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The End of the Post Cold War Order

Garrett Fisher
March 13, 2022

The launch of Russia’s war against Ukraine and subsequent geopolitical ramifications signals the end of a chapter in human history and the beginning of a new one. I contend that the events are of a greater significance than 9/11 and the War on Terror. Instead of one world power playing cat and mouse with guerilla-style hit or miss jihadism coupled with failed nation-building exercises, the clash of stances of Russia and the rest of the West, two orders which possess the power to end life on earth as we know it, will have more knock-on effects.

The Post Cold War Order was initially something of a euphoria, followed by an ongoing desire to welcome post-Soviet states into democracy and thriving capitalism. That occurred alongside the progressive opening of China, which was a result of China’s internal decision to embrace capitalism alongside political communism. The Western viewpoint was that both would progressively drop their authoritarian, communist, and post-communist ways if they could be welcomed into the riches and freedoms of the West.

China seemed to follow this path into the 2000s. Many western expats that spent time there reported it as a wonderful experience, though much of that changed in the last 10 years. We in the West, and in particular the United States, came to realize that the presumption of China slowly “becoming like us” was something of a seeming intentional ruse. Armed at the turning point of becoming the largest economy in the world and the maker of many critical finished goods, China suddenly had other ideas about the direction it wanted to go. The answer is that, under current leadership, China is moving farther from the West.

Russia could not get its act together economically largely until oil prices elevated in the 2000s, which provided significant cash flows. With territorial grabs in 2008 and 2014, we should have seen the handwriting on the wall, that the country was not Westernizing, though hope, as a cousin of delusion, allowed us to punt on the issue. What is a corrupt, partially dysfunctional regime going to do that matters? The invasion of Ukraine answered that question.

It is important to bring up Afghanistan at this point. While the biggest headline has been the unnecessarily chaotic and image-bruising departure of American and allied forces from the country, I contend that the bigger issue is the decision of the Afghan people to permit the Taliban to come to power. Remember that, at any time then and now, the United States could easily pulverize the Taliban and the country militarily. That has never been in question. What has been in question was the idea of offering, if not imposing the Western way of living, and watching the result.

Many have pointed to the horrors of the Taliban has rationale for terror in the minds of the people, thus allowing the Taliban to return to power. While historical terror is truly the case, the Ukrainians lived under Soviet rule for decades and understood the horrors of a Russian-led system rooted in authoritarianism. Their answer, in the face of a military that ostensibly should be able to obliterate them, is to fight tooth and nail to prevent such a takeover from occurring. Afghanistan had an army and US-provided weapons to fight back and chose not to.

There is an interesting sociological question in play. It is safe to say that most Afghans and, for that matter, most average people in the world, merely wish to live in relative security, provide for their families, raise their children, and better themselves incrementally. This is the human condition across the planet. However, what tends to define the course of a nation is the nature of its governance. If it is presumed to be corrupt and inept, then it has self-limiting effects on its people. There are two ways to support this argument.

The first relates to an analysis I performed in 2014, where GDP per capita was compared to Transparency International’s “Corruption Perception Index.” The index is argued to have limited effectiveness as it is based on the perception of individuals in a country about corruption, whilst not actually measuring incidences of corruption itself. The correlation was profound: the higher the perception of corruption, the lower GDP per capita is, with an exception for oil-producing countries. That reality demonstrates that the mere perception that a nation will act a certain way has profound effects on its citizens. Those that wish individually for things to be different believe themselves to be powerless in the face of present trends.

The second line of reasoning to support my argument relates to western immigration from corrupt countries. Generally speaking, immigrants who choose to emigrate from countries such as Afghanistan, Russia, and China to places like the United States tend to integrate and perform rather well economically. If individual Russians, Chinese, and Afghans were the problem, then they would not match Western ways once in those societies. When the norms of the group change, then the behavior of the individual can go along with it.

While it may seem as though I have gone off on a tangent, understanding the nature of the failure to integrate countries into the Western order is essential to understanding the end of the Post Cold War era. From as early as World War I, the United States brought its idealism to the global scene when involved in conflicts. In particular, it starts with the Atlantic Charter in the early 1940s. In exchange for aiding Great Britain against Nazi Germany, the Atlantic Charter was signed by the US and the UK, which called for the bedrock concept that each nation shall choose its governance. No longer was territorial conquest or colonialism permitted. In effect, it signaled the end of European colonialism.

This kind of proclamation tends to be received well. Between aiding Great Britain, the liberation of western Europe from Nazi Germany, and the subsequent Marshall Plan, Europe received much in exchange for agreeing to end its period of colonialism (even though it took time to fully execute). Europe was happy with America’s offer, as of course were colonies that now could declare their independence. Let us not forget that Germany and Japan, the archenemies of Western Allies, at this point chose to join the western order. There are obvious reasons why the parties involved cheered this ideology.

