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New Order: There Can Be No Turning Back

New Order: There Can Be No Turning Back
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

Institut Montaigne took the bold step of asking twenty authors from across the globe to share their thoughts about the impact of the conflict in Ukraine on the world order. We are very grateful to these experts for accepting this challenge. Many developments are yet to come, both with regard to Ukraine and the global implications of the war. We have chosen to heed the advice of Talleyrand, a prince among French diplomats: "Beware of your first impression, for it is always the right one".

It is now time for the person who has had the honor of directing this series to offer his own preliminary conclusions - or perplexities. Below, we share three observations, highlight three unspoken issues and put forward three tentative proposals.


Europe - one of the pillars of the international order - is most affected by the Ukrainian earthquake

Of course, other regions are affected, too. The Middle East comes to mind, with its apparent winners (oil-producing countries) and losers (wheat and fertilizer consumers). But in Europe, the very foundations of the continent's organization are at stake. Two interpretations are possible in this respect. One can consider that the Europeans have shown unity and a firm hand (sanctions, aid to Ukraine), in close coordination with the United States. The European Union, in particular, could be seen as finally playing a significant "geopolitical" role.

Europe needs to overhaul its energy policy and even its economic model; rethink the EU's borders and therefore its institutions; and rearm the continent.

The other interpretation highlights the deep fault lines that continue to divide Europeans. One part of Europe - the East and the North - considers that France and Germany have lost a large part of their authority because of their previous blindness to Russia. According to many countries, the United States, the United Kingdom and Poland are bearing the brunt of the effort in terms of military support for Ukraine. As such, these are the countries that play a decisive role in European security. Other divisions are gradually emerging, including between France and Germany. These divisions are likely to weigh heavily at a time when Europe faces tremendous challenges.

Indeed, Europe needs to overhaul its energy policy and even its economic model; rethink the EU's borders and therefore its institutions; and rearm the continent, if possible, within the framework of a renewed transatlantic contract.

Despite being a local war, the Ukrainian conflict has global consequences

This seems obvious, of course. The war impoverishes a large number of countries, compromises the food security of entire regions, contributes to inflation and disrupts the energy market. There are two reasons why we nevertheless point out this obvious fact. First, the Russian economy is in the top twenty most industrialized economies globally, but it is not the most industrialized. Above all, it is a relatively "unglobalized" economy - perhaps because of the sanctions it has been under for a long time and also because of the decision of its leaders. However, we can see that the Western sanctions are having a major effect on Russia and, especially, that Russian countermeasures are, in turn, having a major effect on Europe and beyond.

As a result, any attempt to isolate Russia in the future will certainly have its limits. The Russians have already been able to find alternative markets for their hydrocarbons: we will get back to this in a moment. In the world to come, they will retain assets such as their reserves of rare minerals (palladium, platinum, nickel, cobalt, etc.), which are essential for the decarbonization of our economies. Russia is not only a vital player because of its nuclear arsenal; its natural resources also play an important role.

The "Global South" is increasingly detached from the existing international order

The "Global South" label can certainly be contested. This very term, however, has been used by many of our partners from developing countries. It goes without saying that many characteristics differentiate China from Malawi, Pakistan from Brazil, or Senegal from Venezuela. It is also clear that China and Russia are playing a game in which a largely artificial collaboration with the former Third World is instrumentalized for their own interests. 

There is, however, an undeniable common trait among the countries of the South, namely resentment toward the West and a desire to challenge a world order perceived as dominated by the West (any label could apply here: "rules-based order", "international liberal order", etc.). The Ukrainian conflict is a revelation in this regard; the median position of the Global South is to blame the Russian aggression for the conflict but to dissociate itself from the West in the response to this aggression (the sanctions policy in particular). Moreover, according to these countries, this is a "war between Europeans", which does not concern the rest of the world. We are witnessing a fundamental emotional split, as Dominique Moïsi has pointed out in his article (in French).

