2023. A world without common international laws? SDG17
Miguel Ángel Velasco cmf
Master in Development Studies and Diplomacy. UNITAR
The magazine specialized in the analysis of international relations, “Foreign Policy” (December 2022), which included five key issues to account for the year 2023, which has just begun.
I bring here the titles of each of the short sections of the article of the mentioned magazine: “More friction between the United States and China,”; “Economic problems are coming,”; “Iran’s revolution is not over”; “Trump could leave soon, but his policies will not”; “European unity is fraying.”
I leave them listed here because I think it is essential to be attentive to each of them, mainly because “Foreign Policy” points them out as the year’s key issues. But, in any case, I would like to emphasize something different that has focused on the year 2022 and that I believe will be very present in the years to come: the defense of the “International order based on universally accepted laws.”
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
First, we should analyze the changing relations that Russia has maintained with the “Western world” in the last decades after the end of the Cold War. We can group them into four moments:
- Unrest immediately after the disintegration of the USSR.
- Political openness of the Russian Federation to the styles and organizations of the “Western World.”
- Turn of the country’s internal policies towards dictatorial modes and external turn focused on intervention and territorial annexation of neighboring countries.
- Invasion of Ukraine.
The last two stages and, in part, the second, have been led by Vladimir Putin. In Putin’s mind, from the very beginning, there was a strategy that began by attracting Western countries, especially with energy resources, and then went on to implement his final objectives. The ultimate goal would be to regain the lost and longed-for international relevance, even if it would be by violating the borders of internationally recognized nation-states.
The invasion of Ukraine, in addition to the tragedy it is causing to Ukrainians and Russians, has international repercussions on the first level: breaking international laws. Much has been said in recent months about the need to defend the “international order based on universally accepted rules.” However, we must admit that not even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is universally supported by treaties signed by all countries; the situation is even worse if we analyze their enforcement. Commonly, many countries do not ratify international agreements approved at conferences promoted by the United Nations. Even rulings of the International Court of Justice in The Hague have not been accepted by countries that have received a judicial decision contrary to their thesis. The non-acceptance of the rulings of international tribunals usually occurs when the opposing nation is one of the “powerful” ones.
Suppose the lack of acceptance of international norms by some countries is more or less typical behavior. Why, in the case of Russia, is there so much mention of the need to maintain active international relations based on universally accepted norms? Why is Russia so directly accused of breaking the global balance based on laws? The answer is that Russia has repeatedly violated the border status of “nation-states” internationally recognized as such. Other territorial annexations have preceded the invasion of Ukraine in Georgia and Crimea. How far would Russia intend to go in its rush of annexations?
Most international political commentators attribute to Putin a significant miscalculation in the invasion of Ukraine. Putin would have taken for granted some assumptions that have turned out to be false: President Volodimir Zelensky would leave the country; the Ukrainians would easily surrender to the fear of the Russians; the unquestionable Russian military superiority; the Western countries, very divided, would not react to the invasion, as happened in the case of Crimea; the gas and oil pipelines that carry energy to Europe would be irreplaceable. He was somewhat correct in his assessments, but, unfortunately for him, in a tiny percentage. Despite the costs that the war in Ukraine entails for each country and Western citizens, the alliance between the USA and the EU has been significantly strengthened. Why is it that, despite the disagreements, countries such as France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, and the USA are working together on the supply of war or sanctions against Russia? Why have nations such as Sweden and Finland asked for admission to NATO?
In the analysis and prospective of the West, one thing is clear: Vladimir Putin does not intend only to annex Ukraine. Instead, he aimed to consolidate his presence in Belarus and at least increase his influence in the Balkans and the countries of Central Asia. If Putin had succeeded in annexing Ukraine without a clear reaction from Western countries, it would have meant the beginning of a dangerous Russian expansion. To complicate matters further, it was not only Russia that was watching what was happening in Ukraine; China has been very attentive to the reactions of Western countries from the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine.
The Chinese factor
China has numerous territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia over islands, islets, sandbanks, and reefs. But, above all, it claims Taiwan as part of Chinese territory, not recognizing its status as an independent nation-state. China has been watching the West’s reaction to the invasion of Ukraine. If the Ukrainian conflict came out in Russia’s favor, it would be conceivable that China would try to appropriate other countries’ territories or even consider invading Taiwan.
It seems that the end of the conflict in Ukraine, whether sooner or later, will not leave Vladimir Putin in a good position, but if the West’s response to Putin’s aggression had been cold, perhaps China, at this moment, would be considering some concrete action regarding its territorial conflicts. Undoubtedly, the US, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, India, and Australia have all seen this situation as possible. If Russia were to win the war in Ukraine, it would have many repercussions for the Russian Federation and China’s environment. It would end the construction of international relations based on international treaties, agreements, and laws. We would enter a phase of uncertainty that would take us back centuries in history, to the Congress of Vienna (1815), after the Napoleonic wars. In Vienna, they spoke of European borders. Today we would have to talk about uncertainty about the frontiers of the whole world.
Russia’s and China’s internal instability
I leave aside the relative internal stability of democracy in the USA and the weakness of the cohesion of the European Union. I leave it aside because they have no comparison with the uncertainties that loom over Russia with a Vladimir Putin defeated in the war in Ukraine. Who would be his successor, someone from the Kremlin, one of the Russian oligarchs, or a character external to the Kremlin? Would Putin’s hypothetical successor be more inclined towards democracy and dialogue or more aggressive and expansionist than Putin? What would happen with the republics that currently make up the Russian Federation? Would we be facing a second disintegration of the “Russian Empire,” similar to the one that occurred after the fall of the Berlin Wall? What would be the consequences of a collapse of Russian power in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia? What would be the consequences of losing Russian influence in African countries currently linked to Moscow? What would be the reaction of the Russian population? Would we be in a situation similar to the crisis of Tsar Nicholas II and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917? We shall see. Many questions about Vladimir Putin, his continuity, and his replacement are raised.
Regarding China, the monolithism of the last Congress of the Chinese Communist Party presented us with Xi Jinping, seemingly the master and controller of everything. The iron control of COVID-19 contagions through confinements and vaccines, sold as an evident success over the West, has proved to be a tremendous mistake. Protests and minor uprisings have spread throughout China. The economic crisis and the “decoupling” of the Chinese and Western economies are generating meager GDP growth for the Chinese economy. Again, this instability is not suitable for China and, in many respects, not good for the rest of the world. We will have to wait until the end of 2023 to take stock.
International relations in transition to a new paradigm
The title of this article: “2023. A world without common international laws? “may have sounded overly alarmist. It certainly had something of a newspaper article headline, but we have been, perhaps we are still, on the verge of entering an era of unprecedented uncertainty in international relations. The year 2023 will be vital in determining whether we can once again tread, without pause, the paths outlined, for example, by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the principles of constructive multilateralism. I hope that this will be feasible as soon as possible. We Catholic Christians have excellent guidelines in the encyclicals of recent popes and the Social Doctrine of the Church, in general, to know which path to follow.
Miguel Ángel Velasco cmf