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A Constitutive Moment

A Constitutive Moment
 Soli Özel
Senior Fellow - International Relations and Turkey
 Evren Balta
Political Scientist

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a turning point in international affairs, bringing to the fore the perennial question of world order. Commentaries, therefore, try to look beyond that event and invest it with meaning and predictions. Here, Professors Evren Balta and Soli Özel (also Senior Fellow at Institut Montaigne) show how the war in Ukraine sheds the light on the declining image of the West across the world. They argued the West's eroded legitimacy entails the voluntarily ambiguous positioning of middle players such as Turkey, which reap strategic benefits from swinging between alternatively pro and anti-Western stances. This article is the latest contribution to our Ukraine Shifting the World Order series.

The Ukraine war is just a snapshot. It crystallized problems, issues, trends, and powerplays that have been ongoing and culminated on February 24th, 2022, when Russian troops crossed the border for what their leader expected to be a short war. But how does one judge the present as history, and which judgments are meaningful? If it is significant, how far back should one go to identify the root causes of Russia’s aggression? What role did the agency have in creating the now apparent vulnerabilities of the world system? How have domestic developments, turbulences, and trends we have been going through impacted this outcome? What is the role of the Covid Pandemic in this seeming unraveling of a familiar order? 

Order, disorder, and legitimacy

For quite some time now, a specter has been haunting us - this idea that the old order is unraveling. On the one hand, structural changes, from climate change to revolutionary technologies, require a radical re-organization of how we see and do things. As Timothy Mitchell argues, "fossil fuels helped create both the possibility of modern democracy and its limits". A shift to different energy sources is inseparable from the transformation of world order. The emergence of new technologies that are radically transforming means of communication and production dramatically affects our daily lives and shakes the foundation of all our formal and informal institutions. More importantly, this is a period in which the flow of history has accelerated, and our institutions lost their capacity to absorb their impact. All these significant transformations shook the foundations of an already fragile order. As per Henry Kissinger, "order must be cultivated, it cannot be imposed," but cultivating it necessitates legitimacy on the agent's part. Then, the most striking and salient characteristic of the unfolding era has become the "revisionist" and even "revolutionary" intentions of all major contestants for power.

Russia, unable to digest the loss of empire and the fact it has been relegated to "second-class status" after the Cold War, seeks a more prominent role in world affairs. It arguably has hegemonic ambitions over Europe. China wishes to erase the memory of "a century of humiliation," become the center of Asian power configuration and eliminate US influence in the Asia-Pacific. In the meantime, it attempts to create an alternative network of institutions with regional and global reach. Finally, the United States, which grievously harmed the system it created by its unilateralism (acting as a revisionist after 9/11) is domestically in the throes of a strong undercurrent of isolationism, with disregard for rules. Parts of its establishment also have the urge to unburden the country from economic and strategic obligations. It won’t tolerate global leadership competition and wishes to safeguard its once undisputed primacy. It is also only selectively interested in protecting an environment of free trade.

In brief, Gramsci’s definition of a crisis moment is valid and suggestive of today’s world: "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear".

What came before: turning points of the 21st Century

The Ukraine war is just a snapshot crystallizing the powerplays not just of the world order, but also of how the West is perceived outside of the West. Four interrelated crises contributed to this perception of weakness and the rise of a post-Western global world order. 

The first is the legitimacy crisis of 2001, triggered by the US response to the security challenges of transnational Islamist terrorism. The spectacular attacks against symbols of US economic, military, and political power on September 11, 2001, prompted a policy of overreach. In a hubristic effort to shape the Middle East in its image and impose a novel order in the region under the precepts of the ill-advised "global war on terror," the Bush administration undermined the rules and institutions of the so-called "rules-based liberal international order" of which it was the custodian. It also damaged the legitimacy of American power. In retrospect, the methods used to fight the global terrorist threat helped undermine the rule of law and the liberal-democratic credentials of the United States.

The methods used to fight the global terrorist threat helped undermine the rule of law and the liberal-democratic credentials of the United States.

