There is an old English saying: “The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine”. Or to put it more colloquially, “What goes around comes around.” Nowhere is this truer than in the sphere of international relations.
To fully appreciate events in the Ukraine and what they mean, it’s necessary to know a bit about the current state of global affairs. During the Cold War international institutions – especially the UN Security Council – failed to perform, primarily because topics on which any degree of consensus existed between East and West were scarce on the ground. It is slightly misleading to say that this led to the USA and USSR carving up (sometimes quite literally) the world between them, because no one was precisely under an obligation to engage in this kind of behavior, but it certainly provided a handy, and not entirely spurious, excuse.
When the Cold War ended, Western nations and their allies were abruptly presented with an open playing field. They dominated the international institutions (especially the UN, IMF and World Bank), as well as the global economy (via the G-7), and were now free to wield these tools to remake the world in an image more consonant with the values they had spent the last half century so loudly professing. Democracy, freedom, human rights, economic prosperity – now that the Wall was down all of this stuff would shortly be coming everyone’s way as we entered into a Golden Age of international law and multilateral cooperation. Might would no longer be quite so right, realpolitik would give way to principle.
That was the theory, anyway. What happened, unfortunately, was that a few people – by and large based in Western nations, but by no means representative of their fellow citizens – took this opportunity to “take it all”, or at least as much of it as they could swallow without choking. Historically, this type of behavior has been de rigeur in international relations and old habits die hard. This “take it while it’s going” attitude meant using all the old institutions (the UN, the IMF) and the new ones (like the International Criminal Court) purely in pursuit of their own self-interests. These were quite narrow, as the people in charge of Western nations at this point were by and large corporate-friendly types who didn’t harbor too much sympathy for the unwashed masses. As a result, the post-War Keynesian economic framework was systematically dismantled, whole new nations entered the bond-servitude of IMF debt, and the new International Criminal Court was wielded effectively against recalcitrant third world leaders (Laurent Gbagbo, Muammar Gaddafi), while intervention-happy first world countries like Britain and the United States disingenuously claimed that over the 70 years since the Second World War they had been unable to come up with a definition of “aggression” (a feat all the more amazing, when one considers that the whole realm of international criminal law was kicked off by exactly these nations prosecuting leading Nazis for precisely this crime).
Through all of these short-sighted policies, the message came through loud and clear: my way or the highway. Nothing’s changed.
International law practitioners could not fail to notice that in some respects our world was getting worse. In particular, inequality was increasing and control of our political and economic framework was rapidly devolving on fewer and fewer individuals, who made decisions that very few people could even understand, much less partake in. We were less well-off than our parents were and shut out from the very political processes that we had been trained to participate in. Money and connections were fast becoming the only qualifications one needed to get any job involving public responsibility, and ideas of economic and political equality that had once been mainstream were dismissed as “radical” and “naïve” with a vehemence that increased with each passing year.
And this is why, for at least the past ten years, the multipolar world is a vision that has gained increasing traction in the international relations realm as possibly a fairly decent alternative to rule by the 1 percent. In this particular scenario, the world is again carved up, but this time four or five superpowers are in play.
Who are these superpowers? Certainly, the USA and the EU, which work in tandem on many issues. The EU is, of course, still the lesser partner, but the more human and economic resources at its disposal, the more powerful the EU is going to be ten or twenty years down the line; hence, the impetus for rapid eastward expansion. China is also a certainty. With a billion people at its disposal, it is already the world’s second largest economy and has managed to translate this into spot number three in voting power at the World Bank. In this global chess game, Russia (the fourth power here) has adopted a position that has thus far mainly been defensive, not because of any inherent goodness, but merely because that’s where the chips are lying. Traditional client-States, like Syria and Iran, are firmly in Western crosshairs and the EU has already snapped up much of its former sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. While the EU is expanding as far as possible, Russia is trying to double down on what has traditionally been its sphere of influence in order to stay in the game. These familiar actors may eventually be rounded out by India and/or a more integrated South America spearheaded by Brazil.
The current wrangling over the Ukraine has really only exposed some of the ways great powers do business with each other, i.e. testing where the boundaries lie. Will the boundary between the EU and Russia be on the eastern border of the Ukraine, the western border of the Ukraine, or smack down the middle? It’s hardly the type of question where you just sit back and see how things shake out when you are literally responsible for the fate of your nation (especially when military facilities are at stake), and it is a bland truism to point out that when two powerful nations set sights on each other, anyone in between them is in for a rough ride. This painful process is deeply rooted in an international system which shows no mercy for losers and very little for the hapless bystander.
As this indicates, the multipolar world is in many respects regressive and nationally-oriented, but it does present a sea change from what we have been experiencing over the past twenty years, which is rule by an unchecked 1 percent and a world descending into modern feudalism. Russia before Putin was run by oligarchs with many a conservative Western analyst openly proposing emulating them. Had that continued and had China’s thousands of billionaires and millionaires gotten onboard, we might be looking at a much worse picture.
Now I admit that a choice between Cold War Version 2.0 with new and improved superpowers, or global serfdom is hardly inspiring stuff. But if we want to avoid making that choice, we’re going to have to consider some deep changes.
When I talk about the slow-grinding mills of God, I’m not primarily referring to Eastern or Western powers’ ability to call “humanitarian intervention”, “minority rights” or “propaganda black ops” on each other, terms which after decades of misuse retain a legal meaning, but have lost much currency in the broader area of public consumption. I’m referring to us as citizens, citizens primarily in the Western world, because we are still, despite everything, in the strongest position to affect international relations. As citizens we haven’t demanded a great deal of accountability from our governments over the past two decades and have turned a blind eye to policies that have not only served to virtually dispossess us, but also to alienate us from other people whom we, at the end of the day, have no choice but to get along with, given as we’re all inhabiting the same rock. Years of sitting back and hoping that someone else will take care of this mess is all catching up on us now.
The good news is that it is perfectly possible to have an international system which does a far better job of providing a principled framework for dispute resolution than the current one does, but only if we all ditch the “my way or the highway” attitude, which has prevented the World Trade Organization, International Criminal Court, International Monetary Fund and United Nations from fulfilling their roles by putting short-term gains for the few ahead of long-term sustainability for everyone. It does require some effort though. Time to ditch reality TV in favor of tracking your MP’s voting record, and replace general complaint hour at the pub with volunteering for any of the myriad causes that don’t just talk about change, but actually do it. Rolling Jubilee which buys up and then writes off debt is a good example, but there are literally thousands of others. Demanding a (truly) independent investigation into sniper attacks on protesters in the Ukraine also comes to mind. Considering EU Foreign Policy Coordinator Catherine Ashton’s lukewarm response when this point was raised with her by the Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, that might well be necessary. Then there are all the legacy issues: drone strikes, Guantanamo Bay, Iraq… the usual. They’ve blurred the lines of international law – in public perception – and if we want to move forward, those lines need to get sharp again; it means dealing with those issues head on and owning up to what went wrong.
The bottom line is that we have worked ourselves into a corner over the past twenty years by dismantling the very international legal system that would have enabled us to achieve our hopes of peace and prosperity. Trust is at an all-time low. We need to start rebuilding confidence in our international system and international law. Together!
Not willing to go that effort? Well, welcome to the multipolar world then. And just remember, that’s the good option.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.