One aspect of the Ukraine crisis that both Russia and the West need to understand is that the rest of the world appears to be relatively unconcerned about it. Though the West, along with Japan, may view the crisis as a challenge to the global order, most other states do not feel threatened by Russia’s annexation of Crimea or designs it may have elsewhere in Ukraine. Instead, many view this crisis as being largely about Europe’s inability to resolve its own regional disputes — though a successful outcome could bolster Europe’s global influence as a peacemaker.
As the Ukraine crisis unfolded, Russian policymakers and commentators talked about “the end of the post-Cold War era,” while Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin even appeared to welcome the start of a New Cold War. Such wishful thinking is predicated on the notion that conflict between Russia and the West would once again come to define the entire international system, thereby returning Russia to its former superpower status.
That is not going to happen. As emerging powers’ reactions to the Ukraine crisis demonstrate, world politics is no longer defined by what happens in Europe, even when a major conflict is brewing there. The international system has become so multipolar that non-European states can now choose to follow their own interests rather than feel obliged to side with the East or the West.
Few world leaders doubt that Russia’s use of force to compromise Ukraine’s territorial integrity, change its borders and annex Crimea violated international law. China’s abstention in the subsequent United Nations Security Council vote clearly signaled its leaders’ displeasure with Kremlin policy. But nearly one-third of the U.N.’s members sent an equally emphatic message by abstaining or not participating in a General Assembly vote condemning Russia’s actions.
Even Western-friendly governments — including Brazil, India, South Africa and Israel — were not prepared to take sides. The Indian journalist Indrani Bagchi referred to the abstentions as a new form of nonalignment.
Cynicism and schadenfreude may also be playing a role. Raja Mohan, a prominent Indian strategist, notes that Europe “has never ceased to lecture Asia on the virtues of regionalism,” but now seems unable to cope with its own regional security challenges.
The implicit message from the new nonaligned is straightforward: Why should we care about a territorial conflict in Europe when you Europeans fail to act decisively on Palestine, Kashmir, or territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas? Instead, many of these countries are calling on the West to de-escalate the crisis and, as an official Chinese foreign ministry statement advocated, to “exercise restraint and refrain from raising tensions.”
That is good advice — and no different from what Europeans tell others in similar situations. Unlike other regions of the world, however, Europe, including Russia, can be proud of its regional security organizations, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); Europe needs to make them work.
The OSCE, for example, would be greatly strengthened if, using its wide range of diplomatic mechanisms (such as roundtable discussions and support for constitutional reforms), it succeeded in defusing the Ukraine crisis and thereby bolstered European security. Doing so would also provide a powerful example of institutionalized regionalism that might serve as a conflict-resolution model for other countries.
Alternatively, if Europe is unable to resolve the Ukraine crisis with diplomacy, its global influence, and that of Russia, will surely fade. Russia has reminded the world that it is possible to bully one’s neighbors and steal their territory using brute force; but, in a globalized, multipolar system, this alone will not be enough to rally other countries to its cause. And the EU, as a highly sophisticated paper tiger, would be no more attractive.
EU member states have no interest in letting their continent slip back into ethnic nationalism and power politics. The Ukraine crisis is therefore both a challenge and an opportunity. If Europe wants to remain a pole in a multipolar international system, it must prove that it can pursue a common foreign and security policy, particularly in times of crisis and conflict.
That means that the EU must emerge from the Ukraine crisis with a stronger commitment to common defense and joint contingency planning, and a unified energy policy that can secure independence from Russian oil and gas. But Europe must also show that it can, and will, defend the principles of rules-based international relations.
Maintaining and strengthening the pillars of Europe’s common defense is not a simple task; but multilateral security organizations like the OSCE are not made for easy times. They are intended to protect members from manipulation and aggression, and in a way that can garner global support. In this sense, Europe’s main task now is to leverage its already considerable strategic assets.
Volker Perthes is chairman and director of Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. © 2014 Project Syndicate