The second one was the crisis of economic supremacy. The financial crisis of 2008 had economic, sociological, political, and geopolitical consequences. The Western (and particularly American) claim to be the rightful master of the world economy, and the political economy model it promoted, were discredited. G-20 at least temporarily displaced G-7. The inequality embedded in this economic model was highlighted by the uneven distribution of the burden to get out of the crisis among social classes and marshaled working classes' discontent in developed democracies against "the elites." 

This unraveling of the social order and the discrediting of the liberal-democratic political model gave way to the rise of right-wing, conservative populist forces both in the democratic West and the "Global South". The economic crisis, which came on top of the American failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, confirmed the prevalent view in Beijing and Moscow that the era of American and Western hegemony was ending. For them, the domestically unstable hegemon entered the path of permanent decline.

The third crisis is that of norms, symbolized by the Migration Crisis that erupted in 2015 in Europe, and about a year later in the United States, with Donald Trump's candidacy. The effects of the economic crisis, the decline of working and middle-class fortunes in Western democracies, and the rising climate of cultural exclusionism exacerbated it - political operatives invested in that topic to appeal to a distraught clientele. The massive arrival of Syrian refugees in Europe caused an explosive backlash. The crisis severely damaged the inclusionary vision of society that was the rallying cry of liberal societies, turned Western countries inward, and gave an enormous boost to extreme nationalist/racially motivated right-wing populist movements. From the ideals of a borderless world at the end of the Cold War, the Western world moved to an era of complex restoration of borders. The idea of Europe representing the normative ideals of the Transatlantic Alliance took a hit with the migration crises. Domestic upheaval spawned this question and reinforced Russia's rather contemptuous view of Europe. It exposed the West’s double standards in the eyes of the ex-colonial world that chose not to take sides in the Ukraine conflict.

Finally, the health crisis that started with the spread of Covid-19 that originated in China catalyzed transformative developments and political dynamics. The West's initial failure to provide fast and quality welfare services to its citizens transformed its image both domestically and internationally. The disruption in supply chains exposed the vulnerability of Western economies to China. Friend shoring replaced offshoring and outsourcing, while the geopolitical rationale began to trump economic calculation for policymakers. The new approach encouraged protectionism and put a premium on upgrading domestic manufacturing. Secondly, state capacity and efficiency in responding to emergencies rather than regime type became a priority. This, in turn, will necessitate that indebted states collect more taxes, leading to a changing balance of power between politics and corporations. 

All these crises signaled the end of the 20th-century social contract - both domestically and globally. A perceived weakened West might have changed Putin’s assessment of the strategic landscape, too, leading to a colossal miscalculation. In retrospect, it may prove to be an even more disastrous geopolitical mistake than the US-led Iraq invasion. Some argue that part of Russia’s calculation involved a desire to postpone the "green transformation".

All these crises signaled the end of the 20th-century social contract - both domestically and globally. 

Whatever the play was, the decision was about raising the status of Russia in a rapidly changing world. It was about grabbing the opportunity before giving the West enough time to put its act together. It rested on a firm belief that Western societies were unwilling to wage war, accept refugees, and bear costs. What Putin saw in the West was a society not sufficiently resilient enough. And resilience, in Ivan Krastev's words, is not about how much pain you will inflict but how much pain you will endure. The strength of Russia, he might have thought, was precisely its capacity to endure - a capacity that democracies, in his mind, were rapidly losing. 

Anticipating the new order

An assessment of the post-Ukraine world would start with the observation that the democracies' and domestic politics' resilience will have a hitherto unprecedented impact on foreign policy. A crumbling democratic order in Western countries would nearly obviate the normative/ideological aspect of great power competition. Consensus-building domestically for a foreign policy appropriate to the world's new realities will be one of the most important tasks ahead. 

The dissonance between the requisites of foreign policy and what would be supported or tolerated by the weary public may render pursuing strategic moves problematic, if not impossible, in some instances. This is precisely why many observers are worried that a winter when inflation will have galloped, the economic recession will have engulfed European countries, and cold weather without gas will have shaken the solidarity with Ukraine, might break the resilience of the EU countries. Arguably this is something Vladimir Putin counted on but as of October failed to materialize.

