By Jack Harris, on 8 April 2014
By Anna Kruglova
The crisis in Ukraine has thoroughly put an end to Barack Obama’s famous “reset” of relations with Russia. It has revealed a cyclical tendency in Russia’s relations with the US and the West more broadly – much as in the 1990s, a relative thaw in relations has once again given way to tensions. Yet the Ukraine crisis has broader implications for international politics. It has revealed fundamental weaknesses in the international system that emerged from the conferences held in Yalta and Potsdam after the Second World War. State actors have created an environment that has left the system unable to engage with emerging issues and produce constructive responses, and allows problems to deepen and develop into full-blown crises.
The first problem – a lack of meaningful UN reform – has already been widely debated but bears repeating here. During the Ukraine crisis, the UN, the closest thing we have to a universal international institution, was once again been paralysed by divisions to the point where it was unable to muster any response beyond anodyne verbal condemnations and calls for negotiation. The structure of the Security Council must take most of the blame for this paralysis. The rotating memberships of the Security Council led to the bizarre situation in which countries with no direct stake in the crisis, such as Rwanda and Chad, were involved in the debates over the Ukraine crisis, while Germany, a key leader in the EU and an important partner of Russia, was excluded. As such, what discussions were held were largely useless, and the resolutions they produced were immediately vetoed by Russia. These issues have long been widely acknowledged, even by the Secretary General, but no efforts towards comprehensive reform has been made since 2005. Without reform, the UN will continue to be unable to respond effectively to international crises.
The second problem is that too many violations of sovereignty and international law have now gone unpunished for verbal condemnations to carry any weight. The invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 were not sanctioned by the UN, while in Libya NATO blatantly disregarded the limits of the mandate granted by resolution 1973, which gave it the authority only to enforce no-fly zones, not to directly interfere in the conflict by bombing ground forces. All of these acts were admitted to be violations of international law and yet went wholly unpunished. With such precedents now firmly established, states will face ever greater temptations to break the rules.
Thirdly, in place of the common standards provided by international law, double standards are now firmly settled in the system of international relations. Russia has recognised the break-away regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, while denying such recognition to Kosovo, which is recognised by the EU and the US. Debates over which of these new states truly deserved independence and recognition will likely never be conclusively resolved. What is clear, however, is that principles of sovereignty and self-determination enshrined in the UN Charter have become little more than tools deployed in support of concrete foreign policy goals of individual states.
Finally, one striking feature of the political rhetoric or “propaganda tools” on both sides in this crisis has been the frequent reliance on the trope of an “external enemy”, whether the threatening, mercantile West, aggressive, authoritarian Russia, Middle Eastern autocrats or rising China. Despite the economic interdependence of almost all nations in the modern world and the demise of a bipolar system of international relations, hostile discourses centred on scary “others” still appear to carry great political appeal. In a world in which national economies are tied ever more strongly to one another, such hostile discourses and models of political behaviour create risks that cannot be afforded.
This combination of factors has left the international system ill and flawed. The crisis in Crimea has provided only further proof of the relevance of these flaws to international relations. Naïve as it may seem to call for sweeping reforms of the international system, a commonly accepted framework for international law has to be found if such incidents are to be avoided in the future. If actors continue to disregard the rules that they themselves have established, we will see more crises like that in Ukraine in the years to come.
Image credit: Mstyslav Chernov