two years Russia and the West have taken irreconcilable views and positions towards the political developments in Kiev. At the peak of the crisis in summer and early autumn 2014 one could even have gained the impression of an up-coming war. Following the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the EU and the United States introduced travel bans and financial restrictions on members of the Russian political elite. Simultaneously, the country was excluded from the G8. After the crash of MH17 in July 2014 the EU and the United States imposed more far-reaching financial and economic sanctions. The security relations deteriorated as a consequence. NATO suspended all practical civilian and military cooperation. At its Wales summit in September the alliance started to enhance its reassurance efforts among members and prepared a Readiness Action Plan to respond swiftly and firmly to new security challenges. These measures were backed up by a value-based rhetoric and calls to unite the liberal Euro-Atlantic alliance against an aggressive Russian foreign policy.
Today, more than a year after that peak, the situation looks quite different. Not only do we have a ceasefire in Donbas, but there is actual progress on the implementation of Minsk II. First, statements by French and German politicians hold out the prospect of lifting sanctions. Moreover, the overall foreign policy focus of both Russia and the West has shifted from Ukraine to the Middle East. European governments are preoccupied with the refugee crisis, while the Syrian civil war once again dominates international headlines. In September the Russian Federation started air strikes against the Islamic State and insurgent groups are fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However, in contrast to the Western outcry over Russian action in Ukraine, there is now only a handful of political activists and journalists who call for containment and stronger Western engagement in Syria against Russia. Instead, it seems that the majority of the political establishment has slowly come to realize that in face of the eminent threat of Islamist terror collaboration is key. Although most Western states are critical of Russia`s strategy and its one-sided support of Assad, the black-and-white rhetoric and moralizing discourse of the past year has given way to more Realpolitik.
In light of the constant danger of war and the growing complexity of international politics, the West has to re-think its liberal agenda. Surely, political order is not per se more important than justice. But there is no justice without order either. Moreover, an overemphasis on the practical enforcement of one’s particular normative ideal is likely to contribute to the complete disruption of relations or even the collapse of the existing order with all its destructive consequences. For the sake of governing the globe, this insight calls upon us to pay attention to the perceptions of non-liberal powers and to find compromises where possible, instead of championing double standards and moral outrage. The real threat to world order is not so much competition for a leading role in international politics, but the possibility that both established and emerging powers act as shirkers who seek to avoid the costs of providing global governance or who antagonize each other’s efforts as a matter of principle. Contrary to what Cooper suggested in 2000, we are back to the balance-of-power system that Europe had championed between 1815 and 1914 and that was also the cornerstone of the UN until 1989. The time of liberal imperialism is over. Instead, we are again confronted with competing interests and agendas. For better or for worse, we are back to normal.
Alexander Graef is a research assistant and PhD candidate in political science at the University of St.Gallen, Switzerland. His doctoral thesis deals with the Russian expert community on foreign and security policy. He holds MA degrees in International Relations from Free University Berlin and the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). In the past he has worked on projects for the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), the German Embassy Moscow and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. In 2011 he was the head of the German Delegation at the Y20 Summit in Paris.