In economic terms, Europe will have to find new gas supplies for the short run and accelerate its transition to a green energy economy in the medium run. In addition, a pan-European effort to come on par with the United States and China in technology and innovation and maintain Europe as one of the significant clusters of productive vitality in the global economy will be necessary. 

The more consequential challenge might be finding a modus vivendi with a post-Putin Russia that bears the scars of a major military-strategic failure.

This will necessitate a recalibration of relations with China. In strategic terms, the goal of European strategic autonomy will be a long time to materialize. Still, the more consequential challenge might be finding a modus vivendi with a post-Putin Russia that bears the scars of a major military-strategic failure. It is imperative that the EU bring Russia into the European strategic and geopolitical space and encourage it to drop its alliance with China. 

Beyond this winter, the critical question by springtime will be how to sustain an economically devastated Ukraine in a lengthy war of attrition. The impasse under these circumstances is that the West cannot allow Ukraine to lose since this will be a defeat for the Transatlantic Alliance as well, and Russia cannot accept losing. No formula is yet present to break free from that impasse.

The war reinvigorated the transatlantic Alliance. It has dealt with this crisis with unity, and with forbearance and success. With Germany in the lead, the EU was shaken out of its post-Cold War complacent commercialism and the policy of accommodation favored by France and Italy. The United States "returned" to Europe in full force, NATO is being revitalized, and seems in full possession of a mission, an enemy, and a strategy. It is also the central organization around which the Transatlantic or geopolitical West will be reconstituted. Given in its Madrid Summit, the organization also extended its sight to the Indo-Pacific, suggesting that in one fashion or another, NATO will provide security to what we would call the "systemic West". 

NATO'S northern expansion to include Sweden and Finland will not only expand its border with Russia by 1300 km but also shift the theater of potential conflict in Europe further to the East and the North. In this new configuration Germany, situated at the center of Europe, becomes the key European geopolitical actor. German Chancellor's goals were stated in his  Zeitenwende speech, however slowly these may be put to action, corresponding to a critical inflection point for the Federal Republic and Europe. 

Expanding the war effort

Russia failed to obliterate Ukrainian political independence and change its government. In fact, it even lost ground to Ukrainian forces in areas that it occupied and appears increasingly desperate as the "partial" mobilization and the rushed annexation of four provinces suggest. Moscow still has a vested interest in prolonging the war but its population's continuing support for the war can no longer be fully assumed even though access to information is still tightly controlled and nationalist passions are rampant. In response to crippling sanctions and financial ostracization, Moscow is weaponizing energy and food prices and lately the threat of a resort to nuclear weapons. The unwillingness of countries to side with the West and join in on sanctions enables Russia to exploit the anti-Westernism of the Global South. Yet not joining Western sanctions did not translate into support for Russia's violation of sovereign territory, and much less into condoning the daily atrocities on the battlefield and against civilians. Moscow also seeks to create fissures within the West through political allies in the extreme right it cultivated over the years. 

However, it is pretty evident that Russia will have been weakened by this war not just militarily but politically and strategically. The war exposed Russian military and technological weaknesses and laid bare the corruption in military administration and training, thus deconstructing the myth of an invincible Russian military juggernaut.

The folly of the invasion, the miscalculation, and the hallucinatory justifications presented to the public stripped Putin of his "wise leadership aura" capable of making the right decisions. The war also brought Russia and China closer. The latter however remained careful not to cross the red line of sanctions and did not deliver emergency help to its ally. In this partnership, Russia is the weaker and inferior partner. This, too, will affect Russia’s image and reality as a power in the premier league of the world order. In a post-Putin phase, whether Russia will have overcome its post-imperial traumas and reverted to the European path will have a powerful impact on how the new global balance of power will stabilize. 

