By Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar*
The multi-polar distribution of power that marks contemporary geopolitics has spawned security imbalances on account of economic inequities, geography, demographics, the military, and the nature of government. It has incited a jostling for control and power-ascendancy—this has been distorted into conflict in Ukraine. The mass violence seen during the course of two world wars during the 20th century alone was caused by these very imbalances. This gave way, in 1945, to relative ‘stability’ underscored by bipolar tensions in Europe and the Cold War. But it did not, by any means, provide the same cold comfort in other continents. The end of the Cold War in 1991 ushered in two decades of an unrestrained unipolar world order, before a return to the complex agglomeration of multi-polar powers of today.
The multi-polar power distribution in the early 20th century was different. In a world of imperial powers, colonies, and a debased system that served the prevailing hegemon’s interests, the primary actors were from Europe, the US, and Japan. In contrast, the 21st century is distinguished by an array of interdependent actors critical to domains that go beyond the military.
There is a view that bipolarity assured a modicum of security, guaranteed by the two superpowers. Wars fought between 1945-89 and onwards, however, debunk such an analysis. Given intensity and casualties, the occurrence of wars tells a different story. Between 1945 and the end of the Cold War, 236 wars were fought while 147 were battled from 1990 to 2020. These statistics hardly suggest that the Cold War was a pacific period in geopolitics. Clearly, peace is not entirely a function of power distribution.
The path to peace, another school of thought holds, is through economic cooperation. This view assumes that each state, big or small, plays a role in the global economic system. In theory, such a circumstance makes the upholding of a state’s security and sovereignty a collective responsibility. Unfortunately, the competition for security and the absence of acceptable rules for partnership make economic cooperation abstruse. The barrage of economic sanctions that the West has levied on Russia for its military onslaught on Ukraine as well Russia’s counter injunctions are an indicator of the complexity of economic relations. The case of South Sudan, on the other hand, suggests that weakness is doggedly enduring. It does not invite peace, as economic activity can be threatened by both more powerful states that seek strategic advantage and internally by self-seeking elements.
An examination of the three power paradigms considered thus far presents a rather perplexing perspective of the larger impact of the dispersion or the concentration of power. There is no convincing argument as to which of the systems is more conducive for a more stable world.
Since 1945, a core principle of international stability has been that nations have a right to self-determination, and that borders are inviolable. Yet, Russia transgressed this belief, when, in 2014, it annexed parts of Ukraine in the Crimean Peninsula. In February 2022, it invaded Ukraine on the grounds of strategic security and ethnic conformity. The intent was to create a defensive bulwark against an eastward advancing NATO.
Driven by the vision of reversing the consequences of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the challenge to the post-Cold War global order is reflected in the ‘Putin Doctrine’. This is predicated on the rejection of a western-conceived global order and acceptance of Russian exceptionalism. Digging deeper, it is discernible that the ‘contemporary multi-polar power’ exemplar has, in many ways, enabled the ‘Putin Doctrine’, and has set into motion the events leading to the invasion of Ukraine.
The crisis is a test case of whether democratic institutions will stick by their principles. While autocratic dispensations view the scenario with an eye on how resolutely the West will uphold its security structures, the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances is also under the scanner. Beijing, in particular, will be watchful, as it formulates plans to invade Taiwan, consolidate claims in the South China Sea, and stir its aggressive design in Ladakh. At stake, then, is the entire international order and its systems of superintendence. Potential aggressors must be deterred by the idea of the abhorrence of geographic subjugation. The tragedy of the times, however, is that grand principles do not challenge realpolitik.
There is, therefore, a need for profound institutional reconstitution. Current systems, in the main, respond to a past driven by self-interests and balance of power. However, global concerns and realities such as the pandemic and the impact of conflicts on worldwide economic networks make individual survival and prosperity a collective function. The necessity is for universal policies that inspire stability. They must have regional expression that makes security of the smallest a shared responsibility. These are not prescriptions but the principles that must guide action.
The UN is seen as hopelessly impotent when a major power is involved. Not only must its security architecture be remodelled to expand the permanent membership of the Security Council, but the intervention of a peace-keeping force or a negotiating body must be mandatory at the first indication of armed conflict.
Nuclear Deterrence and NATO’s Conundrum
Nuclear deterrence is credited with the prevention of conflict. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine casts a harsh light on how the idea has been turned on its head. The most obvious indicator is that Moscow is using nuclear deterrence not to protect Russia but rather to provide space for conventional action. NATO’s nuclear weapons deter Russia from engaging in a wider European battle, but leaves Ukraine caught in a hopeless war. So why does NATO provide weapons without committing heavy arms, air defence, or troops in defence of Ukraine? Is it to prolong the conflict and make Ukraine a testing ground? After all, NATO is aware that to engage Russia in direct conflict will signal the start of World War III. So why not take bolder steps to encourage negotiations?
The road to peace begins with an acceptance of realities and then attempts a harmonious amalgam of principles. The perception that peace is kindred to democracy is a vision in international relations that some may rule out as quixotic. The imbroglio in Ukraine suggests that democracies are as susceptible to war hysteria as authoritarian states. As each side spins its self-indulgent narrative, what suffers is the very idea of global interdependence.
*Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar is former Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) of India and Distinguished Fellow, IPCS.