Yet, instead of depicting the invasion of Ukraine in these terms, the dominant Western narrative went for reductionist binary categories that push Russia outside the West to see it as a foreign rather than an internal threat in geographical as much as ideological terms. Much like the “invasion” of immigrants is seen as an existential threat in Europe, the rather more real invasion of Ukraine is falsely detached from the history of the West. Such a framing is not only morally bankrupt, but it is also unwise in policy terms. The West’s depiction of Russia as non-European or Asian makes it easier for Moscow to tell its story to the non-Western world, which constitutes the audience for a fierce information war between the West and Russia.
The more Russia is Asianized, the more it can appeal to the non-Western world. This is to some extent what happened during the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. The vast majority of non-Western intellectuals were supportive of Japan because they saw it as an Asian or non-Western power, whereas Russia was understood to be a white European empire colonizing non-white or Asiatic peoples.
Yet, it is not the post-colonial world but the West, which, like Russia, seems obsessed with visions of a past which might begin as early as medieval times but invariably culminate in the middle of the twentieth century at their shared moment of global dominance after World War II. For the rest of the world, it is not such nostalgia for the West’s historical traumas and glories but the post-Cold War period that is one of the crucial referents, not least because it breaks with the logic of all that went before. Indeed, with multipolarity, we are gradually witnessing the end of the post-colonial world, including its associated vision of a decolonized and inclusive international order. By contrast, Western geopolitical thinking remains disproportionately mired in World War II and Cold War categories and refuses to consider the more recent history of Euro-American hegemony that defines strategic thinking in other parts of the world. There is a gap in the historical imagination between the West, Russia, and the post-colonial world in making sense of unfolding events.
This is why a recent event like the War on Terror and its failure is more instructive for understanding the war in Ukraine than fascism or even imperialism, historical phenomena that do little more than shore up Western states as the globe’s only real actors for good or ill.
By dissociating the war from such grandiose and moralistic narratives, analysts outside the West and Russia can view it in more dispassionate and even realistic ways. This has nothing to do with the politics of non-alignment that characterized a number of these countries during the Cold War, not least because a bipolar world no longer exists. Instead, the non-Western states which refuse to line up behind Washington represent the resurgence of neutrality as a crucial principle of international relations, one that has lain dormant since the War on Terror. In this view, neutrality is meant to reduce the scope of global conflict while at the same time allowing for diplomatic breakthroughs.
People outside the West also know that while the international order has always been an unequal one, it was still possible to operate within and sometimes even change it. The problem today is that this order no longer exists, thanks, in large part, to the War on Terror, which allowed the United States and its allies to sidestep the UN and other international agencies, thus condemning them to irrelevance. The present war has emerged within a landscape of hollowed-out international norms, values, and organizations, with the War on Terror likely providing Russia with its precedent in Ukraine, irrespective of dissimilarities of both events, as well as legitimizing the West’s sanctions regime with its unilateral seizures of private property and sovereign wealth.
In the absence of a viable international order or some vision of its remaking, there is little to promote in this war apart from either Russian or Western power, and very limited prospects of preventing the escalation of hostilities between them—with the Ukrainians paying a heavy price for Moscow’s criminal invasion—indeed, apart from preserving the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, a new vision of an inclusive global order that is in line with the realities of the twenty-first century can have more universal appeal. And this also means that the war has long ceased to be about Ukraine and has taken on a global dimension not defined by states alone. On the one side, for example, is the virtual economy of debt-fed financialization driven by services and high-tech. Its way of war is manifested in a sanctions regime that includes appropriating the enemy’s foreign reserves and cutting it off from markets. On the other side is the real economy underpinned by commodities and manufacturing. Its way of war is defined by cutting supplies of basic goods. Having worked in tandem throughout the post-Cold War period, these two economies are now beginning to drift apart.
After the Cold War, labor and commodities were largely outsourced to non-Western countries, though commanded by Western finance and demand. These are now escaping the West’s grip, initially due to the disruption of supply chains during the pandemic, and now thanks to Western sanctions and Russia’s weaponization of raw materials in a way last seen, in a limited fashion, during the Middle East’s oil embargo of 1973. The difference is that today, both the producers and consumers of natural resources, whether food, fertilizer, or energy, have weaponized these resources against their antagonists. Whoever wins the war, it may no longer be possible to reinforce the hierarchical relationship between a virtual economy and an all-too-real rival over which it has so far proven unable to prevail. The conflict, therefore, can no longer be solely described as occurring between Russia and West, let alone understood by their mid-century wars.
Is it because this war can no longer be understood in conventionally historical terms that we are seeing the return of apparently atavistic identities within and outside it? From neo-Nazism to White supremacy, the Russian soul, and a variety of civilizational projects around the world, our time seems to be one in which dead ideas are revived and recycled as if to compensate for a failure of the political imagination. Similarly, where once the economic divergence described above would have received a Marxist analysis in terms of ideology, now it is dismissed in favor of national, racial, or civilizational identities.
It could be that we are seeing the passing of an age dominated by universal or transnational political projects, with the collapse of communism after the Cold War followed by the decline of Islamism as transnational ideological and political projects, and finally of a liberalism which cannot do without its rivals. Indeed, it is the loss of confidence and of the prestige of political or ideological projects with universal and transnational claims and values that is emboldening atavistic identity politics around the world. The death of such ideological grand narratives leaves capitalism without a political carapace of its own and allows for its absorption by all manner of regimes as well as its partition into different and even rival strands. This might be what a multipolar world looks like, at least while we are transitioning into it, but that does not entail the absence of an international order. Indeed, as the war in Ukraine shows, such an order becomes even more necessary, and we should think about it as a successor to the United Nations, or an updated UN system, just as the latter had succeeded the League of Nations.
Far from perfect as they were, the international orders represented by the League of Nations and the United Nations nevertheless held the world together even at moments of great political tension. The first failed because it couldn’t withstand Nazism and the second has been badly damaged as a result of the War on Terror. Instead of calling on Russia to obey a non-existent “rules-based order,” therefore, the war in Ukraine should give birth to a third international order that also accounts for the rise of new powers in its constitution. More important than the opportunity presented by war is that offered by a peace for which Ukraine may be an incentive but cannot be the final aim. Such a new order can be neither a purely regional one nor simply the opening for another shot at global dominance by the West.
Whether Russia is defeated or not, irrespective of how one defines defeat and victory in this war, the way in which this war has divided the world tells us that it is likely to further underpin the trend towards a more multipolar international order given the relative economic and political decline of the West as well as increasing autonomy and assertiveness of regional powers. The task before all serious politicians, then, is to put the institutions for such an order together by negotiation while the West still has advantage rather than allowing it to be decided by the uncertain fortunes of war.