The folly of the invasion, the miscalculation, and the hallucinatory justifications presented to the public stripped Putin of his "wise leadership aura" capable of making the right decisions. 

Arguably the United States is a major beneficiary here. The Biden administration managed this crisis with a degree of agility that might enable it to erase America's image of utter incompetence that Afghanistan's withdrawal created. The war also allowed the United States to display its technological superiority in military hardware and highlighted the importance and value of professional training. Indirectly, the passage of the CHIPS Act, committing the US to a five-year publicly funded R&D program to enable it to lead in producing the world's microchips, was related to the changing geo-economic outlook as well. The war made the US one of the world’s most reliable energy suppliers, while Russia's role in Europe has been radically reduced even in the short term.

The US was also able to revoke more support for its anti-China policies among its European allies. The continuing strategic investments in the Indo-Pacific region and the show of force that House Speaker Pelosi's Taiwan visit signified reinforced Washington's determination to continue its pivot. In retrospect, China appears to lost its bet on firmly aligning itself with Moscow, which did not, and now cannot, succeed in its political goals in Ukraine. China's inability to meaningfully respond to Pelosi's visit squarely put the question of Taiwan at the center of the world’s security agenda. It revived arguments about the "Thucydides Trap" that suggests the US and China are fated to engage in war. The two sides' assessment of one another could be strikingly similar in that there are those in the US administration that, in a mirror image of the Chinese perception of the US, believe that the Middle Kingdom is a declining power. Xi Jinping's obsession with his 0-Covid policy, combined with the real estate and banking problems, topped by Pelosi's visit, may yet cause domestic turbulence. Xi may get his unprecedented third term during the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party but not attain his goal of being President for life. How destabilizing such a development may be for China and the Indo-Pacific region remains to be seen.

Where does the Global South stand in all this?

In an asymmetric multipolar world, great powers will have a more limited capacity to recruit allies among regional powers and persuade them to follow their line. As was the case during the Cold War, there will be a contest among great powers to recruit allies in the Global South and among regional powers such as India, Brazil, and South Africa. The "West" and the US have a more limited capacity than before because of their relatively declining power. Still, China has a hard time harnessing friendships and alliances despite its economic investments and loans. Under these circumstances, middle powers will have much leeway to pick and choose when they may answer the call of great power. 

Consider Turkey. Turkey is a NATO member but, simultaneously, a country with significant diplomatic, strategic, and economic relations with Russia. After the Russian invasion, Turkey followed a delicate balance of being pro-Ukrainian without being anti-Russian. It did not join the sanctions regime and acted as a mediator since the early days of the invasion. It then became a critical player in food security and accelerated its efforts to become an energy hub for Europe. These developments allowed Turkey to postpone resolving its problems with its Western allies and even temporarily freeze the most burning issues. An asymmetric multipolar world enables countries like Turkey to oscillate between being pro-Western and anti-Western. It makes it possible for middle powers to promote and sell other countries' powers without necessarily committing to one side. The peculiarity of the Turkish case stems from the fact that Turkey's strategic identity is Western, and it still is an active member of NATO, a founding member of the European Council, and theoretically a candidate for membership in the EU. 

The ambivalence that countries like Turkey currently manipulate regarding their strategic identity may not last. Once the fluidity of the current strategic moment passes and a further hardening of the Sino-American rivalry becomes a reality, middle powers may be compelled to take a less ambiguous position. But right now, many of the countries of the Global South (even Turkey with institutional ties to the Transatlantic Alliance) find it in their own interest to follow an ambiguous position. This is partly because ambiguity has become the systemic feature of the international order. Rigid alliances and binding agreements were seen as things of the past as the quest for (regional) primacy and strategic autonomy became buzzwords for all the major powers. In this new period, however, differentiating intentions from feasibility, aspirations from realities, and goals from means have become crucial to sustaining alliances. The effort to re-think and re-structure is indispensable for European security and the future of the international order. As history shows, the winning alliance will be the alliance that can offer solutions to the burning questions of our time.


Copyright: Brendan SMIALOWSKI /AFP

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