Ten Lessons from the Return of History
Few will miss 2022, a year defined by a lingering pandemic, advancing climate change, galloping inflation, slowing economic growth, and, more than anything else, the outbreak of a costly war in Europe and concerns that violent conflict could soon erupt in Asia. Some of this was anticipated, but much of it was not – and all of it suggests lessons that we ignore at our peril.
First, war between countries, thought by more than a few academics to be obsolete, is anything but. What we are seeing in Europe is an old-fashioned imperial war, in which Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking to extinguish Ukraine as a sovereign, independent entity. His goal is to ensure a democratic, market-oriented country seeking close ties to the West cannot thrive on Russia’s borders and set an example that might prove attractive to Russians.
Of course, rather than achieving the quick and easy victory he expected, Putin has discovered that his own army is not as powerful, and that his opponents are far more determined, than he – and many in the West – had anticipated. Ten months later, the war continues with no end in sight.
Second, the idea that economic interdependence constitutes a bulwark against war, because no party would have an interest in disrupting mutually beneficial trade and investment ties, is no longer tenable. Political considerations come first. In fact, the European Union’s heavy dependence on Russian energy supplies likely influenced Putin’s decision to invade, by leading him to conclude that Europe would not stand up to him.
Third, integration, which has animated decades of Western policy toward China, has also failed. This strategy, too, rested on the belief that economic ties – along with cultural, academic, and other exchanges – would drive political developments, rather than vice versa, leading to the emergence of a more open, market-oriented China that was also more moderate in its foreign policy.
None of this happened, although it can and should be debated whether the flaw lies with the concept of integration or with the manner in which it was executed. What is clear, however, is that China’s political system is becoming more repressive, its economy is moving in a more statist direction, and its foreign policy is growing more assertive.
Fourth, economic sanctions, in many instances the instrument of choice for the West and its partners when responding to a government’s violations of human rights or overseas aggression, rarely deliver meaningful changes in behavior. Even aggression as blatant and brutal as Russia’s against Ukraine has failed to persuade most of the world’s governments to isolate Russia diplomatically or economically, and while Western-led sanctions may be eroding Russia’s economic base, they have not come close to persuading Putin to reverse his policy.
Fifth, the phrase “international community” needs to be retired. There isn’t one. Russia’s veto power in the Security Council has rendered the United Nations impotent, while the recent gathering of world leaders in Egypt to contend with climate change was an abject failure.1
There is, moreover, little in the way of a global response to COVID-19 and few preparations in place to deal with the next pandemic. Multilateralism remains essential, but its effectiveness will depend on forging narrower arrangements among likeminded governments. All-or-nothing multilateralism will mostly result in nothing.
Sixth, democracies obviously face their share of challenges, but the problems authoritarian systems face may be even greater. Ideology and regime survival often drive decision-making in such systems, and authoritarian leaders often resist abandoning failed policies or admitting mistakes, lest this be seen as a sign of weakness and feed public calls for greater change. Such regimes must constantly reckon with the threat of mass protest, as in Russia, or the real thing, as we have seen recently in China and Iran.
Seventh, the potential for the internet to empower individuals to challenge governments is far greater in democracies than in closed systems. Authoritarian regimes such as those in China, Russia, and North Korea can close off their society, monitor and censor content, or both.
Something closer to a “splinternet” – multiple, separate internets – has arrived. Meanwhile, social media in democracies is susceptible to dissemination of lies and misinformation that increase polarization and make governing far more difficult.
Eighth, there is still a West (a term based more on shared values than geography), and alliances remain a critical instrument to promote order. The United States and its transatlantic partners in NATO have responded effectively to Russian aggression against Ukraine. The US has also forged stronger ties in the Indo-Pacific to address the growing threat emanating from China, principally through an invigorated Quad (Australia, India, Japan, and the US), AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US), and increased trilateral cooperation with Japan and South Korea.
Ninth, US leadership continues to be essential. The US cannot act unilaterally in the world if it wants to be influential, but the world will not come together to meet shared security and other challenges if the US is passive or sidelined. American willingness to lead from the front rather than behind is often required.
Lastly, we must be modest about what we can know. It is humbling to note that few of the preceding lessons were predictable a year ago. What we have learned is not just that history has returned, but also that, for better or worse, it retains its ability to surprise us. With that in mind, onward into 2023!