Could the war in Ukraine mark the beginning of a new era defined by global unrest and power grabs?
That’s what some political observers are suggesting. In the days leading up to Russia’s invasion of its neighboring country, commentators and officials were framing a potential war as one with much larger implications — not just for Eastern Europe or all of Europe, but for all the world.
At heart is the concern that following a post-World War II period in which countries, especially superpowers, rarely imposed their will on others through military means, the Ukrainian war could signal a different — and decidedly more dangerous — approach.
“The Russian threat to invade Ukraine should concern every person on Earth,” wrote historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari in The Economist. “If it again becomes normative for powerful countries to wolf down their weaker neighbors, it would affect the way people all over the world feel and behave.”
Ulrich Speck, an expert on global order, expressed a similar sentiment to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, though he focused mainly on the Ukrainian situation’s implications for Europe. He noted that citizens of the continent had become accustomed to the idea of living in an era “where soft power replaced hard power and international law created the foundation of a mutually beneficial order.”
And now? “All these assumptions are being questioned,” Speck said. “Old-style power politics are back.”
David E. Sanger, White House and national security correspondent for the New York Times, said the stakes are “very real” in terms of the Ukrainian situation’s broader implications. He pointed to how international agreements, such as those via NATO, created since the fall of the Soviet Union, “have kept Europe secure.” In turn, “most Europeans, and frankly most Americans, have come to just assume (that’s) the way the world is organized.”
But Russian president Vladimir Putin is upending that assumption, Sanger said: “Putin is using this moment and holding Ukraine hostage to say, ‘No, no, no … It may be the way the world was organized for the past 25 years, but it’s not the way we’re willing to have the world organized for the next 25.’”
Frank Bruni, a contributing opinion writer to the Times, put it more bluntly, saying many of us had falsely come to believe that we had entered an “enlightened” — and essentially, war-free — era.
“I don’t know if it’s a boomer thing, a modern thing, an elite thing or some other thing, but in my lifetime, in this country, among many of my generational peers, there has been a sense that people had learned particular lessons and were evolving past extremes of pettiness and barbarism, certainly in the corners of the globe deemed more enlightened,” Bruni wrote.
Clearly, that’s not the case, Bruni added: “Embarrassment, vanity, viciousness: History never moves on or gets past these forces, which drove invasions and conquests in centuries past and will drive invasions and conquests in years to come.”
It isn’t just political observers who are sounding such warning calls. So, too, are political officials. In a January speech in Berlin, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said that allowing Russia to “violate those principles” of not using force to reshape political borders “would drag us all back to a much more dangerous and unstable time.”
Blinken added that the Russian-Ukranian situation is “bigger than a conflict between two countries…. It’s a crisis with global consequences, and it requires global attention and action.”