The Ukraine War and the New Global Liberal Order

The Ukraine War and the New Global Liberal Order

The ultimate impact of the war in Ukraine on global order will hinge on Western unity in resisting Russia and helping Kyiv’s recovery, and whether Russians remember the war as a successful model to copy or a disastrous failure that must never be repeated.

The United States and its European and Asian partners, including Japan, Australia, and New Zealand—amounting to around 60 percent of global GDP—introduced massive sanctions on Russia, ejecting Russian banks from the SWIFT financial system, targeting the Russian Central Bank, cutting Moscow’s access to hundreds of billions of dollars in frozen assets, and seizing the assets of wealthy Russians. Over one thousand Western businesses joined an exodus from Russia, from Walt Disney to ExxonMobil.

For sure, much of the Global South remains ambivalent about the Ukraine War and views the global liberal order as a veil for American or Western dominance. India and South Africa refused to condemn Russia or join the sanctions regime. Still, in a UN General Assembly vote on the Ukraine War, only a handful of states like North Korea and Syria backed Russia, whereas 141 countries condemned Russian aggression, including Kenya and Indonesia. Smaller countries like Antigua and Barbados engaged in “liberalism from below” by opposing Russia’s invasion as a threat to weaker actors everywhere.

The war has deeply eroded Russian power and limited Putin’s future capacity to challenge the liberal order. Russian officials were wildly overconfident about seizing the sword and expected Ukraine to quickly collapse. It didn’t. Instead, Kyiv’s resistance, Western aid, and Russian military missteps meant the war became a brutal slugfest that killed tens of thousands of Russian troops and caused massive economic dislocation inside Russia.

The biggest challenger to the global liberal order is China, and here the effects of the Ukraine War are yet to fully play out. Beijing is comfortable with aspects of the liberal order, including the globalization of trade, while rejecting Western norms of human rights and democracy. China blamed the West for instigating the Ukraine crisis and offered political support to Russia, but otherwise acted cautiously. Western cohesion on Ukraine could translate into more unity in tackling China. However, Moscow may become reliant on Beijing and could become a loyal vote for China at the United Nations and other forums. The “no limits” Russo-Chinese partnership may evolve into no limits dependency.

In sum, at the international level, the Ukraine War has strengthened transatlantic ties and boosted the global liberal order. Without Russia’s invasion, few if any of the above steps would have happened. As David Von Drehle put it, “Nothing makes friends for the U.S.A. like the rumbling of Russian tanks.” Kori Schake wrote that Putin wanted to destroy the liberal order, but instead “has been the architect of its revitalization.”

However, the impact of Ukraine at the domestic American level is more mixed. Compared to the grave dangers of the 1940s, the Russian threat to U.S. interests is ambiguous. For Americans, the war is an ocean away and U.S. troops are not engaged on the battlefield. Russia is also much weaker than the United States. In 2021, in dollar terms, U.S. GDP was $23 trillion versus Russia’s $1.77 trillion GDP, and U.S. military spending was $801 billion versus Russia’s $65.9 billion military spending.

The Ukraine War bolstered the American Left’s support for global liberal order. In March, President Joe Biden framed the struggle as part of “the great battle for freedom: a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.” Not a single Democratic member of the House or Senate voted against the $40 billion aid package for Ukraine. The crisis also gave a modest boost to the U.S. government’s logistical capabilities and the broader American defense industrial base. For example, Lockheed Martin announced it would step up the production of Javelin anti-tank missiles.

But the Ukraine War has not galvanized Americans around protecting the liberal order. In the United States, there was no “rally-around-the-flag” effect or Ukraine bounce for Biden. Still less was there a new era of bipartisanship and trust in elites akin to the “Cold War consensus.” Polling in early 2022 showed that Biden’s approval ratings continued to slide. The most important issue remained the economy. In March, 9 percent of Americans listed the “situation with Russia” as a top problem, but by June this number had fallen to just 1 percent.

Crucially, Ukraine did not change populist conservative hostility toward the global liberal order. Most congressional Republicans backed the $40 billion aid package for Ukraine, and a Senate resolution endorsing Finland and Sweden’s admission to NATO sailed through on a bipartisan 95-1 vote. But populist conservatives remain wary of aiding Ukraine, and in some cases, sympathetic to Putin as a fellow opponent of multiculturalism and LGBTQ rights. Russia-Ukraine is a partisan issue. In 2016, Russia meddled in the U.S. elections to help Trump, and three years later, Trump was impeached when he pressured Kyiv to dig up dirt on the Biden family. Following Moscow’s invasion, Trump questioned the scale of U.S. aid to Ukraine and criticized allies for free-riding. In Congress, eleven Republican senators and over fifty House Republicans opposed the aid package to Ukraine. Republicans even threatened to end aid to Ukraine if the GOP retakes the House in the midterms. In March, Democrats were ten points more likely than Republicans to say the U.S. government “has a responsibility to protect and defend Ukraine from Russia,” but by July the gap had swelled to twenty-two points.

THE UKRAINE War has boosted the global liberal order. Russia’s assault on the core norms of the system catalyzed a powerful international response, from NATO enlargement to Berlin’s foreign policy pivot. But the war has not overcome entrenched partisanship in the United States, bolstered Biden’s popularity, or aligned American populist conservatives with the liberal order. NATO members may have rallied together, but Trump may still be planning to withdraw the United States from the alliance if he is reelected in 2024. The biggest threat to global order lies within America. 

The Ukraine War reveals the inherent tensions, and even paradoxes, within the global liberal order. For instance, the liberal order might seem to turn the page on an era of realpolitik, but order-building is often a strategic move to overcome a threat. The velvet glove of idealism contains an iron fist of hard power: lofty rhetoric and noble projects to entrench democracy co-exist with hard-edged coercion. Furthermore, democracies defend the liberal order using illiberal tools. Interdependence and openness are supposed to spur peace and prosperity. The problem is that when this fails—as with Russia—Western states have nowhere to go except to abandon openness and embrace sanctions, weaponizing modernity to crush the peril. If sanctions do not coerce Moscow sufficiently, the answer is more sanctions. The EU is used to negotiating trade agreements but is now systematically decoupling Europe from Russia. By the liberals’ own logic, turning Russia into a pariah state will risk a vicious cycle of autarchy and conflict. And, counterintuitively, danger can strengthen the system and peace can be perilous. Russian aggression may bond together the global order, but if Moscow retreats from Ukraine, the declining threat may cause new problems to emerge.

The ultimate impact of Ukraine on global order will hinge on Western unity in resisting Russia and helping Kyiv’s recovery, whether Washington and its partners adopt a far-sighted and magnanimous approach if a more moderate regime emerges in Moscow, and whether Russians remember the war as a successful model to copy or a disastrous failure that must never be repeated. The most important effects of the Ukraine War may lie at the loci of global power, with China and the United States, and whether Beijing sees the conflict as a signal to oppose or embrace the global system, and whether Americans conclude that the liberal order is worth saving.

Dominic Tierney is professor of political science at Swarthmore College and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He has published four books, most recently, The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts (2015).

Image: Reuters.