The U.N. (as We Know It) Won’t Survive Russia’s War in Ukraine

The institutions designed to secure global order clearly aren't up to the task. What will take their place?

Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Vladimir Putin addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, 2015 in New York City.
Vladimir Putin addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, 2015 in New York City.
Vladimir Putin addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, 2015 in New York City. John Moore/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, I posed a hypothetical to a dozen foreign policy scholars, pundits, analysts, and ex-diplomats, American and not. Imagine, I wrote, a terrible denouement to the Ukraine war, though one that stopped short of World War III: a Russian decision to use tactical nukes against Ukraine, followed by a selective NATO strike on Russian air bases, followed by a Russian attack on one of the Baltic nations, followed by a devastating air assault on Russia.

My question was: In the aftermath of such a cataclysm, how would, or should, the world order be rebuilt?

My question rested on several assumptions. The first is that we do, in fact, live inside a “rules-based order” or “liberal” order: a network of norms, laws and institutions that, for all their shortcomings, govern international affairs not by raw power but by the rule of law. The second assumption is that such systems of order do not come into being because they sound like a good idea but because a catastrophe shows the existing framework to be untenable. The Napoleonic wars led to the balance-of-power system known as the Concert of Europe, World War I led to the League of Nations, and World War II led to the United Nations, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, NATO, and other regional treaty alliances.

A few weeks ago, I posed a hypothetical to a dozen foreign policy scholars, pundits, analysts, and ex-diplomats, American and not. Imagine, I wrote, a terrible denouement to the Ukraine war, though one that stopped short of World War III: a Russian decision to use tactical nukes against Ukraine, followed by a selective NATO strike on Russian air bases, followed by a Russian attack on one of the Baltic nations, followed by a devastating air assault on Russia.

My question was: In the aftermath of such a cataclysm, how would, or should, the world order be rebuilt?

My question rested on several assumptions. The first is that we do, in fact, live inside a “rules-based order” or “liberal” order: a network of norms, laws and institutions that, for all their shortcomings, govern international affairs not by raw power but by the rule of law. The second assumption is that such systems of order do not come into being because they sound like a good idea but because a catastrophe shows the existing framework to be untenable. The Napoleonic wars led to the balance-of-power system known as the Concert of Europe, World War I led to the League of Nations, and World War II led to the United Nations, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, NATO, and other regional treaty alliances.

The final assumption is that our 75-year-old system is already unequal to the problems we face; The awful bloodshed, and the terror of yet worse, that my scenario envisioned would force statesmen to address that failure. In the most obvious sense, the U.N. Security Council has never functioned as the apex security body that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill imagined it would be. Though Article 1 of the U.N. Charter declares state sovereignty to be inviolable, the Security Council could do nothing to stop Russia from trying to annihilate its neighbor. What is new is that, as the Biden administration’s recently released National Security Strategy asserts, the rules-based order is itself under threat from great powers with “revisionist foreign policies.” That is shorthand for Russia and China, and to a lesser extent Iran. But the authors obliquely concede that many democracies outside the West and the “Indo-Pacific” do not share a sense of urgency about challenges to that order, at least if they come from the revisionist powers.

What, then, would we do if we could? The answers I got were shaped by the author’s view of the gravest problems the world would face in the aftermath of my scenario. Thus Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former Obama administration State Department official who now runs the New America think tank, wrote that she welcomed the assertion in the Biden strategy document that global crises like climate change, pandemics, or food security pose as great a threat to the world as do the revisionist states. Global problems require global institutions. Therefore, Slaughter wrote, if she could “wave a wand,” she would invent a Security Council with 25 members with weighted voting rather a veto, an Economic and Social Council, and a Global Information and Monitoring Council, all staffed by senior government ministers with the power to propose initiatives, like the European Union’s European Commission. This U.N. would be both more representative, and more effective, than the one we have today.

Such a U.N. might be able to devise and execute policy on the global issues as the current version cannot. But would the United States trust it on matters of national security in the aftermath of a close brush with World War III? That seems hard to believe. Michel Duclos, a former French diplomat and now a resident sage at the Institut Montaigne, France’s leading liberal think tank, wrote that he finds the kind of scenario I suggested all too plausible. In such a case, he predicts, the Security Council would be deposited in history’s dustbin, while an “informal directoire,” consisting perhaps of the United States, China, India, and the E.U., would emerge.

Others have been thinking along the same lines. Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan, president and senior fellow, respectively, at the Council on Foreign Relations, have suggested an informal “concert of powers” with no actual executive powers but with a permanent secretariat that could engage in quiet diplomacy and “sustained consultation and negotiation,” much like the order hatched from the 1815 Congress of Vienna.

