IIn a recent article in The Washington Post, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served from 2006 to 2011, having been appointed by George W. Bush and renamed to the post by Barack Obama, in a career that included service as CIA director under George H.W. Bush, wrote, “Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has ended Americans’ 30-year holiday from history.”
In fact the “holiday from history” began for everyone with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its empire. It seemed that the superiority of democracy and the market economy had been proved, and it was only a matter of time before every country in the world would be on the path to reason and progress. Francis Fukuyama asserted in “The End of History and the Last Man” that international relations would basically be reduced to solving economic and commercial problems.
But in history there are cycles, as Giambattista Vico anticipated several centuries ago in his “Courses and Recourses of History.” Indeed, Putin’s war, together with China’s aggressive geopolitical revisionism, have put an end to the post-Cold War era and thrown the global order that emerged after World War II into crisis. Russia, a nuclear power and one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, is trying to change the borders in Europe through military force, grossly violating the U.N. Charter and creating conditions for a global economic and social emergency. We already have two of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Plague and War, but the third is already on the horizon, Famine, particularly but not only in Africa.
It must be understood that the international order is an anarchic system in which there is no central power to enforce international law. If the U.N. did not exist, it would have to be invented because it has been and is very useful in coordinating and helping to solve many of the challenges facing humanity as a whole, including those challenges in the areas of health, migration, economy and trade, etc. In the area of security, it has also been useful in maintaining peace and preventing or resolving conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Central America. However, when one or more of the great powers in the Security Council is directly involved in a conflict, the U.N. is not in a position to act, except through symbolic resolution by the General Assembly.
We cannot ask the U.N. to give what it cannot give.
Throughout history, the great powers have ordained what the international system is. For a good part of the 30 years that followed the Cold War, the United States was the only superpower, preeminent in every dimension of power: the military, economy, technology, ideology and culture. But the brief “unipolar” moment and “Pax Americana” are over. With the return of history, geopolitics and spheres of influence are back with a vengeance.