There is, however, an undeniable common trait among the countries of the South, namely resentment toward the West and a desire to challenge a world order perceived as dominated by the West.

Is this a development at all surprising? The old hands in international affairs are unlikely to think so. First, this anti-Western resentment present in countries of the South has deep historical roots, which are largely understandable. Second, we observed a comparable attitude on the part of the Global South in 2014-2015 regarding both the Syrian crisis and the annexation of Ukraine. We may suggest, however, that we are at a turning point in the South's disaffection with the world order as it still stands today. Indeed, Assad's behavior or the annexation of Crimea breached international law, but there were arguments that the BRICS and other countries could adhere to in order to limit the severity of these offenses. To take another example, one can argue endlessly about the legality of Western action against Gaddafi in Libya. In the current situation, Russian aggression constitutes, without any doubt, an absolute violation of the most fundamental principles of the UN Charter (non-aggression, sovereignty, territorial integrity). To minimize the extent of this breach is in fact to opt for a flexible reading of the very foundations of the current international order. This is perhaps the most important lesson at this stage of the crisis, a kind of plunge into a purely transactional world, in which the last foundations of an international consensus seem to have lost their power.

Unspoken facts

The uninhibited middle powers are currently the great beneficiaries of the conflict

Let us stay in the Global South for a moment. Some of the states of the South count more than others. This is obviously the case of China, a "false state of the South" since it has almost become the United States' quasi-peer. With few or no allies, China has all sorts of reasons to support Russia, at least politically. A Russia-China axis has been forming for years, cemented by the shared belief that the West has lost its resilience. One wonders whether, by taking a soft line on Russia, a number of countries are not also yielding to the powerful magnet that China has become.

The war in Ukraine seems to be a "moment of affirmation" for what we might call the uninhibited middle powers. 

Above all, though, the war in Ukraine seems to be a "moment of affirmation" for what we might call the uninhibited middle powers. Consider Turkey, Saudi Arabia and India (a "super middle power"). The weight acquired by these countries allows them to take advantage of Russian difficulties by developing their own economic ties with Russia, without incurring American or European retaliation at this stage. Think of oil purchases by India, the hosting of Russian capital in Turkey, etc. 

These acts offer "breathing space" to the Russian economy. Through its role as a mediator, Turkey has also bolstered its geopolitical status. Saudi Arabia is keeping America in check by supporting OPEC's decision to reduce oil production quotas. As for Iran, it has decided not to respect the nuclear agreement and to become an arms supplier to Russia. America’s relative disengagement from the world stage under Obama and Trump had already provided these powers with latitude to take unilateral action (for example, Erdoğan's neo-Ottoman policy, Saudi Arabia and the UAE's invasion of Yemen, India and Kashmir, etc.). It is an understatement to say that the uninhibited middle powers are comfortable in the transactional world we mentioned above. It should be noted that the choices made by these countries amount to a weakening of the Western strategy to isolate Russia. In other words, they contribute to prolonging the war.

The likelihood of a Chinese attack on Taiwan has increased

The Indo-Pacific is now considered to be the world's geopolitical epicenter. It is therefore fair to wonder what the repercussions of the Ukrainian earthquake will be in this region. It is worth pointing out a reality that is hardly on Europe's radar: Australia and Japan are set to double their defense efforts (Japan envisions a defense budget of 2% of its GDP). During the Cold War, the Korean War led to the rearmament of Western Europe; the war in Ukraine could have had the same effect in the Asia-Pacific region.

The second consideration relates to the lessons that Xi Jinping's China will draw from the Ukrainian war with regard to Taiwan. An initial assumption may be that the Chinese leadership will revise its assessment of a "decadent West" - and thus feel compelled to be cautious. Other factors may work in the opposite direction: China will have learned from the mistakes made in the Ukrainian war or identified the West’s points of weakness. Moreover, a taboo has been broken: that of aggression by a permanent member of the Security Council against a neighbor. 

