The last monumental change in the international system occurred in 1989-1991, with the end of the Cold War, driven by Mikhail Gorbachev's unwillingness to keep a jackboot on the throats of Soviet citizens and just as importantly, its satellite states, along with the US and the UK and their allies being willing to try to put international relations back on some sort of legal footing. The Gulf War was a test of that, with the UN Security Council generating unprecedented international support for action to evict Iraq from its occupation of Kuwait. It is difficult to underestimate the optimism of the time, with half of Europe freed from Marxist-Leninist dictatorships (including some of the most evil in history in Romania and Albania), the end of Cold War tensions between the former USSR and the USA, and even though China brutally suppressed dissent in Tiananmen Square, it seemed to accept a new world order based on rule of law. Victory against Iraq at the time indicated a willingness to not tolerate territorial aggression.
So much has changed in 30 years.
9/11 was critically important in refocusing Western attention on Islamist insurgency, but it paralleled change in Russia, as the relatively benign Boris Yeltsin was replaced with the altogether more sinister, ex. KGB official, Vladimir Putin. Russian liberal democracy has been wound back so much, it is little more than a fascist, organised crime syndicate running an authoritarian militarist dictatorship. China having become rich with capitalism under Marxist-Leninist rule, has seen the rise of Xi Jinping, who takes inspiration from Mao's era. Except now instead of being a gnat with a few nuclear weapons, China is the world's second largest economy, with businesses from Europe to North America and Japan all heavily invested in it. China is a major trading partner of many economies, and its requirement for local partners and investors has enabled it to steal intellectual property from some investors, and then copy what they do, at a lower price.
For much of the last 30 years Russia and China were content maintaining their regimes and growing richer. Russia on oil and gas (although this was severely dented for some years once fracking made the US in particular, capable of supplying its entire domestic demand), although little else. China on being a manufacturing hub. However, both have become bolder as Western liberal democracies have become weaker defenders of the international order.
Western liberal democracies have been damaged by
- The war to overthrow Saddam Hussein: This demonstrated how utterly incapable Western democracies are in nation-building, and their lack of capacity and willingness to occupy and transform a defeated enemy. The blood and treasure lost in Iraq, and even the aftermath of the limited intervention to overthrow Gaddafi in Libya, have not been seen as worthwhile in most liberal democracies. This has caused most to want to withdraw militarily.
- Weak Western commitment to the international system: President Obama was committed to a future of US pulling back from conflict, and this was followed by European powers that by and large took the same view. When Russia invaded Crimea, the Western reaction was one of resignation. When Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk shot down a Malaysian airliner, only the Netherlands and Australia demanded explanations so vocally. Obama's "red-line" over Syria using poison gas against its own population was backed up by little. Trump for his bluster, has largely been uncommittal on anything. Biden is yet to be tested, but looks and sounds weak.
- Western ideological self-hatred: The weak commitment has been backed by both right and leftwing apologists for Russia and China. Ones on the right regard China as a great business opportunity that shouldn't be disturbed. They also see Russia as a "traditional Christian" state, that has "understandable" interests in neighbouring states. They downplay Putin's authoritarianism. Ones on the left are back in the Cold War, thinking it is "time" the West stopped dominating, after all, it's Western capitalism that they blame for most of the world's ills.
The international system is led by actors that have proven unwilling to deter or confront Russia from irredentist behaviour. Russia currently occupies not just Crimea, but Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, it also effectively backs a rogue breakaway entity called Trans-Dniestr in Moldova, and is Belarus's biggest friend.
Russia's narrative that if Ukraine joined NATO it would provoke it was complete nonsense, as it is clear that HAD Ukraine become a NATO member some years ago, the chances of an attack would have been more remote.
For what it's worth, the international reaction to the attack on Russia has largely been uniform and positive. Widespread condemnation, and the emergence of sanctions and increasing military and economic aid and assistance. Yet it still looks pathetic for Ukraine to not be subject to military support from powers that completely support it politically and ideologically. Russia's vile defamatory narrative that it is "de-Nazifying" Ukraine (against its Jewish President!!??!) is laughably absurd.
Indeed, the Russian ethno-nationalist narrative Putin is expounding is absolutely fascist. It is blood-and-soil, historical revanchism, that blanks out the USSR's alliance with Nazism that backfired, and glorifies the Soviet defeat of the USSR. See this Twitter thread for an excellent summary of that, and how Putin now uses revival of WW2 myths to bolster Russian nationalism.
Let's be crystal clear, Putin is a nationalist neo-fascist.
Of course the West cannot directly intervene against Russia, not least because the price could well be risking nuclear war. What it CAN do, is make it crystal clear that it will use all necessary means to defend NATO member states, which means including nuclear weapons. Russia is only deterred by the risk of overwhelming force.
There have thankfully been very few voices seeking to downplay Putin. However, in NZ Chris Trotter, who has valiantly stood in favour of freedom of speech has revived his tankie instincts over the "tragedy" that the USSR collapsed. The Green Party's Golriz Gharaman has OPPOSED New Zealand sanctioning Russia unilaterally, implicitly accepting that Russia vetoing UN sanctions is preferable, but also essentially claiming sanctions just hurt ordinary people so shouldn't proceed.
Of course then she is happy to share a platform with Roger Waters, who supported Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea and Noam Chomsky who actively supports the Russian imperialist narrative.
Maybe she is more concerned about Palestine and attacking Israel, than actual imperialist warmongering, which simply reflects the weak-willed vacuousness of hard-left anti-Western so-called "peace" activism.
By contrast the Australian Greens, have got a backbone:
as do, it appears, a lot of governments that we perhaps otherwise didn't think had it in them. Finland and Sweden actively discussing joining NATO. Germany finally capitulating to cancel Nordstream 2. Then there is this magnificent speech from Kenya.
We can only hope that the brave people of Ukraine, finally having some support (except direct military assistance) against Putin, can hold out and Putin can be rolled back into some capitulation. Putin wants ALL of Ukraine for himself, but he will likely have to resort to accepting a ceasefire in the Donbass, unless he is willing to unleash a fury of weaponry that may cause more Russians to turn against him.
Let us hope that this puts paid to the PRC's ambitions to attack Taiwan. A firm resolve is needed. Ukraine is a test of the international system, a test of the resolve of the USA, under a President who has looked weak from day one (with the withdrawal of Afghanistan having been such a mess), the UK and France, the EU and the community of liberal democracies