THR Web Features   /   April 20, 2022

The Russo-Ukrainian War and Global Order

What might the war mean for the liberal international order?

John M. Owen IV

( Oleg Elkov/Shutterstock.)

The outcome of Russia’s war on Ukraine is far from clear. As of the time of this writing, Moscow and Kyiv are beginning a set of battles over the east and south of Ukraine. A war of attrition is taking shape, with no end in sight. There remains the possibility—low, but greater than zero—that the war will spread and involve NATO directly, or even involve the use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.

Thus far, however, this much is clear. The war has exposed Russia as a conventional also-ran bristling with 4,500 nuclear warheads, but not a great power. The war has also unleashed a number of complications: It has heightened the dependency of Russia’s economy on energy exports; jeopardized those exports to the lucrative European market; affected Russia internally by making it more autocratic and opening a new brain drain; generated remarkable solidarity in the West, including a probable further expansion of NATO in the Nordic region and deployments of military assets to eastern members; and led those democracies to impose severe economic sanctions on Russia, including a freeze on Russia’s sovereign wealth deposits in their banks and a disabling of Russian banks from using the SWIFT system. Dozens of Western companies, under societal pressure, have closed down or suspended operations in Russia. (By “the West,” I mean, following convention, not only North America and Europe but also other wealthy democracies including Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, all of which thus far have joined the sanctions against Russia.)

The war also has demonstrated that most of the rest of the world—that is, the great majority of the world’s population—is more ambivalent about the war than is the West. The war has put China on the spot. That country’s growth has slowed in recent years, and in the medium term, that growth will continue to require economic partnerships with the West. No doubt Xi Jinping was unhappy with Putin for attacking Ukraine on February 24. But now he and China’s leadership must try to capitalize on the war and its aftermath.

Taken together, these ramifications of the war could accelerate the separation of global order into two separate but overlapping international orders: the familiar liberal international order, supervised and underwritten by the United States, and an authoritarian-capitalist international order, supervised and underwritten by China. I have written about this possibly emerging global order here. It would result from ongoing efforts by each great power—the United States and China—to shape the international environment to its own advantage and the advantage of its domestic regime. That is, America tries to make the world select for liberal democracy, but China tries to make it select for authoritarian capitalism.

First, the war has ruined any chance of Russo-Western cooperation any time soon; whatever hope the Biden administration has had of peeling Russia away from China lies in tatters. By forcing Russia to move even closer to China, the war has increased China’s leverage over Russia. As Russia seeks Chinese help, China will likely do as it has done before and drive hard bargains with Russia. Most obvious will be Russian dependence on energy revenues from China, particularly if Europe reduces its gas imports over the next year. (A prelude came in 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, when China signed a 30-year agreement to purchase Russian gas.) Further large increases in Russian energy exports to China would require more overland infrastructure between the two countries, and that cannot be built quickly, but China is a world leader in infrastructure. China, in short, could find its relative power augmented by the war.

Second, if China responds to the pressures of the war by siding decisively with Russia and providing it with direct military support, it will press the West to take serious steps to decouple economically from China. China need not throw its weight behind Russia, of course. Indeed, a Sino-American effort to broker an end to the war is conceivable. Such an outcome may seem nothing more than the stuff of Henry Kissinger’s dreams. But a long destructive war in eastern Europe that is ruining a giant nuclear-armed country with vast energy reserves could lead the two great powers to find a way. To date, however, China is tilting toward Russia. It is repeating and amplifying the Russian line that the war is the fault of the United States, which it depicts as a reckless behemoth bent on ruling the world. China voted against the April 7 UN resolution ousting Russia from the UN Human Rights Commission. US officials have warned China not to provide material help to the Russian war effort, but if the war grinds on, Russian income begins to slow, and Russia offers increasingly generous terms, China may become Russia’s lord, and Russia China’s vassal. 

Third, adding to China’s temptations to side with Russia decisively is the clear ambivalence in the Global South about the war, an ambivalence generated by permanent suspicion and resentment of America and American power. The typical reaction outside of the West—including from large democracies such as India, South Africa, and Brazil, all of which abstained from the UN resolution against Russia—is that the war is bad and should be stopped, but that America has pushed Russia to the wall and Russia is fighting for its sovereignty and security. These countries would like to avoid choosing sides. (Most Southeast Asian countries, whose economies depend on China but whose security depends on the United States, either abstained from the UNHRC resolution or voted against it.) But the capital and technology coming their way through the Belt and Road Initiative, their high volume of trade with China, and the absence of a competitive Western alternative could push many Global South countries into a China-led institutional order.

Fourth is a longer-term possibility. The severe sanctions that the West has imposed on Russia, including the freezing of Russia’s sovereign assets in Western banks and the exclusion of Russian banks from SWIFT, clearly give China an incentive to inoculate itself from the Western-controlled international financial system. Recently in the New York TimesLaurence Tribe and Jeremy Lewin called for the Biden administration to seize Russia’s $100 billion sitting in US banks. Should the administration follow this advice, China’s incentive to build an alternative financial system would increase. 

In the short term, China seems unlikely to attack Taiwan, but its ability to coerce that country depends in part on its ability to threaten credibly to attack it. That ability probably has been damaged by the West’s unified opposition to Russia: If the West came down so hard on Russia in Ukraine, it probably would come down hard on China in Taiwan. Getting out from under Western international finance will be a long job, given that China’s currency is not remotely ready to become global and its financial apparatus is rudimentary. But the incentives to begin the process clearly are present.

Mitigating these effects could be the dilution of Western solidity against Russia. Some dissipation is inevitable over time. But there also is the distinct possibility of more Right-populist governments in Western countries—in France in the near term, in the United States in the medium term. Such governments, suspicious of NATO and more favorably inclined toward Putin’s Russia, could weaken the liberal international order and strengthen the China-led alternative order.