China can see that such acts now enjoy a certain tolerance in the world, except on the part of a relatively isolated West. As such, the outburst of disproportionate Chinese aggression triggered by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan last August - to show her support for the status quo - is in line with what seems to be the "zeitgeist".

The war in Ukraine may have made a Chinese attack on Taiwan more likely.

In addition, the window of opportunity is closing for Xi if he is to make his dream of Chinese reunification come true. All in all, the war in Ukraine may have made a Chinese attack on Taiwan more likely. It is possible, however, that China will favor a strategy of increased pressure and a gradual economic and political stifling of the island, with intermittent phases of military coercion.

A Russian defeat is the most likely outcome

This is the unspoken issue par excellence, which some do not want to believe while others prefer not to mention it. It is worth repeating again that at the time of writing (late October) nothing is set in stone. Vladimir Putin remains convinced that he can break Ukraine’s resistance and make the West crack. The reality may be that on the military front, the Russians will not succeed in regenerating their forces and renewing their arsenals. They cannot win. But they could stand a chance to offset or mitigate this military defeat with a political victory. In that respect, Russians are betting on the result of the US midterm elections, hoping that the combination of progressive Democrats and MAGA Republicans will cut back on support for Ukraine. Putin is also gambling on the success of his energy blackmail, which hypothetically, could shift European and American public opinions. The constellation of political consensus in Washington and among European governments may not last.

That being said, in the worst-case scenario, the West will have succeeded in demonstrating its strength. A precedent will have been set. As such, it is important to consider the conditions of such a Western “victory”. Ukraine’s determination is a primary factor. The political constellation just mentioned is also key, but its sustainability is highly uncertain. A few other factors play a decisive role: in addition to US intelligence, the technical superiority of the weapons transferred to Ukraine by the US, the UK and other allies, and the power bestowed upon the US through the hegemony of the dollar and the West’s domination of financial circuits. This ability of the Americans and their allies to “strategize” their economic power - through sanctions and export control policies - has served to deter China from providing military and economic support to Moscow. It is likely that this advantage will be diminished in the future, as the posture of the uninhibited middle powers already suggests. One marker to watch in this regard will be the growth (very slow at this stage) of trade transactions carried out in currencies other than the dollar or similarly dominant currencies.

Tentative proposals going forward

A nuclear risk must now be managed

One of the fallouts of the war in Ukraine is the return of major concern about nuclear deterrence. Ukraine embodies a perfect illustration of what some experts call "aggressive sanctuarization" (an aggression by a nuclear state protected by its deterrence).

One of the fallouts of the war in Ukraine is the return of major concern about nuclear deterrence. 

The repeated threats of the use of weapons of mass destruction by Russian leaders and propagandists constitute a deliberate strategy of intimidation. An odd “deterrence dialogue” with historical references is playing out between the Russian and American presidents. On September 31, Mr. Putin evoked the Hiroshima “precedent”. Biden responded to Putin on October 6 by mentioning Armageddon and the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is worth recalling that the Cuban Missile Crisis ended in a US-Russia compromise. In our opinion, the nuclear risk appears to be low for the time being, however, at a later stage of the conflict, it cannot be excluded.

In light of this possibility, it is very important that Western powers coordinate to ensure preventive deterrent action. Perhaps Chinese and Western interests could converge on this issue. In any case, the West should approach China when it comes to the nuclear threat.

We have entered a "new nuclear age", to borrow a phrase now common in Paris. Proliferation is one aspect of this: Iran is moving ever closer to nuclear weapons and given the current context, Russia will be tempted not to stand in the way. Pandora’s box is already open for other contenders.

The conflict's endgame calls for more urgent consultation between transatlantic partners

The current phase of the conflict is characterized by several factors that we have already discussed: the massive attack on the Ukrainian population and infrastructure; a heightened risk of escalation, including the strong possibility of a direct military clash between Russia and NATO, possibly leading to a nuclear crisis; the embarrassment of uninhibited middle powers' politics for Western strategy; and finally, the advances of the Ukrainian army, which threaten Russian positions in the east and the south. The question of Crimea's fate could also arise.