No sooner than the Atlantic Charter and Marshall Plan got under way did the Iron Curtain fall upon Europe, and the Cold War begin. Anyone middle aged or older understands the Manichean nature of the Cold War, as it was good vs evil and autocracy vs freedom, with a seeming sense of inevitability that they could not live independently of each other in peace. The Soviet Union had an ideological expansionist mindset, and the US got involved in a variety of complex, murky, debatable wars and conflicts as a result, which is why both competing systems could not coexist without a terminal conflict in mind. One result was a new ally, South Korea, which, along with Japan and West Germany thrived under the Western way of doing things. Vietnam was an obvious failure of Western expansionism in this period.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the Cold War seemed to provide fuel for the messianic righteousness of the Western way, laying the groundwork for three decades of presumption that communism must and would inevitably give way to peace-loving economic overabundance. The first Iraq war cemented this idea, as a large coalition sent a message to Saddam Hussein and the world that territorial grabs without consent are not how the world works.

One can understand the euphoria of the 1990s. Nazism, the Japanese empire, Soviet communism, Iraqi dictatorialism, colonialism…. all of it was conquered in the name of the Western order cemented as a result of World War II. With China on a friendly and incremental rise and Russia mired in its own confused dysfunction, that time was the zenith where it seemed the world was headed toward a form of benevolent polarity filled with abundance.

The events of 9/11 put an end to the sense of euphoria. The War on Terror and resulting conflicts and undermining of the norms of Western, open, free societies (often from within) was highly destabilizing. In my view, while it seemed like that chapter of history was wildly significant, I contend that it merely exposed the weakness of our Post Cold War mindset. The simple message was that the Western way of doing things did not have the infectious attraction that we thought it did. It also began to run up against the sociological reality of governments and nations where individuals might support the West, yet societies remain entrenched in their ways of doing things.

Keep in mind that Japan was once ready to fight to the death to preserve the empire and its views, while most of Germany was marching with swastikas obeying Adolf Hitler. Both societies made dramatic shifts in their views, both going on to become economic powerhouses and allies of their previous archenemy. Such a transformation is evidentiary of the illusion that, if one gets rid of a nemesis autocratic regime, then the freedom of the people allows for better qualities to shine. It presumes that systemic corruption would not recur, which may explain why Germany and Japan are success stories, whereas other countries are not.

That is what the West was counting on with both Russia and China, and that is where the West turned out to be profoundly incorrect. It is evident now that both countries are stuck in the grip of autocracy and/or corruption and will likely be so for quite some time. The fact that Russia and China have overcome historical differences despite the Sino-Soviet split in 1969 (while both were communist) is a surprising outcome, though we might see that friendship falter.

So where does this leave this new chapter in history?

It starts with a more circumspect view of expectations regarding reception of Western ways. Some societies respond rather well to military intervention and the removal of autocratic influences, thus joining the Western order. Some, on the other hand, revert to old ways. It is a simple reality that I believe at this point is proven, though it may take some time for America to agree with it, if at all. It may be that geopolitical ideologies must either be advancing or declining and cannot remain in stasis.

We are presently testing a form of economic warfare and global cancel culture, made possible by a new, interconnected world. The speed at which individuals, performers, corporations, governments, and other organizations globally have targeted Russia as a response to Ukraine is a new way of responding to an aggressor. We previously left decisions such as this to official government action, and we only heard about them on the evening news. Time will tell how effective it turns out to be.

We are also confronting the reality that there is a military war that the United States cannot win. Because Russia possesses enough nukes to obliterate the United States, we cannot send even conventional forces near Russian borders without creating an extremely high-risk situation. Putin, or any leader like him with nuclear weapons, now has it confirmed that there are limits to American and allied power after the Cold War. We knew this reality with the Soviet Union and did not want to believe it with Russia. To some extent, our global social, economic, and diplomatic response is most of what we can do with a nuclear-armed nation like Russia when it comes to Ukraine. Time will tell how expansive Russia’s ambitions become, or if a repeat of an economically bruising equivalent of the 1980s arms race can gut the Russian system without missiles flying.

Globalization is a clear victim, and rightfully so. There are clear economic benefits to increasing international trade. One nation often has a surplus of a good, service, or commodity that another does not. The basics of monetary exchange, on the broadest scale possible, allow for the efficiencies to work themselves into the system for everyone. The same textbook example of why a monetary system is more productive over pure bartering is manifested on an exponential scale. The problem with globalization is that its immediate benefits come at the cost of security. The system works as long as nations involved are willing to submit to the agreed upon rules of the system. When one nation wishes to hold its trade as a weapon, then the idea of globalization seems to make little sense. It is worth nothing that, while the West has noble motivation behind weaponizing trade with Russia, it proves the point that, in the absence of troops and missiles, economic warfare will likely continue to be the first stage in conflict, as that is precisely what the West has done.