All such plans may founder on the question of membership. Major developing world powers will feel excluded. Others may be included who ought not be. Writing in 2021, Haass and Kupchan proposed a concert of the United States, Japan, India, the E.U., China—and Russia. In 1945, Roosevelt considered Joseph Stalin a fit partner for the new Security Council. By the following year, it was plain that he had been wrong. So too, today. Might we not say the same tomorrow of China?

Several of my respondents argued that my scenario would lead, not to a new moment of creation, but to a new fragmentation. Given the deep skepticism in the developing world over U.S. President Joe Biden’s framing of “democracies versus autocracies,” Richard Gowan, U.N. director for the International Crisis Group, suggests that “African, Asian and other non-Western leaders would likely look to regional clubs” like the African Union or Association of Southeast Asian Nations, while Western nations would seek to fortify NATO. Any new act of founding, Gowan suggests, would be patchwork. “The resulting ‘order,’” he writes, “would be a lot messier than what we know today.” We might even become nostalgic for the Security Council.

Others accused me of fetishizing institutions, as if they mattered more than the conduct of states. Robert Kagan, the foreign policy pundit and historian, wrote, “I feel like the actual system, which has nothing to do with the UNSC and everything to do with the American-backed liberal hegemony, is working as it always has—defeating and/bankrupting its challengers.” The calamity I imagine would simply reinforce the central role of the United States in policing the world order. The real problem with the current system, writes Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute, “is not the system itself but the assumption many people hold that it exists independent of its constituent states and can serve as a world government-in-waiting.” NATO and the Western alliance system have held up quite well in the Russian crisis. We should expect them to evolve as the world does, rather than wait for “a blueprint either handed down from Washington or hammered out in Geneva.”

Would things really stay much the same after we peered over the edge of World War III? I doubt that. To many, especially in the Global South, as Gowan observed, the idea that a “liberal order” exists, much less that it is threatened sounds like self-aggrandizing Western cant. Perhaps it would not after Russia raised the stakes so drastically. Much will depend on the attitude of China. The Biden administration has consistently described China under the increasingly bellicose Xi Jinping as a more grave and long-term threat to the existing order than is Russia. Would Xi regard a European military catastrophe as a warning of the unanticipated consequences of aggression? Or as yet another convulsion inside the West that strengthens his hand and thus further emboldens him to take Taiwan and extend control in the South China Sea? If the latter, any new security order incorporating China would reproduce the paralysis of the Security Council.

Here is the nut of the problem. In the first European order, the Westphalian system, states representing irreconcilable worldviews—Catholic and Protestant—agreed not to disturb or contest each other’s internal order. Today, however, both the West and China are seeking to shape a global order in conformity with their own values. The West could seek to exclude China, as the diplomats who gathered at the Congress of Vienna sought to contain republican France. But the great global problems cannot be solved without China. What is more, China’s immense influence would prevent many states from joining a new security body from which it had been excluded. You can live without Russia. You cannot live without China.

What then? My own answer is, first, that we need a much more effective global organization as a means to formulate solutions to global problems with the full engagement of the developing world. We cannot abandon the Security Council without provoking outrage, especially from countries like India that have been waiting their turn for membership. Perhaps the Security Council should be democratized as Slaughter suggests. But the great powers would continue to take their security concerns elsewhere.

The Biden National Security Strategy boasts of the security bodies it has formed or fortified, especially in China’s neighborhood: AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom, and United States) and the Quad (the United States, India, Australia, and Japan). Would it, after the catastrophe I imagine, seek to stitch them together into a single body? Could we envision a NATO that sheds its geographical boundaries or a version of the OECD that takes on security issues, that is, a body that brings together states that see their own security bound up with the existing order?

My Compact for Peace and Justice, to give it a name, might not include all democracies, and might not only include democracies. Liberal autocracies like the United Arab Emirates or Morocco would be welcome there. It would have to have some of the attractive power of the E.U. so that, like the E.U., it could expand outwards from an initial small core. Any organization that did not include China would have to be able to guarantee members benefits that would compensate for whatever punishments China would threaten. China would be eligible for membership, so long as it agreed to accept the rulings of international judicial bodies, reform the mercantilist and predatory aspects of its economy, moderate its support for brutal dictators abroad, and so on. So, too, Russia, though that question would be less urgent after a ruinous war.

Unlike France in 1815 or Germany in 1919, China is the world’s great rising power, and soon, perhaps, to be the world’s greatest power. What is more, upon what basis does one exclude a great power that has not, unlike Russia, committed a terrible act of aggression? Yet China may solve that problem all too soon. Should it do so—should China invade Taiwan—we might wish that we had already recruited all the bystanders into Team Liberalism.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1

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