It seems essential that the most important transatlantic partners - the "traditional quad" (Germany, France, the US, the UK) plus Ukraine, Poland and EU and NATO representatives - should work together to address today’s many challenges. The focus should be on arming Ukraine, on what to do about the Russian offensive and on the role of the countries that facilitate it. 

Furthermore, although the time for diplomacy has not yet come, it is not too early to prepare for it. In this regard, it is important to note that any public discussion of war aims is counterproductive. This is why the involved governments have adopted the position that it is up to the Ukrainians alone to determine the timing and content of any negotiations.

The focus should be on arming Ukraine, on what to do about the Russian offensive and on the role of the countries that facilitate it.

This line actually puts Kyiv in an uncomfortable position. The transatlantic "war council" format suggested above could provide a useful platform for discussions on possible endgame procedures.

We need an approach to the construction of a new international order

The war in Ukraine may well mark the end of the illusion of the international liberal order. The latter did not prevent the return of war to the most peaceful continent. The war also exposed the distance that has been created between "the West and the rest", as Macron put it at the United Nations. But it should turn out that Ukraine also signals the end of the illusion of the end of the international liberal order. Unless they are mistaken, Western countries will prevail: they have demonstrated that they continue to maintain a position of considerable strength. The "multipolar order", at least as conceived in Moscow - and in Beijing - will have suffered a defeat.

However, an essential point needs to be emphasized: there will be no turning back, no “restoration” of the world of before. The conditions which led Vladimir Putin to believe that he could count on a Western failure will continue to exist: the domestic situations in the United States and certain other democracies remain precarious; the relative decline of Western power will continue; the combined GDPs of the G7 will still represent less than 40% of the world’s GDP. If the West “wins”, it will have been by the skin of its teeth. Resentment in the South will not disappear. The uninhibited middle powers will not fall in line. Moreover, sanctions, the dollar hegemony, and the Western dominance of financial circuits - which have been identified as key positions of strengths of the West - are precisely what many in the South resent the most about the United States and its allies.

In other words, the task of rebuilding a world order - or, more modestly, of avoiding chaos - is ahead of us. It may be necessary to distinguish between collective security and global issues and the regulation of globalization. At the level of collective security, the United States and its allies must not let their guard down. They must be able to deter repetitions of what happened in Ukraine, or variations in the vast field of hybrid warfare. It is also in their interest to restore the credibility of the principle of non-aggression. This will only happen in the long run if they themselves respect the rules they claim to defend - unlike the Americans in Iraq in 2003 - and if they impose limits on their external interventions (as shown by France's current problems in Africa). All of this is in a context where the authority of the UN Security Council seems definitively compromised. It follows that a security dialogue is needed between global and regional powers if we are to ensure the restoration of the principle of non-aggression.

Separately, restoring trust between the North and the South means, first of all, that the North must keep its promises (for example, by providing the funding promised at the Paris and Glasgow climate conferences). We must go much further, however. A cultural revolution is needed on both sides. The countries of the North - which are often conflated with the West in the political sense of the term - are not in a dominant position with regard to global issues and the regulation of globalization: all countries need each other. The North and the Global South share the same imperative to save the planet, meaning interdependencies created through globalization need to be managed in a spirit of mutual understanding. In the absence of a World Order "with a capital O", we can imagine a world in which the states of both the South and the North reappropriate the multilateral mechanisms, including those of the UN family. These alone can make it possible to deal with humanity's common issues. This is undoubtedly a domain in which Europe can regain a leading role. The war in Ukraine will not have been wasted if the "international community" learns the right lessons from it: unilateral force and aggression are not an option, and only North-South solidarity can render it possible to protect humanity's common good. 



Copyright: Oleksandr GIMANOV / AFP

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