I cannot see, at this point, why any major region or group of closely allied nations would not want to ensure that its energy, food, critical commodities, and critical finished goods are produced solely by that nation or region. In hindsight, it appears asinine that anyone would have relied on Russian energy, food, and commodities, though I must point out that, aside from former German Chancellor Schröder’s debatably corrupt Russian business connections following having made various energy agreements with Russia in the 2000s, the express point of such interconnectedness was to welcome Russia (and, in other contexts, China) into the Western order to increase overall security. Clearly, it did not work, which is leaving us with a new reality that critical resources must be sourced regionally across the globe to limit conflict.

We knew about many of these realities for some time. The problem before the invasion of Ukraine was a matter of priority, market forces, political bandwidth, and the short-term nature of political processes in Western democracies. A visionary that rises to rally a nation to ward off a future calamity is largely an esoteric construct. We cannot seem to act regarding matters of climate change, environmental destruction, and a long list of many obvious sustainability problems that deserve our attention. National, corporate, and personal budgets take precedence in the immediate term. We all simply care more about paying the bills and taking care of daily needs than we do about longer-term problems. That is what lead us to our current situation. Instead of standing up to Russia in 2008 after the Georgia invasion or taking a more measured approach to globalization of energy and critical supply chains a decade ago, the situation had to worsen to the point of becoming our number one priority. We are reacting to it in Western societies as we handle other immediate concerns to our wellbeing and are thus materializing significant results that are changing geopolitics rapidly, as wars often do.

With Russia, there are likely not any easy answers. The war with Ukraine will last as long as it does, which has to do mostly with the decisions of Putin and secondarily with the effective fierceness of Ukrainian defense. If Putin were to be ejected from power, another member of current Russian elite would likely not offer a vastly different version of Russian society. The probable difference would be the possible termination of Ukrainian hostilities, with a modified version of the current dictatorship. Would Putin or the next leader want to reintegrate with the West? We likely would offer a very high price for the full release of sanctions: return of Ukrainian territories, free elections, and so forth, for which it is improbable a single leader in Russia would agree, unless other factors forced the matter. It is also possible that, should Russia be pushed to economic ruin and chaos, a successor might be willing to exchange something like a Marshall Plan economic package for some defanging of nuclear stocks and attempts at reform that the West can trust. Even still, it would be very tempting in that scenario to get ahold of cheap energy and commodities, in which case the cycle of short-term globalization temptation renews. This last outcome is the only one that would confirm that the postwar order is still in effect, and is accordingly the least probable in my view.

China has categorically been an insular society for millennia. With their real estate crash, aging population, and isolation from the West, I foresee a slow and progressive reduction in finished goods production out of China, due to the sheer economics of it. In the case of the US, Mexico is becoming comparable pricewise to China and is a much better partner to deal with for multiple reasons. While much hay is being made from the idea of China as a new world power with a dominant currency, I do not see that as probable unless a significant outlying event preserves Chinese status while dealing a significant blow to the West. China will likely make inroads regionally, to a point.

With Russia isolated and weakened economically and China slowly returning to its insular space, it is possible that proxy skirmishes continue. They have always existed, and it depends upon the budget and willingness of Russia and China to engage with the West. The Soviets excelled at sowing discord, terrorism, and tension in the Middle East and West, and may continue to do so. The real wildcard, however, is India.

With a population almost in excess of China, a younger average age, rapid economic growth, and a similar model of outsourcing, we may see many of the dynamics present with China 30 years ago shift to India. Like a drug that cannot be resisted, the economics of finished goods production in India, the feelings of reducing poverty by buying from them, and the hope to “win over” a country which sits on the fence regarding its alignment will likely cause significantly increased business ties. We can only hope that, once India is a massive economy globally, that it remains friendly to the West, otherwise we risk repeating ourselves with our stupidity.

The biggest takeaway from this new chapter in history is the nail in the coffin about universal acceptance of idealisms that were born in in the ashes of WWII. Those values were taken to the pinnacle of ideological conflict that, in the fall of the Soviet empire, were not won in the West’s favor. Our system proved more resilient, though it did not rid the world of the structures of the antipode of Western values. The West will always thrive and be more powerful than the Taliban. The question, which Russia has proven we have no answer for, is how to build a better world on a bedrock of national self-determination, when a nation chooses the Taliban or oppressive dictatorship over Western ways. It clearly appears that it is a conflict that cannot be explicitly won.