Ukraine: a retrospective
17 Sep 2014|

Traditional Ukrainian dancers perform a traditional dance for the participants of Rapid Trident 2014 during the exercises opening ceremony here Sept. 15. Rapid Trident is an annual U.S. Army Europe conducted, Ukrainian led multinational exercise designed to enhance interoperability with allied and partner nations while promoting regional stability and security. The ceasefire struck two weeks ago between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be holding. Might a crisis that has cost 3,000 lives and created up to 250,000 refugees have been avoided?

The terms, which seem designed permanently to preclude Ukraine’s entry into the EU and NATO, could be seen as vindicating the realists’ argument that the eastward expansion of Western institutions in Europe lay at the root of the conflict all along. George Kennan’s warnings are well known and Henry Kissinger made his own, with remarkable foresight, during the Kosovo war of 1999.

The same year, journalist Anatol Lieven (now Professor of War Studies at King’s College London) published Ukraine and Russia: A fraternal rivalry, fruit of two years’ interviews with ordinary Ukrainians. It’s a portrait of complex, diverse loyalties—to a distinct Ukrainian nationality defined by language, to a Ukrainian land defined by allegiance to the soil, to a vanished Soviet identity defined by economic function—resulting from centuries of daily mingling and widespread intermarriage.

Lieven warned that the only way to avoid dividing thousands of mixed communities and families—not least in the Donbass with its Soviet nostalgia and fear of ‘Ukrainianisation’—was for the West to abandon projects to draw Ukraine into NATO or build it up ‘as a form of buffer state against Russia and encouraged by all means to distance itself from Russia economically, politically and culturally.’ Russia would see that as a threat.

Focused in the delicate political and human geography of Crimea, Ukraine, he predicted, ‘could one day prove to be the stone that upsets the entire Eurasian applecart, and regional peace, economic development and democracy in both Russia and Ukraine will all go tumbling to the ground.’

Realists complain that the post-Cold War liberal assumption that geopolitics was dead led countries—wrongly—not to factor war into their foreign policy calculations. Yet if the 2008 banking crisis checked neo-liberal faith in the undiluted harmony of global economic interests, is it conceivable that the 2014 Ukraine crisis might give liberal internationalists pause too?

In his 1954 classic, Man, The State and War, Kenneth Waltz, describing the great liberal-utilitarian project of the nineteenth-century, observed that: ‘The effort was to proscribe state action in order to let the harmony of interests prevail.’ But, he asked: ‘If, in the absence of government intervention, some units come to dwarf others, will not fair, or economic, competition, be replaced by unfair, or power, competition?’

His conclusion was that an absolute harmony of interests was a utopia—one that the colossal costs of the 2008 crisis of under-regulated, globalized finance and banks too-big-to-fail would bear out. Waltz also observed that essentially the same faith sustained the early twentieth-century project of ‘collective security’, of rendering power politics and the threat of war obsolete in international relations:

‘War in international relations is the analogue of the state in domestic politics.…Liberals accept the necessity of the state, and then circumscribe it. They accept the role of war, and then minimize it—and on the basis of a similar analysis.’

He wasn’t the first to make that observation. Writing in hindsight on the Second World War, E. H. Carr wrote: ‘Nearly all popular theories of international politics between the two world wars were reflexions, seen in an American mirror, of nineteenth-century liberal thought.’ ‘Rationalism’, he concluded, ‘can create a utopia, but cannot make it real.’

The connection between globalisation and a liberal world order blind to geopolitics is an intimate one: it’s frequently asserted that increasingly economically interdependent states will be less willing to risk the costs of war and less able to wage it.

Last week on the ABC’s Four Corners, General Dick Berlijn, formerly the Netherlands defence chief, typically concluded that the Kremlin wanted to ‘re-establish an influence sphere towards the boundaries of the former Soviet Union’. The West, he said, should send ‘very clear messages that this is something of the past.’ ‘The world no longer functions like that’, he said, ‘We are open economies. We are dependent on each other. If we treat each other correctly we’ll prosper’. Moscow, in other words, hasn’t got the twenty-first century globalisation memo.

To realists, however, the 2014 Ukraine crisis will only confirm Waltz’s intuition that assuming a harmony of interests among states is utopian in inspiration and dystopian in effect: acting as if war’s impossible encourages countries to take risks they otherwise mightn’t. That isn’t to say that a mutually beneficial alignment of interests, in international trade as in inter-state relations, isn’t often to be found. But how far do we want to bet regional or global security on that alignment?

Not all will agree to link neo-liberal idealisation of the market with the liberal internationalist idyll of universal peace. But future historians may look back on the events of 2014 as a salutary check on some of Western liberalism’s founding assumptions. In the long run, that mightn’t be a bad thing. ‘Liberalism’, as Waltz observed, ‘which is pre-eminently a philosophy of tolerance, of humility, and of doubt, develops a hubris of its own’.

Matthew Dal Santo is a freelance writer and foreign affairs commentator based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Image courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Army Europe Images.