The world is at a crossroads in history. Will we return to the law of the jungle with major countries controlling smaller ones by force? Or will we advance on a path of coexistence and co-prosperity, in which every country’s sovereignty is respected? Russia’s invasion of Ukraine thrusts these questions upon us.
The two world wars of the 20th century, in which powers clashed over the acquisition of imperial holdings, inflicted immense damage on the world. Massive air raids destroyed cities, claiming the lives of countless innocent civilians.
After the wars, lessons were put to use. Under international law, territorial expansionism is rejected, humanitarianism is respected, and principals of cooperation are given weight. This is the international order that shapes our era.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to destroy this. He invaded Ukraine in the name of “liberation,” and without regard to humanity, he has threatened to use nuclear weapons and closed his ears to international criticism.
A hospital destroyed in an air strike, evacuees huddling together in subway stations, the massacre of civilians — this is the reality of the violence wielded by this major power.
— Balancing relations among the world’s powers
Why has such a brutal war occurred in the 21st century?
It is said that Putin, who claims that Ukraine is historically part of Russia, is using force to try to stop Ukraine from entering the European and U.S. sphere of influence. However, Russia’s repeatedly failed military campaigns have prompted the United States and Europe to unite. Some have adopted the view that Putin initially hoped to persuade Ukraine to back down with the threat of force alone. Having isolated itself, Russia now stands in a difficult position both politically and economically.
Supporting Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden warned that Putin would pay a high price for his country’s actions, and laid economic sanctions on the table in a bid to persuade him to halt the invasion. This barrier, however, was easily broken down, and the assault continued. As Ukraine united in resistance, military support was left on the back burner, and some even questioned the leadership of the United States.
The miscalculations and failures of the United States and Russia have brought the disintegration of the power balance among major nations into sharp relief. This balance had played a vital role in preventing war, and that equilibrium has been lost. There is currently no telling what a “post-Ukraine” settlement will look like. But if this dangerous situation is left as-is, this spine-chilling scenario awaits us:
Countries furiously arming, and trying to acquire nuclear weapons one after another; rampant expansionism; smaller countries being robbed of their sovereignty. In short, a “dark age” ruled by distrust and fear.
The world must not regress to the chaos of jungle rivalries among leaders of powerful countries. Rebuilding a stable international order is no easy task. Even so, there are several new efforts that should be undertaken based on the lessons we have learned.
Following the Cold War, the United States pursued its own economic interests, but lost power due to the drawn-out “war on terror,” and it lacked a strategy to lead the world to stability. Being caught between a rising China and resurgent Russia also undermined its influence.
Having said that, there appear to be no other countries besides the United States that could lead the global order. It is necessary for Japan and other allies and friendly nations to lend their support.
— Toward an order of cooperation
Normally the United Nations would take on the task of ensuring global stability. But there is serious dysfunction in the Security Council at its core. Reforms such as strengthening its function as a mediator to resolve conflicts and creating rules to prevent conflicts from flaring up again are needed.
The importance of multilateral regional frameworks is also likely to grow. There are many forums in Asia and Europe to discuss security and economic issues. If these are utilized on multiple levels, then this should act as a stabilization system to supplement the United Nations.
Divisions in the world have grown deeper. The world powers of China and India have not condemned Russia, and have steered clear of the kinds of economic sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe. While saying they prize international norms, they are in fact prioritizing their own interests.
Even so, it would not be wise to push them to Russia’s side. Efforts should be made to explain the irrationality of the war, and convince them to reaffirm the system of international order led by the United States and Europe.
Many emerging and developing countries in Southeast Asia and the Middle East are neutral. They consider Russia’s invasion of Ukraine illegal, but their economies have been dealt a blow by the economic sanctions on Moscow.
Are major powers aware that such countries are indispensable to building a stable order? When international society bands together and extends a hand, it strengthens cooperation.
A society based on trust, not distrust, a society that pursues cooperation, albeit gradually — without efforts to draw nearer to these goals, we cannot look forward to a world where we can live with peace of mind.
A rules-based order is a universal logicality. Japan, which has benefitted from this in the postwar era and achieved growth, has a large responsibility to carry out.