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It appears the West has awakened from its post-cold war stupor. The sight of Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine without any justification, the sound of air raid sirens in a European capital, and the videos of Russian missiles destroying residential areas have shaken both the most cynical isolationists and the most peace-loving, anti-war activists. Putin’s war has shattered Fukuyama’s fever dream of a final global victory of liberalism, as the Time magazine front page made abundantly clear: History is not over, it never was.
The three features of the apparent new liberal order: economic interdependence, international institutions, and European demilitarization proved to be either hindrances or useless against the advance of armored columns. Instead of promoting democracy, the interdependence of the Russian economy with the West, especially in energy policy, turned Germany into a state subservient to Moscow’s interests that had to be shamed into sending weapons to Ukrainians.
The time of a relaxed, passive West has come to an end
The United Nations, the institution that was the center of international legitimacy during the 1990s and early 2000s was completely futile. Antonio Guterres was relegated to making unworkable pleas at the meeting of the Security Council (that Russia itself chaired), while Putin ordered his shock troops to move on to Kyiv.
The lack of European military preparedness, fueled by now-misguided theories of the supposed end of wars and an ultra-liberal optimism in multilateralism, left the entire continent ill-prepared for Russian tanks crossing the Ukrainian border. The vast majority of European NATO, with the exceptions of the UK, France, Poland, and the Baltics, have failed to meet the 2% military expenditure threshold. Europe expected America and the UK to foot the bill of their own protection, while also making their economies dependent on Russia. Now they’ve realized that this arrangement will no longer work, as America also needs to pay attention to the rise of China in the East.
This crisis also showed that, while ideologies do play a role in geopolitics, it is naïve to say that they are the only factor that determines alliances; good old realism always has a role to play. Developed democracies like Germany and Italy had to be shamed into changing their reluctance to take harsh economic sanctions or sending arms to Ukraine. In contrast, authoritarian Turkey and “illiberal” Poland delivered quick and effective support to the Ukrainian cause. Why? Because Poland and Turkey see Russian expansion as an existential threat, while German and Italian politicians are too dependent on oligarch money flowing into their pockets.
Even if many reasonably find Erdogan’s authoritarianism reprehensive, or Poland’s social policies as too regressive, it would be the biggest folly to isolate them from the Western world when they have proven their strategic worth as allies in Ukraine’s hour of need. The West can’t afford to ignore crucial allies in this new era of great power competition.
Putin’s war is the end of the “Pax Americana”
America was equally awakened from its post-cold war stupor. Democrats found out that strong-worded statements, “soft power,” and PR spins were not enough to deter actors who see the liberal international order as nothing more than window dressing for American hegemony. Isolationist Republicans, many of whom even expressed sympathy towards Putin’s irredentism, are now repulsed by the images coming from Ukraine and are changing their tone towards Russia. Does this mean that the GOP will go back to its neocon ways? No, but it certainly does show the world is far more dangerous than we thought and America cannot just pretend it does not exist and only look inwards.
Putin’s invasion marks the official end of the Pax Americana. It revealed that the world of international law and norms was only sustained by the hegemony of American power. It is time for a smart, muscular, wise foreign policy. One that detangles the American economy from depending on foreign adversaries, one that stops believing the triumph of liberal democracies will happen out of nowhere, and one that refocuses on strengthening its military to face the new challenges ahead.
The international order of silly liberalism, the one that thought history did not apply and that didn’t even want to fight for its survival, is over. If we want to maintain a world safe from Chinese and Russian hegemony, we ought to remember that neither PR spins nor burying our heads in the sand will be enough. In order to achieve our overarching goal of a world where authoritarian powers are not the global hegemons, we will need brawny diplomacy that rebuilds and wisely uses our military and economic strength. The only way to maintain our strategic goal of a liberal order is through a realist approach.
Daniel is a Political Science and Economics student from the University of South Florida. He worked as a congressional intern to Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) from January to May 2020. He also is the head of international analysis at Politiks // Daniel es un estudiante de Cs Políticas y Economía en la Universidad del Sur de la Florida. Trabajo como pasante legislativo para el Representate Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) desde enero hasta mayo del 2020. Daniel también es el jefe de análisis internacional de Politiks.