Eighteen months ago the Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea shattered the norm against territorial aggression that had held since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The invasion validated the realist worldview and showed that China was not the new Russia—Russia is the new Russia. However, the threat to global stability posed by the invasion of Ukraine is far worse than any posed by a single state. The threat comes from the possibility of multiple powerful states acting without fear of reprisals. The international legal system that has existed since the end of WWII and the norms that have existed since the Persian Gulf War were simply ingeniously convenient ways to mask the persistence of the nature of the system that has existed since long before the treaties of Westphalia—an international system in which “the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.”There is no way to combat this problem, there are only ways to cope with it—and it is only a problem if states fail to recognize the nature of the system.
Realist international relations theory has long recognized the nature of the international system—one in which autonomous states operate in anarchy and seek to maximize power (offensive realism) or security (defensive realism). Constructivist IR theory emphasizes, among other things, the way that socially produced norms constrain state behavior. Norms constrain human behavior, too. Murder is illegal, but do you not murder someone because it is illegal, or because you know that murder is wrong? In most iterations of realism norms exist, but they are the product of power. In fact, the legal and normative framework we thought existed before the Ukraine crisis was largely constructed, enacted, regulated, and enforced, by the great powers, in a way that would maintain their great power status in perpetuity (and is why, as I’ve said in these “pages” before that no significant UN reform is the safest bet in world politics).
Regardless of the reason for their existence, the post Cold War international order is characterized by states abiding by laws and by norms. If the norms and laws fall apart—then the system will fall apart. And if the system falls apart we are left with uncertainty—and uncertainty is the enemy of peace and stability. Realism has always provided a guide for state behavior and states would be better off hewing closely to the advice of classical realists like Hans J. Morgenthau, George Kennan, and E.H. Carr, than in trusting policy decisions to anything other than calculations of interests. Vladimir Putin has shown the fragility of the constructivist worldview and the continued relevance of realism, both as a way to understand international politics, and as a way to develop policy.
Putin shattered a norm of state sovereignty that existed since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which President George H.W. Bush had included as part of his post Cold War “New World Order.”That war showed that it was no longer acceptable for states to invade other states and take their territory—not because it can’t be done, or even because it isn’t in the interest of the great powers, but because it’s just not what states do.
Saddam Hussein did not just wake up one day and decide to invade Kuwait. Kuwait was “slant drilling”Iraq’s oil out from under it. Instead of taking this dispute to an international body like the ICJ, Saddam Hussein did what would have once been the normal thing to do, and invaded and annexed Kuwait. In response, George H.W. Bush built the largest coalition in world history to oppose him. Every state in the world except for Jordan, Sudan, and Yemen (and the PLO) supported the coalition in one way or another. The world said that a practice that could have once been acceptable was no longer OK.
There were realists against the war—Colin Powell thought the U.S. should be involved only if Iraq crossed into Saudi Arabia—because Kuwait was small and unimportant.And there was a realist argument for the war—showing that aggression would not stand produced a tangible benefit for global stability and even global cooperation. In fact, some sort of new world order was important in light of the end of bipolarity—the most stable structure of the international system, according to many realists.
In Politics Among Nations, Morgenthau explained why, in the Cold War, small states were not annexed by the great power; in a bipolar system, each side will prevent the other from annexing even a very tiny island state, because it will tilt the balance. If any state’s sovereignty is violated, the potential for escalation into a nuclear war makes even the smallest campaign far too risky to undertake. Now, without the potential for a small conflict to escalate into a third world war, one might expect that stronger states could make good sport of taking weaker states—but they have not. The Gulf War set a precedent for continued stability—but that precedent was shattered by the invasion of Ukraine.
For the first time since Iraq invaded Kuwait, one UN member state entered another and said that territory X no longer belonged to the first country, it belonged to the invader (the annexation element is key to the statement). And there was quite a bit of rhetorical outcry and uproar…and then…nothing. No serious commentator, politician, or leader, called for a military operation to force Russia out of Ukraine. President Obama ’s policies have been to cut NATO’s losses—the United States and NATO have taken steps to prevent further Russian aggression, to sanction specific Russian leaders, and to allow, in Obama’s words, “Ukraine to make sure that not only are they able to weather this storm economically, but they’re also going to be able to continue to build up an effective security force to defend themselves from aggression.”Russia has been subjected to sanctions that appear to be having an effect on the Russian economy; but the timing of the sanctions with the collapse of the price of oil makes their true effects uncertain.And I am not at all sure that the U.S. would have taken any actions at all, had the U.S. not been on the brink of energy independence as a result of the North Dakota energy boom.
The global response to the Russian invasion of Crimea was a virtual non-response; and the non-response was the correct response. Nobody wants to fight a war against Russia over Ukraine. And Russia’s annexation of Crimea does not dramatically alter NATO abilities or the balance of power in the region. Its effects are far worse, it has shattered the artifice that states don’t invade other states because a global norm against aggression has developed. It showed that the true norm is that states don’t invade other states if they think that they will be made to suffer for it. Putin knew that Russia would suffer no or virtually no consequence and made the strategic calculation that the invasion was worth it, and he may end up being right. He has shown the world that if you are powerful enough, you can do whatever you want and nobody will stop you. What would Russia or China, or any other nuclear power, have to do to make it worth fighting a potentially nuclear war with them? North Korea engages in deadly and dangerous antics on a regular basis, but there is zero appetite for war with North Korea, even among the American congressmen who seem to be itching for a war with Iran.
Constructivists aren’t wrong that the international system is socially constructed. And in fact international law is obeyed by most states, even the United States and Russia, most of the time.There is also a much smaller difference between constructivism and realism, then between either of those and liberalism. The major difference is in the view of the system’s capacity for change. The invasion of Ukraine shows that the system itself hasn’t changed, and that while on the surface it may seem like international law and international norms were and are major constraining forces, it is ultimately the age-old combination of power and interest that are the constraining forces.
To that end, the lesson of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that states cannot be counted on to abide by norms, standard practices, or moral suasion. Nor can they be counted on to obey international law. They can be counted on to respond to actions and the realistic threats of actions, enforcements, and consequences. States need to bolster their defenses, including nuclear defenses, as best as they can—or need to bandwagon with a greater power—if they wish to ensure their own survival. International law can be a constraining force, but it is not, and will never be, equally applied. There is no way to change the nature of the state system, there are only ways to cope with it and it is only a problem if states fail to recognize the nature of the system.
Dr. Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at the World Policy Institute and a senior fellow at Bard College’s Center for Civic Engagement. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathancristol.