The (un) liberal end of history

Two scenarios for the development of the world after the end of the war in Ukraine: the transition to a bipolar model will finally be over, and the United States and Europe must rethink the legacy of realism to win this Cold War

09:00 | 29 април 2022
Снимка: Nicolo Filippo Rosso/Bloomberg
Снимка: Nicolo Filippo Rosso/Bloomberg

By Iskren Ivanov

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of a book that is considered by many to be the "Bible of Neoliberalism" - "The End of History and the Last Man." Its author – Francis Fukuyama argued that with the end of the Cold War, the end of world history had finally come, and that liberal democracy was the perfect political system that had defeated its ideological opponents once and for all.

This fine revision of the thought of Winston Churchill - “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried” – however, it was not unequivocally perceived. Scientist as Keneth Waltz and Robert Jervis warned that universalisation of certain values and their export is a wrong strategy, because not all nations of the world could accept them and live in a democracy. Today, three decades after the end of the story, Waltz and Jervis’ claims seem more realistic than ever.

Allas, the liberal theory of war did not correspond to the realities of the time. Despite the numerous warnings of Henry Kissinger that deplomacy cannot replace “fair war”. Harvard School, headed by Joseph Nye and Robert Keohane imposed the term “soft power”, which was expressing the ability of a country to influence the world politics through its culture and values. Soft power seriously failed after the terrorist attacks on September 11, but its final depreciation occurred after Russia attacked Ukraine. It seems that destructive complexes in human nature which Hans Morgenthau talked about are still alive and the soft power cannot stop the hard one. 

And after it became clear that the neoliberals had no answer to the question of how to curb Russian aggression, US President Joe Biden decided to return to the classic realpolitik who helped the United States win the Cold War.

Is the Biden administration's approach "liberal"? At first glance, the US's firm tone towards Russia contains constant calls for respect for human rights in Ukraine and an immediate ceasefire. A tone that liberals have been adhering to since the Cold War. In practice, however, Biden's foreign policy is emphatically realistic for three reasons.

First, Washington flatly refuses to intervene directly in Ukraine because it would mean World War III. Judgment that is completely in the spirit of realism, which encourages rational decisions at the expense of the so-called. moralpolitik - taking action based on moral arguments. America has repeatedly spoken out against closing the skies over Ukraine and involving NATO in the war.
Second, the United States has returned to the realistic model of nuclear deterrence, which involves activating a nuclear shield on NATO in the event of a Russian attack on an ally. That's why Moscow continues to intimidate Ukraine with the use of strategic nuclear bombs, but is more reticent about the Alliance, saying it would activate its nuclear capabilities only in the face of "an existential threat to Russia's security."
Finally, American foreign policy in Europe is becoming more realistic because it follows the strategy of the so-called offshore balancing, which provides assistance to US allies in deterring threats at the expense of US direct intervention in conflicts.

The first case scenario is an independent and free Ukraine which will join the European Union so its citizens to be able to take easier the catastrophic consequences from the Russian agression. In this case, Europe will be able to use the country as an energy hub to regulate its relations with Russia. Ukraine's eventual accession to the EU will also have cultural benefits, as it will put an end to Russia's claims to a "share" in the European family. Historically, Kievan Rus was the cradle of Russian Orthodox civilization, not the Moscow principality, a descendant of the Tatar-Mongol Golden Horde. For many years, Russian historians have argued that Russia combines Kiev's Orthodox heritage with the Horde's political centralism, but this thesis is not based on scientific evidence, because in reality the Moscow principality prevails because it is most militarily and politically aggressive.

With Ukraine's accession to the EU, the relevant French arguments that Russia needs to be integrated in the European value system the same way as it has happened after signing The Treaty of Westphalia, will finally lose their force. These arguments have repeatedly led to scandalous statements by French politicians such as the late Valerie Giscard d'Estaing, who said in an interview with American journalist Charlie Rose that he approved of the annexation of Crimea because of a legally held referendum. In short, if Ukraine becomes a member of the EU, it will make Europe even more united.

The second scenario is a new escalation of tensions and the transition of the war to a new phase of development. What else can happen? The most unfavorable option remains the use of weapons of mass destruction by Russia. Many would argue that state actors are rational and would not push the red button for fear that this could lead to a full-scale nuclear war. But even if the Russian Federation is a rational actor, its leader is not. This is evidenced by European heads of state and many of those close to him, who no longer recognize in Vladimir Putin the president who made sober and rational decisions, even when he invaded Crimea.

The danger of Putin pushing the red button is exacerbated by the constant pressure on the Russian economy. If Moscow is pressed against the wall, it is quite possible that it will resort to the use of strategic nuclae weapons. Russia is unlikely to risk a direct strike on NATO's nuclear shield. But a limited nuclear explosion in Mariopol or Kharkov will lower the morale of Ukrainians, and Putin knows it well. An alternative is the use of biological and chemical weapons, which will help Russia take a faster advantage in the event of a resumption of hostilities. However, such a move would run counter to a number of international legal instruments banning the use of substances and war poisons for offensive purposes. If this happens, even Eastern Europe will be affected and the international community will have to take urgent measures to stop Russian government from further use of chemical weapon. However, the most painful option remains the transformation of full-scale hostilities into guerrilla warfare. This will turn Ukraine into new Afganistan.

The last key question on the brink of war remains the future of Russia. If the sanctions continue to tighten and the country bankrupts, it will become a closed country as North Korea. More and more Russians will be trying to leave their country, in search of a new life in the West. The closure of the regime could also lead to disintegration processes in the more remote parts of the Russian Federation, which could turn into regional separatism. Recently, many started talking about free, democratic Russia, headed by Navalny, which will follow Ukraine and together will become part of the European family. This saying seems too good to be true. Russia has had decades to integrate into the system of Western values and to give its citizens better living standard, but it did not. For this reason, its population is aging today, and the fear of the "Russian bear" is based on its nuclear arsenal.

The most likely scenario for Russia's development is the formation of a Russian-Chinese bloc in which China will play the role of economic engine and Moscow will serve as a huge nuclear shield over Beijing. In this way, the transition to a bipolar model will finally be over, and the United States and Europe will face the dilemma of how to rethink the legacy of realism so as to win this Cold War.