Turning Ukraine into a turning point
Defusing Cold War II is possible and could be just the beginning
Let’s play Guess Who Said This:
“I am convinced that the only mechanism that can make decisions about using military force… is the Charter of the United Nations.”
1. Franklin Roosevelt in 1945
2. Eleanor Roosevelt in 1946
3. Adlai Stevenson in 1956
4. Kofi Annan in 2003
5. Vladimir Putin in 2007
Exactly! According to the fundamental law of multiple-choice ledes, the correct answer has to be the most ironic one. Vladimir Putin, who at the moment seems poised to violate the UN Charter by invading Ukraine, paid this tribute to the Charter 15 years ago, during a speech at the annual Munich Security Conference.
But it didn’t sound so ironic at the time. Only four years earlier, the United States had invaded Iraq without UN Security Council authorization. And four years before that the US had—under the auspices of NATO, but again without UN permission—bombed Serbia as Russian president Boris Yeltsin protested fiercely. The US had gotten into the habit of using force without regard for international law, and Russia, a less powerful country, felt threatened. In the Munich speech Putin said that it was hard for countries to feel safe in a world where “no one can feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect them.”
Today, of course, Ukraine—the less powerful country that feels menaced by a more powerful country—would love to see international law become a stone wall. Russia—the more powerful country—not so much.
This is, unfortunately, a recurring theme in international affairs: The respect that countries pay international law often depends on how useful it is to them at the moment.
Don’t get me wrong. International law is one of humankind’s greatest achievements. Lots of important treaties (and treaties are the foundation of international law) have enjoyed enduring compliance by their signatories.
But the most potentially important of all treaties—the UN Charter, which had 51 signatories at its birth in 1945 and today has 193—is not among those. Transborder aggression, which the Charter banned except in cases of self-defense or authorization by the UN Security Council, is alive and well.
Putin’s speech can be seen as prophetic. If we don’t “leave behind this disdain for international law,” he warned, we’ll wind up “in a dead end, and the number of serious mistakes will be multiplied.” Sure enough, 15 years after the speech—15 years during which both the US and Russia have violated the UN Charter—we are at something that looks like a dead end, facing the possibility that “mistakes will be multiplied,” perhaps catastrophically.
We’ll almost certainly get out of the Ukraine crisis without a nuclear war. But (a) the word “almost” in that sentence is unsettling; and (b) any kind of war would likely carry US-Russia relations to a new post-Cold-War low, helping to usher in a long and deep Cold War II. Post-invasion sanctions on Russia would encourage it to bond more strongly with China, the other big player that, in Cold War II, will be reprising its Cold War I role as America’s nemesis.
Folks, this is no way to run a planet! We face all kinds of problems—climate change, pandemics, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, bioweapons, weapons in space, and on and on—that could prove collectively existential if the world’s nations don’t get together and address them. And if world history becomes a dialectic between cold wars and hot wars, addressing them is going to be really hard.
We need a turning point. We need to move decisively toward the creation of a true global community. The rule of law needs to become a real thing among nations, not just within them. International law needs to become more of a stone wall.
I actually think it’s possible, in principle, to turn the Ukraine crisis into that turning point. Would accomplishing that take more visionary leadership than we have? Well, unless Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan have been working hard to conceal the breadth and depth of their vision, yes. That’s why I said “in principle.” But:
A) You never know.
B) There’s real value in just talking about how visionary leaders might try to turn this lemon into lemonade. The more we talk about cultivating real respect for international law, the better the ground will be prepared for a turning point down the road.
But before I talk about this turning point, I have to try to turn your world upside down.
Taking international law seriously requires looking at the world in a particular way. And this view of the world is very different from the view presented to Americans by their foreign policy establishment—by think tankers and politicians and national security officials, and by journalists at the media outlets that obligingly amplify these voices (The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, CNN, MSNBC, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and so on).
I don’t want to say that all these people have been filling your head with lies. To lie is to distort reality on purpose, with conscious intent to deceive, and I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. In fact, for present purposes, I don’t even want to say that these people distort reality (though I think most of them do, if unintentionally).
I just want to say that these people shape the perceptions of Americans in ways that make it hard, as a political matter, to bring America consistently into compliance with international law—and thus hard to create a foundation for real international cooperation, for true global community. The American foreign policy establishment conveys a world view that is in some ways the opposite of the world view you need to have if you’re going to champion international law. That’s why—assuming your views have been shaped by the establishment I just described—I want to try to turn your world upside down.
I’m going to illustrate what I mean with a single example: the Syrian Civil War that started in 2011, a war that the US and Russia and many other countries later got involved in. I’m going to argue that the prevailing American view of that war is deeply at odds with the logic of international law.
After I do that I’ll get back to the question of how the Ukraine crisis could (in principle) become a step toward enduring world peace.
But first, let me try to make you feel fruitfully disoriented. Let’s start by reviewing the more or less standard, media-mediated American view of what happened in Syria: