Home / Opinion / Views /  The Russian invasion and the demise of the post-cold war dream

Germany has just agreed to send its Leopard tanks to Ukraine to support that country’s efforts against invasion by Russia. While it has previously sent other military equipment and resources, its extreme reluctance, this time around indicates an awareness that sending in the tanks might be a point of no return. What this, in turn, suggests is that there are limits to Western unity and commitment to democratic values. Neither is so strong as to override practical national interests.

And it is precisely this understanding of the nature and behaviour of the so-called ‘responsible’ states of the international system that has led the world to the present pass in which one large country – a permanent member of the UN Security Council at that – has decided to throw international law and norms to the wind and attempt territorial conquest of a smaller power.

But even before Russia, China has for decades signalled its determination to upend the existing West-led liberal, democratic global order completely.

While Islamic fundamentalism and the violence it unleashed did massive damage following the Cold War, it might not have reached its full damaging potential because there really was no regime anywhere in the world that simultaneously possessed the power or resources and the commitment to support the movement unequivocally. Moreover, theocratic regimes such as the Saudis and the Iranians essentially also promoted their specific national foreign policy and security considerations when supporting Islamic radicalism elsewhere.

China, by contrast, has the resources, the will and an increasing lack of concern for the consequences – even for its own people – to do whatever it takes to achieve its goal. This explains Beijing’s nearly unalloyed support to Russia for nearly a year now since the launch of the latter’s invasion of Ukraine.

Elsewhere, China has supported the Iranian regime with control and surveillance tools such as internet firewalls blocking access to the outside world for ordinary Iranians and facial recognition software leading to the arrest of protestors against the regime. And with its new oil deal with the Taliban regime in Kabul, Beijing is attempting to empower and normalize a brutal, non-democratic regime.

Just as important, China is less shy of advocating its interests in words that privilege its national history, culture and ideas. Its words, actions and visibility now appear to offer confidence for any number of countries that believe themselves to be civilization-states.

India itself is one of these powers, but it moves too slowly and still holds altogether great regard for international norms and laws to upset the prevailing global order too much. Either that, or it is still too busy trying to ‘stabilize’ domestic politics to push its claims and ideas in international politics beyond the soft tropes of vishwa guru (world leader) or vasudhaiva kutumbakam (The world is one family).

However, other countries are more confident on the domestic front and more determined in terms of their international objectives. Russia, Iran and Turkey each have leaderships advocating a more confident cultural nationalism. Indeed, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was driven by the concept of a Greater Russia, just as Recep Erdogan’s diplomatic outreach from Central Asia to Northern Africa has its roots in ideas of reviving the glories of the Ottoman empire. Iran, meanwhile, has always considered itself more civilized than its Arab neighbours and has its fingers in local politics across the region.

It is also not difficult to see the effects of these attitudes in how these countries have treated their minorities, for example, or in the willingness to intervene in conflict zones as they have done in Syria. Indeed, Turkey and Iran have even stepped up their game by offering military support to different sides in the Russia-Ukraine conflict – which represents not just an undermining of orientalist tropes but also potentially the beginning of a reversal of traditional post-World War II power dynamics in the region.

The end of the Cold War was supposed to represent the victory of the democratic ideal and to have ushered in an era of peace with a focus on economic growth and cooperation rather than on competitive politics. The European Union was supposed to be the model the world could follow in which borders became irrelevant and shared democratic values shaped policies.

However, this model and dream for a post-Cold War world have been unravelling for a long time. The protracted conventional war currently underway on Europe’s margins is only its latest sign. While it might look like the Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused the West to join ranks once again, this might actually be the last hurrah before a new kind of global politics entrenches itself.

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