Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar
Published in the IPCS Web Journal on theauthors site “The Strategist” available at http://www.ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5811
The multipolar distribution of power which marks contemporary geopolitics has spawned security imbalances on account of economic inequities, geography, demographics, the military and nature of government. It has incited jostling for control and power-ascendancy, which in Ukraine has distorted into conflict. The twentieth century mass violence of the two World Wars was caused by these very imbalances. It gave way, in 1945, to relative ‘stability’ distinguished by bi-polar tensions in Europe and the Cold War. It did not by any means provide the same rude comfort in the other continents. Demise of the Cold War in 1991, ushered in two decades of an unrestrained militaristic unipolar world order before a return to a complex agglomeration of multipolar powers of the day.
The early 20th century multi-polar power distribution was different. The context was a world of imperial powers, colonies and a debased system that served the interests of the prevailing hegemon. The primary actors were from Europe, the USA and Japan. In contrast, the contemporary world is notable by an array of interdependent actors critical in domains that go beyond the military.
There is a view that believes bi-polarity assured a modicum of security, guaranteed by the two superpowers. Wars fought between 1945-89 and onwards, however, rubbish such an analysis. Given intensity and casualties; occurrences of war tell a different story. Between 1945 and the end of the Cold War, 236 wars were fought; while 147 were battled from 1990 to 2020. These statistics hardly suggest that the Cold War set into motion a pacific period in geo-politics. Clearly, peace is not entirely a function of power distribution.
The path to peace, another school of thought holds, is through economic cooperation. This assumes that each state big or small plays a role in the global economic system. In theory, such a circumstance makes upholding security and sovereignty of the state a collective responsibility. Unfortunately, competition for security and the absence of acceptable rules for partnership makes economic cooperation abstruse. The barrage of economic sanctions that the West have levied on Russia for the military onslaught on Ukraine, Russia’s counter injunctions and their impact tell exactly how complex economic relations can be.
When the state is weak, economic activity can be threatened by more powerful states that seek strategic advantage and internally, by self-seeking elements. So peace cannot just be a function of cooperative economics. The case of South Sudan, suggests that weakness of a nation is doggedly enduring and does not invite peace.
An examination of the three power paradigm considered thus far, presents a rather perplexing perspective of the larger consequences of dispersion or concentration of power. There is no convincing argument as to which of the systems is conducive for a more stable world. With the caveat that any prescription must account for the nature of power and its distribution.
A core principle of international stability after World War II is that nations have a right to self-determination, and borders are inviolable. Yet, Russia, transgressed this belief, when in, 2014 it annexed parts of Ukraine in the Crimean peninsula and in February 2022, invaded Ukraine on grounds of ethnic conformity and strategic security demanding creation of a defensive bulwark against an eastward advancing NATO.
The challenge to the post-Cold War global order is reflected in the Putin Doctrine . Driven by a vision of reversal of the fallout of collapse of the Soviet Union; Russia considers the use of force as appropriate when its security is threatened. Its primary purpose is the rejection of a western conceived global order and acceptance of Russian exceptionalism.
Digging deeper, it is discernible that the “contemporary multi-polar power” exemplar has in many ways set into motion the events leading to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The crisis is a test case of whether democratic institutions will stick-by their principles. While autocratic dispensations, view the rapidly changing events with an eye on how resolutely the West upholds its security structures. The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances is under the scanner. Beijing, in particular, will be roused as it formulates plans to invade Taiwan, consolidate claims in the South China Sea and stirs its aggressive design in Ladakh. At stake is international order and its systems of superintendence. That being as it may, potential aggressors must be deterred by an idea; that of abhorrence of geographic subjugation. The tragedy of the times is that grand principles neither usher peace nor do they challenge realpolitik.
The road to peace perhaps begins with an acceptance of realities and then attempts a harmonious amalgam of principles. The idea that peace is kindred to democracy is a vision in international relations that some may, rule out as Quixotic. Events in Ukraine advance the thought that democracies are as susceptible to war hysteria as authoritarian states. While each side spins its own self-indulgent narrative that justifies conflict, what suffers is the very idea of global interdependence.
There is, therefore, a need for profound institutional reconstitution. Current systems, in the main, respond to a past driven by self-interests and balance of power. However, global concerns and realities such as the pandemic and indeed the impact of conflicts on world-wide economic networks make individual survival and prosperity a collective function. The necessity is therefore for universal policies that inspire stability and have regional expression that makes security of the smallest a shared responsibility. These are not prescriptions but principles that must guide action.
The UN is seen as even more toothless today than it was during the pandemic. It is hopelessly impotent when a major power is involved, therefore not only must its security architecture be remodelled to expand permanent membership of the Security Council, but the intervention of a peace keeping force or a negotiating body must be mandatory at first indication of armed conflict.
During the Cold-War, nuclear deterrence is credited for preventing conflict between the super-powers. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine casts a harsh light on how the idea has been turned on its head. Most obvious is that Moscow is using nuclear deterrence not to protect Russia but rather to provide space for conventional action. NATO’s nuclear weapons deter Russia from engaging in a wider European conflict but leaves Ukraine in a hopeless war (See Map 1).
So why does NATO provide weapons without committing heavy arms, air defence or troops in defence of Ukraine? Is it to prolong the conflict and make Ukraine a testing ground for doctrines and hardware? After all, NATO is aware that to engage Russia in direct conflict will signal the start of World War III, so why not take bolder steps to encourage negotiations?
For the present peace is a far cry, it would appear the EU and NATO is determined to fight to the last Ukrainian.
Map 1. Progress of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine