Foreign Policy Blogs

Defending The Liberal World Order

NAto summit

In 1939, French politician Marcel Déat wrote an article entitled “Mourir pour Dantzig?” (“Why Die for Danzig?”), in which he argued that France should avoid war with Germany if the latter seized Poland. This publication was not just an expression of Western European appeasement and deep reticence to enter another military conflict. It symbolized a readiness to forswear European values.

Today, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, as well as Russia’s belligerent foreign policy, leads us to ask similar questions. In fact, the political faith of Central and Eastern Europe will depend on how we reply to them. Is Europe ready to stand behind the international order which it designed, together with the United States, after the Second World War? Are Europeans able and willing to defend major diplomatic agreements such as the 1975 Helsinki Accords or the 1990 Paris Charter, which are the foundations of the European vision of the world? In short, is Europe ready to “mourir pour Helsinki?

The 2016 Liberal World Order

After the Second World War, the U.S. took the mantle of global leadership from Europe. Washington insisted on dismantling the European empires in the name of self-determination and embarked on programmatic efforts to spread democracy. Europe and the U.S. designed, underwrote, maintained and enforced a globalized world order. It embraced liberal democracy, self-determination, industrial capitalism, secular nationalism, open trade, human rights and the rule of law.

In order to defend those values, the US and Europe institutionalized this liberal, multilateral order. This is how NATO, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Council of Europe (CoE) and the Community of Democracies came to life and became pillars of the western vision of the world.

Over the last decade, the West had envisioned a steady transformation of the liberal world order based on its greatest strengths: established co-operative architecture and a highly developed capacity for dialogue across deep political divides. The U.S. and Europe knew that the western-dominated structures must adapt in order to remain relevant. The concept of modern partnership emerged, which was based on the assumption that the establishment of a “co-operative architecture” will lead to a multi-partner world (rather than a multi-polar world).

Today, many claim that the West’s material and ideological hegemony appears to be coming to an end. The international system seems to be moving toward an inflection point, where a possible clash between the West and “the Rising Rest” cannot be fully ruled out. However, the West’s diminishing ability to anchor a liberal international order is not just a product of the rise of emerging powers that are challenging prevailing norms. The West is also experiencing an economic downturn, political polarization and dysfunction, coupled with the resurgence of a revisionist neighbor (and global power): Russia.

Russia has never been a part of the liberal world order. In fact, it has never genuinely wanted to be a part of it. Rather, Russia has shown that it prefers to follow the logic of power, which was best depicted by John Ikenberry, an international relations theorist, in his book “Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order.” In short, harmony within the liberal order is based on values and consent, and is organized around rules and multilateral institutions that allocate rights and limit the exercise of power. Harmony outside the liberal order is maintained through bilateral relationships, organized around shared interest and based on power. For Russia, only the latter matters.

Systemic Challenge

In 2014 Russia decided to exploit a growing weakness in the West. Therefore, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is a systemic challenge. By using military force against Ukraine (as in 2008 against Georgia), the Kremlin made a bold statement: smaller, weaker countries do not possess the right to determine their own future. This right only belongs to a group of powerful countries with a strong military, and in particular those with nuclear weapons. This group is not bound by any rules and international law does not apply to it. The conduct of this handful of powerful countries may only be limited from within.

Over the last decade Russia has adapted the concept of “spheres of influences” and transformed it into “spheres of dominance.” For Russia, Ukraine is central to its vision of establishing an alternative international system, where integration signifies domination and rules serve as a smokescreen. By fully controlling Ukraine, including both its domestic and foreign policies, Russia wants to become the true leader of a post-Western international system.

Why has the West not succeeded, despite numerous attempts, to forge a true strategic partnership with Russia? The problem is that strategic partnerships based on limited shared interests and not supported by shared values are almost impossible to sustain, because all partnerships entail prior acceptance of different positions and are dependent on both sides having something to gain. Unless strategic partnerships are based on a willingness to accept partners as equals and to play by rules that are acceptable to both sides, there is little to be gained from them. In fact, partnerships that are built around narrow shared interests rather than more widely shared values are vulnerable to setbacks caused by unexpected events. The illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia serves as a perfect example of this.

The West needs to stop pretending that it is strategically blind. There is no other option than to defend its vision of the world, or at least to shape the post-Western world according to the basic tenets of the liberal order. The conduct of diplomacy requires a clear understanding of what is happening in the world and an ability to make an accurate assessment of it and draw honest and in-depth conclusions. In his speech at the UN General Assembly on September 30th 1982, George P. Shultz, a former U.S. Secretary of State, outlined four basic principles of action for diplomacy, which could help to revitalize the West. First, start from realism. Second, act from strength (military, political, economic and moral). Third, be ready to build agreements and negotiate on key issues. Fourth, progress is possible.

