Does the invasion of Ukraine herald a new world order?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine was a wake-up call for liberals.

He challenged certain received ideas and revealed the fragility of the liberal international order. Since the fall of the Steel Curtain in 1989, one could have had the illusion of a world order guided by simple economic motivations, free from wars and military rivalries between great powers.

An order in which economic gains and mutual protection were guaranteed by law, the self-determination of peoples, and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. International trade, cross-border investment, the establishment of “global value chains” and ever-expanding free trade agreements were undoubtedly motivated by the pursuit of individual and collective prosperity. However, they also had to have the effect of creating mutual dependencies and thus preventing or mitigating conflicts, and favoring the spread of Western values.

This complex interdependence was to act as a stabilizing force in international relations, as economic growth and state security were inextricably linked. In this international order, one might believe, violence is under control, wars between states are rare, and invasion, in particular, of one state by another makes little sense.

However, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia brings to light, as a tectonic change, the new agreement on international relations. It is the largest conventional military attack since World War II, and is the biggest challenge for the liberal order that has governed international relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Professors in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Université Laval, and both members of the École Supérieure d’Études Internationales, our research focuses on the strategic dimension of international relations and the political aspects of economic development.

The false promises of liberalism

This invasion, however, is not the first sign of the difficulties encountered by the liberal international order.

The trade war between China and the United States, the growing paralysis of international organizations such as the WTO, populism that undermines the smooth running of international institutions, and the significant growth of defense budgets in many countries, remind us that distrust, even violence, of interstate relations did not suddenly reappear with the war in Ukraine.

These unfortunate trends remind us that the impact of the globalization of liberalism has not made everyone happy.

This order was, however, accompanied by a narrative from the West, based on the benefits of liberalism in the economic, social, political and cultural spheres. In fact, our generation, educated after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, finds it difficult to think outside the liberal framework, to imagine what a society based on other organizing principles is like.

Economic liberalism, which is based on the idea that demand must be the ultimate arbiter of useful innovations, is probably the system of production organization that has best advanced human health, education, and satisfaction of our material needs. Political liberalism, on the other hand, by subjecting our leaders to the regular sanction of the vote and the alternation in power, had to force them to make decisions in the interest of the greatest number, to prevent them from being caught by big economic. interests. Finally, cultural liberalism had a natural selection in the great market of ideas, considerably enlarged with the advent of social media.

The proliferation of financial crises in developing countries during the 1990s testifies to the dangers of too rapid liberalization. Democracy too often sacrifices the economic interests of the richest, perhaps because of the socialization of our political and economic elites in the schools themselves, perhaps because it is the same individuals who successively take decision-making positions in the public and private sectors. perhaps for private funding of election campaigns.

Similarly, we gradually realized that the debate of ideas was never entirely free of bias. For example, we knew that the rules of operation of social media were open to manipulation by big brands, by “influencers,” by “troll factories,” and even by certain political candidates in democracies. westerners.

Critics of the liberal order also come from outside. Certain radical ideologies, threatened by the success of liberal ideology, have thus been mobilized, using the methods of terrorism and political repression to combat it. It is sadly ironic that the sources of this critique do not admit of any questioning and are incapable of any self-criticism.

The end of the liberal order is not inevitable

Beyond these criticisms and the invasion of Ukraine, the difficulties facing the liberal order are related to the same cause: changes in the distribution of power in the international system.

On the one hand, US power has reduced the number of interstate wars over the past 30 years. On the other hand, it is difficult not to see in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 a demonstration that this American power remained mainly in the service of the pursuit of its material interests.

However, since the economic and financial crisis of 2008, much work has fueled the debate over the alleged decline of US power. First observation, this crisis has weakened the US economy. Fiscal deficits have forced Washington to cut spending and begin a relative withdrawal from managing the international crisis, a situation that contrasts with past interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The second observation is that the multiplication of centers of economic and political power has made the currents of influence in the international system more diffuse. The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are pushing their interests more strongly in their bilateral relations and in international forums.

Third observation, the observed disturbances are caused by the dazzling growth of the Chinese economy and its military assertion in the Asia-Pacific region.

These multiple geopolitical tensions translate into increasingly accepted opposition by certain authoritarian leaders to the liberal order. Although, fundamentally, the crisis in Ukraine has shown that the American leadership is still effective, it is clear that its moral legitimacy is increasingly being challenged.

And in fact, many today are announcing a new “realistic” world order, defined by power relations and zero-sum play.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point toward a world of competition between the world’s great powers. The idea of ​​national interest defined in terms of security and power, rather than in terms of cooperation and growth, would regain the importance it had in the nineteenth century to justify the great wars between European nations as well as colonization.

However, this new world order is not inevitable. The next few decades are not necessarily destined to oppose the West and China (Russia’s international prestige seems to be irreparably diminished at this stage).

Conflicts, cold or hot, are very expensive. Everyone has an interest in avoiding the mass destruction caused by armed conflict, both in human life and in equipment. Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine gives us some food for thought in trying to prevent these wars in the future.

The lessons of the war in Ukraine

  • 1) The great powers must learn to communicate better with each other about their respective abilities and ambitions.

Easier said than done, in a world where information and political statements can be manipulated for strategic purposes. The truth is that two leaders of enemy countries who have different information, or who read this information according to two incompatible reading grids, almost inevitably lead to disaster.

There is no better demonstration of the difficulty of communicating clearly than the misuse of the famous “red lines”: between the red line established by Barack Obama in terms of the use of chemical weapons, shameless crossing and without consequences for Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. of 2013, and Joe Biden’s refusal to draw any red lines during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. In both cases, the consequences of this poor communication are disastrous.

  • 2) States threatened with rapid dismantling are more likely to trigger an armed conflict

This observation was made at the time by proponents of the power transition theory and is clearly still relevant to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This reality raises the more general question of the rapid evolution of the balance of power, and of the wars that seek to prevent an adversary from being the most powerful tomorrow. This is sometimes called the “security dilemma”: a state that arms itself to make sure it becomes a factor of global instability. In an arms race there are only losers. Once this is established, the great unknown becomes the reaction of the United States to the emergence of China as a rival in international relations.

  • 3) NATO countries will no longer be able to save by investing 2% of their GDP in their armed forces.

For the past 30 years, few Western countries have borne the cost of their own security and agreed to play a role in maintaining international order. In the current context, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify certain members of the alliance, including Canada, not contributing at least to the extent of their economic weight. In this sense, the announcement made last February by Chancellor Olaf Scholz of a dazzling growth in Germany’s defense budget is a step in the right direction.

The weakening of the liberal international order does not necessarily mean that the West will have to give up its benefits. For those of us who still hope to enjoy the prosperity and freedom it brings, the above three lessons of moderation are crucial. They can make the 21st century look different from the 20th, or worse.


By Arthur Silve, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Laval and Jonathan PaquinProfessor of the Department of Political Science at Université Laval, Université Laval

The original version of this article was published in The Conversation.