“We have spent thirty years trying to integrate Russia into the international system, and now we are trying to kick it out again.”
These words — from a senior British official — sum up the disappointment and bewilderment of western diplomats struggling to handle Russia. They face two imperfect options: inaction in the face of Russia’s territorial aggression, and reacting so strongly that they unravel the international system that has sustained order for the last five decades.
As pro-Russian protesters declare a “people’s republic” in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, Western leaders are smart to focus on deterring Putin from expanding beyond Crimea. But the West needs to think more about how its actions are seen beyond the Kremlin. The consequences of Crimea could be even more dramatic at a global level than within the post-Soviet countries.
In his March 18 speech, Putin expressed three ideas that Europeans have rejected since World War Two — nationalism that is not tempered by the guilt of war; identity defined by ethnicity, rather than geography or institutions; and social conservatism based in religion.
Yet these ideas remain popular outside the West. Just look at the Middle East, where Iran and Saudi Arabia are both defending their “people” across borders. China may one day want to defend its citizens overseas, in the same way that Putin sees himself as the defender of ethnic Russians. If other countries view Russia’s actions as cost-free, they could carry out copy-cat incursions.
America’s allies could also react in worrying ways if they lose trust in western deterrence. I recently spoke to well-connected military strategists in Tokyo and Seoul, who were disappointed by the West’s reaction to Russian expansionism. They predicted that within Japan and South Korea, security hawks might call for nuclear weapons as a hedge against American withdrawal from the world.
But if the West’s attempts to preserve its credibility are too clumsy, they could also lead to disorder — in particular, if the West throws Russia out of the global economy and the institutions that govern it.
For the last few decades, western powers have benefited from international institutions that they designed and policed. They have exerted political influence by threatening to cast nations out of the global economy, as they’ve done by using sanctions to cripple the Iranian, Burmese and Serbian economies.
Western countries have used access to their economic benefits as a lever for political change. The nations of central and Eastern Europe were forced to implement 80,000 pages of European legislation — governing everything from gay rights to the genetic code of soy beans — in order to join the European Union and get access to its single market.
It is this experience that has led the West to believe in the transformative power of its institutions. Western countries often cite others’ embrace of their norms as proof of the West’s “soft power.” But the reality is that the embrace of these norms has had as much to do with the hard power of capital, technology and access to markets.
The rise in former western colonies — such as India, China and Brazil — has not led to the overturning of these post-war institutions. These countries have reluctantly supported sanctions to punish Iran and North Korea.
But these rising powers are uncomfortable with the way the West has used global institutions to advance its interests. As a result, they increasingly circumvent global institutions by creating bilateral arrangements. Look at how the WTO has been marginalized, while a new generation of bilateral and regional trade deals is emerging in its place. In the G20, the BRICS have formed a new caucus to help drive an anti-Western agenda.
If the West now tries to use these institutions to act against Russia, it may provoke the rising powers to side with Moscow. According to University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, an attempt by President Obama to sanction the world’s ninth-largest economy could blunt U.S. financial power. Cole asks: “Who would want a U.S.-dominated international currency exchange regime if you knew at any moment it could be weaponized against you?”
Putin’s speech emphasized how selectively the West has adhered to international norms — backing the principle of non-interference when others intervene, but developing new norms to justify its own interventions in Kosovo and Iraq. His critique of western hypocrisy resonates with many countries outside the West, as we saw in the March 27 U.N. vote on the annexation of Crimea.
The result appeared to be a defeat for Putin: 100 countries voted to condemn the invasion, while a dozen outcast countries (headlined by North Korea and Venezuela) voted on Putin’s side. But when you look at which countries abstained from the vote — including EU hopefuls and protectorates like Serbia and Kosovo, as well as emerging powers such as Brazil, India and China — the picture is less rosy.
This is the essence of the dilemma facing the West. React too meekly, and encourage further territorial expansion and regional arms races. But react too strongly, and risk driving other countries to sidestep global institutions and blunt western power.
Small events can have huge, unintended consequences. The assassination of an archduke in the Balkans led to the dissolution of the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.
The annexation of Crimea could begin the dissolution of the western-led international order.
This article was originally published by Reuters.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.