The Ukraine and volatile global politics

Opinion by Professor Nick Bisley.

The crisis in Ukraine has caused something of a shock to the international system. Beyond the immediate ways in which the prevailing diplomatic and strategic orthodoxies have been thrown on their head by Russia’s fears and ambition, it has also accelerated the sense that the international system may not be quite as stable as we thought.

That the system is in a state of flux is not news to Asia watchers. That it proved so volatile in Europe is perhaps more surprising. If old school irredentism could happen in what we thought was a geopolitical backwater, Asia's more fluid setting may be far more combustible than we imagined.

The crisis is thus being closely analysed for what it might tell us about the nature of the international system and where it is headed. In these pages Rory Medcalf has looked at the security consequences for Asia, while over at the Diplomat, Harry Kazianis has considered a range of other ways in which Ukraine's experiences may shape the region.

Beyond the ways in which it may embolden China or transform Russia's role in Asia, the events and their back story have a number of important implications for analysts and policy-makers that have so far gone unremarked:

Don't humiliate great powers

Putin's gambit is intimately bound up in the domestic foundations of his political apparatus. Central to this has been the way in which a sense of humiliation has been fostered by the ruling elite to justify its political program.

The principle that the humiliation of powerful states should be avoided has its origins in the Europe's concert system and was a key part of the long-running success of 19th century European diplomacy. Aggrieved great powers have the potential to destabilise the system by mobilising to right perceived wrongs.

Furthermore, the humiliated power feels as if it does not have a stake in the international order. Without skin in the game, these powers have significantly lower incentives to follow the rules. While China's path to power has been quite different from the traumas of post-Soviet Russia, nonetheless a strong sense of humiliation has been an important motive force behind its rise and will remain an important part of its international engagement.

Ignore domestic politics at your peril

It is surprising that even in our heavily globalised world, our thinking about international relations is still shaped by the idea of states as discrete balls bumping into one another on the baize of the international stage. To fully understand Putin's aims and ambitions one has to grapple with the complex politics of authoritarian Russia and the role Russia’s international posture plays in the ruling elite’s propaganda.

Putin seeks not only to redeem Russian greatness in the world, but to adopt an international posture that reinforces the regime's domestic position by taking issue with a West that is portrayed as keeping Russia down. In Asia, we must also not fall into the trap of imagining the international policy of Japan, China or South Korea are a function of purely international calculations.

Not everyone wants to be the West

In the wake of the Cold War and the optimism of the 1990s, liberal democracy seemed to many to be the only show in town. Having seen off fascism and communism and developed a cultural context focused on the individual, all states and societies were expected to see the natural advantages of the Western way of doing things.

Russia's actions are only the most assertive example of the fact that many people around the world have little interest in the values or rules established by the West. Efforts to try to tie non-Western states into normative frameworks that assume an underlying desire to join the Western club won't work and are often likely to be counter-productive, a point that many in Asia still have not fully understood.

Come to terms with the unexpected

Although the Ukraine crisis had been simmering for a long time, Russia’s intervention in Crimea was further illustration of international politics’ infinite capacity to surprise. Perhaps more than any other lesson from the Ukraine, this is perhaps most salient for those who focus on Asia. There are so many well known and long established fault lines and friction points that it seems hard to imagine something outside the Korea-Kashmir-East/South China Sea setting off a regional crisis, but Crimea reminds us that we need to be creative when imagining what trouble lies around the corner.

First published on The Interpreter on 25 March.

Professor Nick Bisley is the Executive Director of La Trobe Asia.

Image credit: Domesticat.