Realism is the key. By denying the facts on the ground, the West will be unable to return to a path of political growth. It must be crystal-clear for both Europe and the U.S. that Russia has confirmed its status as a revisionist power. Its principal foreign policy goal is to maintain Eastern Europe in the Moscow’s sphere of dominance and to hamper the political aspirations of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine to strengthen their ties with the institutional pillars of the liberal world order (e.g. the EU and NATO).

Its other goal is to influence and intimidate some EU and NATO members. To achieve these ends, Russia has reached for a centralized and coordinated use of hybrid techniques, which have evolved into hybrid warfare. Russia seeks to secure its military might and signals its readiness to use conventional forces while simultaneously using softer means. In the past decade, its military capabilities and defense budget have grown significantly.

Military Anchor

The creeping militarization of the High North, the Kaliningrad Oblast and Crimea, including the development of technologically advanced anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems, alongside Russia’s forward basing in Belarus and Syria, poses a major threat to the stability of the EU, NATO and their member states. Furthermore, Russia has breached numerous international legal commitments (the 1975 Helsinki Accords, the 1987 Treaty on Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF), the 1990 Paris Charter, the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, the 1999 Adapted CFE Treaty), severely undermining their assurance.

Strength still matters. NATO will remain the military anchor of the West. The upcoming NATO Summit in Warsaw (July 8-9th 2016) is an opportunity to adequately respond to the worsening security environment in the vicinity of the Alliance. The eastern flank is where it remains the most exposed, both militarily and politically. Russia commands an overwhelming 10:1 force ratio at its northeastern corner. Adding to this the possibility of a tactical nuclear strike, Russia is increasingly undermining NATO’s strategy of extended deterrence to protect its most exposed Allies in the east. The Alliance can no longer rely solely on extended deterrence and small mobile forces.

In Warsaw, NATO must shift its strategy towards forward presence. The recently published report by the German Marshall Fund “NATO in a World of Disorder: Making the Alliance Ready for Warsaw” accurately describes the nature of forward presence. It should be multinational in order to increase its political deterrence and defense value. The force must be combat-ready, properly trained and equipped to address the threats in the region. The force should be large enough to conduct autonomous defensive operations. Two brigades (one in Poland and one in the Baltic states) would be a good starting point. Finally, the force should include advanced military capabilities, such as air defense, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and electronic warfare.

However, military capabilities alone will not be enough. They must be underpinned by an appropriate level of defense spending. Indeed, strength also means economic vitality. Reviving economic growth is critical to re-legitimating the EU in the eyes of Europeans, just as a robust recovery is essential to restoring the efficacy of democratic institutions in the U.S. Therefore, economic recovery will remain a crucial component of order-building in the 21st century and will help the West regain its position in the world.

Litmus Test

The ability to solve international problems will make the West a safer place. Europe should begin with its immediate neighborhood, where neither focusing on security whilst omitting elements of sustainable development (North Africa before the Arab Spring), nor the promotion of democracy without paying proper attention to security (Eastern Europe), is the right approach. Without doubt, finding a solution to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict will constitute a litmus test for Europe.

However, there is a rising expectation in some European capitals that Ukraine will unilaterally speed up the full implementation of the political and social elements of the “Minsk agreements”, including the decentralization process. This asymmetrical situation, where one party does more in practice and gets less in return, cannot even be mitigated by the sanctions imposed on Russia. In fact, the West should not forget that dialogue is only a tool that forms part of a broader policy. Dialogue itself is not a policy.

Nevertheless, progress is possible. The West can achieve it by putting Eastern Europe back on the Transatlantic agenda and by properly reinvigorating the Eastern Partnership. The fundamental question that has not been asked often enough is “partnership for what?” The answer should be clear. There is no reason (apart from psychological) why the Eastern Partnership countries should still be deprived of the possibility, however distant, of a European perspective. It would be naïve to assume that a policy based on the establishment of partnerships would be easy or would yield quick results.

Building up new relationships is time consuming. It should embrace agreed rules, embedded practices and eventually, trust. The ultimate goal of a new partnership with Eastern Europe (an Eastern Partnership 2.0) will be to resolve conflicts and disagreements through dialogue and negotiation, as well as to achieve a level of predictability through institutionalized patterns and rules-based behavior that is clearly beneficial in a fast-moving and complex world.

This article was originally published by “New Eastern Europe“.

The opinions, findings and conclusions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.




Dominik P. Jankowski

Dominik P. Jankowski is a security policy expert, diplomat, and think-tanker. Currently he serves as Political Adviser and Head of the Political Section at the Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Poland to NATO.