In a time of democratic peace, Russia’s great power war
Interstate wars, involving great powers, were not expected to drive the 21st century. That was until Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Despite the United States (US) invasion and occupation of Iraq (2003-11) and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, interstate wars, involving great powers were not expected to drive the 21st century.
The prime movers of contemporary world politics were supposed to emanate from global financial networks and supply chains, technology-induced telescoping of time and space, cultural hybridisation and religious revival, enduring inequality and exploitation, global power shift to the Indo-Pacific, terrorism and lethal technologies, and/or the anthropogenic climate crisis in the fragile planetary ecosystem. A global pandemic originating from State duplicity and human hubris recently joined this daunting list.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine revives the great power war. European post-modernity lies in a shambles and looks increasingly fanciful. But what exactly do Russia’s invasion and Ukraine’s resistance denote for the rest of us and the remainder of the 21st century?
War, reflecting the relations, patterns, and balances of military power between States, is understandably dominated by great powers, ie, States with system-shaping capabilities and intentions. Nuclear deterrence has reduced the incidence of war between great powers, but not their war-making proclivities in general. Since ancient times, in all civilisational settings, great powers have not hesitated to use force to secure their interests, as portrayed in the fabled Melian dialogue by the historian Thucydides.
Athens, during its war against Sparta, demands that the island of Melos becomes its vassal State and rejects the promise of Melian neutrality with the chilling words: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Can this bleak-yet-compelling statement be countered by another potent idea? Perhaps, yes.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant regards peace as an ethical duty: It is only under conditions of peace that human beings can treat each other as ends, rather than as means to an end. Writing in 1795, Kant proposes that a zone of peace, the “pacific union”, has begun to be established among liberal societies.
Kant bases his “perpetual peace” on the ever-widening acceptance of three “definitive articles”. The first definitive article, which is a constitutional guarantee of caution, restrains a liberal State vis-à-vis its citizens by ensuring their moral autonomy and individualism, while guaranteeing social order.
The second definitive article is an international legal guarantee of respect that restrains liberal States vis-à-vis one another, thereby establishing a pacific union that securely maintains the rights of each State. The third definitive article restrains a liberal State vis-à-vis the citizens of other liberal States by establishing a cosmopolitan law of universal hospitality, which permits “the spirit of commerce” to flourish and makes the pacific union both peaceful and prosperous.
In our times, Kant’s pacific union and perpetual peace have re-emerged as the “democratic peace” proposition, in two distinct versions. The stronger version suggests that democracies are inherently more peaceful because their political cultures involve “give and take”, and their political institutions operate on checks and balances. The weaker version proposes that while democracies are not more peaceful, they do not fight one another.
This idea provoked fierce academic debate in the 1990s, with some scholars arguing that it is almost “an empirical law in international relations” (Jack Levy), while others dismissed it as statistically inconsequential given the small number of democracies over the past two centuries (John Mearsheimer).
Out of this idea emerges a clear policy prescription: If you want peace, promote democracy. Taken to its extreme, the democratic peace can justify an armed intervention to impose democracy, as happened in 2003 with the US invasion of Iraq.
After the September 11 attacks, the ideology of neoconservatism came to dominate US foreign policy. Neocons viewed international issues in absolute moral categories: Democracy was good, authoritarianism was evil. For the sole superpower, the use of military force was the first foreign policy option, not the last. If multilateral institutions and international agreements did not bolster American interests and values, they should be discarded. Democracy could be imposed through the barrel of the gun.
The US transformed Germany and Japan, two monstrous dictatorships, into democracies after militarily defeating them in World War II, and it should do so again. If weapons of mass destruction were not found in Iraq after its defeat and occupation, so what? The removal of the Saddam Hussein regime was justification enough. The nature of the regime supersedes the balance of power and other considerations. If communist China has freedom of action in the nuclear arena, so should democratic India; ergo, the US-India civil nuclear agreement.
Great power wars endure, and democratic peace flatters to deceive. Would a genuinely democratic Russia not have perceived Ukraine’s pro-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and pro-European Union (EU) policy preferences as menacing and provocative?
Conversely, would Ukraine have felt less threatened by a genuinely democratic Russia and sought to develop friendlier relations with it?
Cooperative security, ie, collaborating in agreed mechanisms to reduce tensions and suspicion, resolve or mitigate disputes, build confidence, and maintain stability, appears the only viable route to international peace and security in the 21st century. Apart from a military alliance (NATO) and a regional union (the EU), the Euro-Atlantic also contains a cooperative security arrangement, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Sadly, while NATO and the EU are constantly in the news, OSCE has been missing in action in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Varun Sahni teaches international politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal