Ukraine and the myth of a new world order
Why the war will not revitalise the West.
The following is an edited extract from Frank Furedi’s forthcoming book, The Road to Ukraine: How the West Lost its Way, which will be published by De Gruyter on 3 October. Pre-order your copy here.
Almost from the moment Russia invaded Ukraine in February this year, Western governments and commentators seized on the war as an opportunity for revitalising the West. This is why the war was widely proclaimed to be heralding the beginning of a new era – as the ‘crucible of the new world order’.
Among the world leaders to promote this line was German chancellor Olaf Scholz. Back in March, he claimed that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine meant that the world stands in a ‘new era’. He announced an ‘historic shift’ in German defence policy, pledging €100 billion of investment in the German army for 2022 alone.
In fact, talk of a new era began before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For many, the war played into the pre-existing idea of the ‘Great Reset’. The Great Reset is a fantasy scenario invented by Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum. Back in June 2020, he argued that the Covid pandemic provided a compelling reason for the pursuit of a ‘great reset of capitalism’. For Schwab, this meant a more technocratic approach to capitalism.
Many Western politicos and pundits now argue that the invasion of Ukraine furthers the case for a Great Reset. For them, the Great Reset is a metaphor that signifies the coming of a new era and the end of the old.
Sometimes the language changes, and sometimes the focus shifts from geopolitics to the economy, but the sentiment is the same. ‘The invasion of Ukraine is a paradigm shift on the scale of 9/11’, British foreign secretary Liz Truss told an audience in Washington, DC on 10 March. ‘How we respond today will set the pattern for this new era.’ For Truss, the paradigm shift referred to ‘fundamentally changing the way free democracies approach global security’.
Others use the term ‘new world order’. For President Biden, a new world order means re-establishing American global hegemony. For others, it is premised on the decay of the old order. As Ukrainian presidential adviser Andriy Yermak warned:
‘The current international security system has nearly expired. It’s rotted through. Its remains have collapsed and buried the world order beneath. Trying to revive it is futile. Most of all it resembles a broken automaton: its limbs are still able to move, but its gears are worn out, its springs are stretched. And the synchronicity that used to give perfection to its movements has long gone.’
It may be tempting to view Ukraine as the crucible of the new world order. Indeed, we may be in a moment of transition. But there is little agreement about what we are transitioning towards. The global balance of power is unsettled, and many of the major players are far from clear about their direction of travel. As the astute commentator NS Lyons points out, it is much more accurate to interpret ‘the beginning of a new era’ as a ‘rebirth in a new form of the old one that spent much of the past two decades crumbling apart’.
The meaning of the war
Certainly, the US government views the war in Ukraine as an opportunity to revive the old American-dominated world order in a new form. This appears to be informing America’s principal war aim, which, rhetorically at least, is to defeat and humiliate Russia. Colonel Douglas Macgregor, a former senior adviser to the US defence secretary under Trump, outlined his assessment of Washington’s position in the following terms:
‘At this point, we have to conclude that there is a universal opposition to any peace arrangement that involves a recognition of any Russian success… In fact, if anything, it looks more and more as though [the] Ukrainians are almost incidental to the operation – in the sense that they are there to impale themselves on the Russian army and to die in great numbers. Because the real goal of this entire thing is the destruction of the Russian state and Vladimir Putin.’
Macgregor’s cynical assessment of America’s chief war aim is shared by other Washington-based experts. As Leon Panetta, former director of the CIA and secretary of defence under Barack Obama, explained in March 2022:
‘We are engaged in a conflict here. It is a proxy war with Russia whether we say so or not. That, effectively, is what is going on. And for that reason, we have to be sure we are providing as much weaponry as possible… Make no mistake about it, diplomacy is going nowhere unless we have leverage. And the way you get leverage is by, frankly, going in and killing Russians. That is what the Ukrainians have to do. We have to continue the war effort… Because this is a power game.’
Not only did Panetta forget to mention that ‘going in and killing Russians’ would likely necessitate the loss of thousands and thousands of Ukrainian lives – he also failed to acknowledge that the waging of a proxy war by the US against Russia signals that Washington’s war aims do not necessarily align with Ukraine’s.
In effect, what we have are two wars running in parallel: Russia’s war against Ukraine, where Ukraine is fighting a defensive battle aimed at securing its sovereignty; and America and some of its allies’ proxy war against Russia, the aim of which is to reduce Russia’s global power substantially and restore US hegemony at the head of a new world order.
It is important to note that the aim of defending the borders and sovereignty of Ukraine is not synonymous with defeating and humiliating Russia. Supporting Ukraine to defend itself is essential for upholding its sovereignty and independence. However, no one’s interest – including that of Ukraine – is served by imposing a crushing and humiliating defeat on Russia.
This point was well made by Henry Kissinger in May, when he said that such a crushing defeat would have disastrous consequences for the long-term stability of Europe. What concerns Kissinger is that if the West does not recognise Russia’s role in the European balance of power, an era of permanent conflict could ensue.
Questions about America’s war aims were also raised in a recent New York Times editorial:
‘Is the United States, for example, trying to help bring an end to this conflict, through a settlement that would allow for a sovereign Ukraine and some kind of relationship between the United States and Russia? Or is the United States now trying to weaken Russia permanently? Has the administration’s goal shifted to destabilising Vladimir Putin or having him removed?’
The end of the American order
In effect, America’s proxy war against Russia, waged in the interests of a new world order, subordinates Ukraine’s cause to a global power-play. America’s attempt to re-establish global hegemony at the expense of Russia is also unrealistic. It is a policy that leaves China and much of the non-Western world out of the equation. It is a short-sighted strategy that is likely to set in motion a chain of events leading to further global conflict.
Outwardly, the war in Ukraine has provided a focus for the consolidation of Western unity and the rebirth of NATO as a credible force. However, the longer the war continues, the more it becomes clear that members of the Western alliance have conflicting war aims. While Washington has claimed that it is interested in nothing less than the defeat of Russia, at different times, the leaders of France, Italy and Germany have talked of seeking a ceasefire, even if it means Ukraine ceding some of its territory.
Despite all the talk about the revival of the West, genuine unity cannot be forged through forcing Russia on to the defensive. Trying to establish a new world order by reviving the glory days of the Cold War, in which the conflict between the two superpowers dominated the world, cannot succeed in a world in which there are multiple power centres.
The aspiration for a new world order needs to reckon with the reality that a one-sided focus on Russia distracts us from other points of conflict. We have seen a major shift in how geopolitics works since the end of the Cold War. We have moved from a bipolar to a unipolar and finally to a multipolar global reality. This trend has rendered geopolitics and international affairs more fluid and less predictable. During the pandemic, these trends intensified and significantly undermined the effectiveness of many of the international institutions that emerged in the post-Second World War era.
In recent decades, the most significant geopolitical development has been the decline of American global hegemony. Washington’s anxiety about the decline of American economic power intensified in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. America and other Western nations had to rely on China to help them contain the destructive consequences of this crisis. The shifting balance of power in the world economy led America to attempt to hold back China’s economic and technological ascendancy by emphasising military containment. Aukus, the new security alliance between the US, Britain and Australia, reflects the refocusing of geopolitical strategy toward the Asia-Pacific region and the containment of China.
In the current unsettled global environment, the declaration that a new world order has arrived is premature. Indeed, it is driven less by reality than by a desire to escape from the past. And this poses serious dangers.
Those who perceive Ukraine through the metaphor of a Great Reset need to understand that you cannot reboot human society. It is possible to reset something mechanical or physical, but not history. There are too many unresolved issues from the past that are making their presence felt today. And we ignore them at our peril.
No end in sight
On both sides, few seem willing to face up to the reality of the war in Ukraine. There has not even been a declaration of war. Putin continues to refer to it as a ‘special military operation’, while Western governments supporting Ukraine have been extremely careful not to cross a line that would lead to war with Russia.
This is a war that neither side can win nor dare lose. The issues in play are existential, since what is at stake is Ukraine’s status as a sovereign nation and the integrity and survival of the Russian Federation.
It currently looks like neither side is capable of inflicting a decisive victory over the other. Russia may consolidate its pre-war position in eastern Ukraine, and Ukraine can thwart Putin’s ambitions and survive as an independent nation. That would represent a moral victory for Ukraine.
However, it will not result in a durable peace, whatever the short-term outcome. Both sides know that a ceasefire will be temporary and serve as a prelude to an outbreak of conflict in what has been a classical frontier war ever since it first erupted in 2014. Matters are further complicated by the current state of global instability, one where the world order is undermined by the absence of clarity about the balance of power.
Geopolitical illiteracy and the historical amnesia prevailing in the West today have helped lead us to this impasse. The Western rhetoric of a new world order or a Great Reset is devoid of any serious content. Stumbling in the dark, the West is in danger of being trapped in its presentist swamp.
Western societies will have to learn that you cannot pause or delete history. As the war in Ukraine illustrates, the past catches up with us sooner or later.
Frank Furedi is the author of The Road to Ukraine: How the West Lost its Way.
The Road to Ukraine will be published by De Gruyter on 3 October. Pre-order your copy here.
Pictures by: Getty Images.
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