On 2 October 2001, less than a month after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington DC, Tony Blair addressed Labour’s party conference. Describing the chaos unleashed on the US, and the implications for its allies, he said: “This is a moment to seize. The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.”
Two decades later, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has likewise shaken the world order, upending long-held assumptions in the West and beyond. Less than a month into this conflict, it is already apparent it could have far greater consequences for the world than 9/11.
The war in Ukraine has, in many ways, already gone global, as ever more countries are affected by it. Europe has absorbed millions of Ukrainian refugees. The EU, which for so long struggled with ensuring the safe passage of outsiders across its borders, introduced an emergency plan allowing Ukrainians to live and work in the bloc.
In the US, Joe Biden, who campaigned on ending the US’s “forever wars”, has become a wartime president. He faces growing pressure to lead the West in aiding Ukraine while preventing a greater conflagration.
To that end, nations are rapidly preparing themselves. On 27 February Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, gave a speech to the Bundestag that threw out decades-old tenets of foreign and military policy. Germany would supply Kyiv with weapons and bolster its own defence. Mr Scholz pledged to raise Germany’s level of military spending to more than 2 per cent of its GDP, in addition to investing €100bn in upgrading its armed forces. Sweden, Finland and Poland have since made similar pledges.
[See also: Why Russia is a prisoner of geography]
Energy security, which policymakers in the EU and North America have neglected for too long, has a new urgency. Nato, meanwhile, has a purpose not seen since the peak of the Cold War, having in recent years been called “brain-dead” and “obsolete” by leaders of member states, not least Donald Trump.
Yet it’s not just the West grappling with a changed world-view. As the war drags on and Ukrainians show remarkable courage, Russia’s standing as a great military power has been questioned. Despite what his inner circle might be telling him, Mr Putin must be shaken by the heavy losses of troops and equipment. Though Russia has four times the number of active military personnel that Ukraine has, only a tiny percentage were “combat ready”. In recent days Mr Putin has resorted to recruiting fighters from Syria, dragging the Middle East into the conflict.
The war should also challenge China’s assumptions about the West, and the likely response to any assault on Taiwan. “The East is rising and the West is declining,” Xi Jinping has said. Chinese scholars have warned that the war in Ukraine will reinvigorate Western alliances and risks leaving China on the wrong side of a new “Iron Curtain” drawn between those who support and those who oppose Western democratic values. When the Chinese leader met Mr Putin in Beijing on 4 February, before the invasion, the two could not have predicted the scale and intensity of the Western response.
In spite of the upheaval, we should take heart from the response. We have already seen that the West is not helpless against Russian aggression. Swift cooperation has resulted in tougher and more coordinated sanctions than many thought possible; greater unity within an EU previously considered fractured; and an outpouring of global support for President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukraine. There is now an opportunity for the West to harness this determination, but it must be done without the hubris of Mr Blair after 9/11. Energised by his own democratic messianism, Mr Blair believed that he was on the “right side of history” and liberalism would triumph. He was wrong.
Western politicians should no longer aspire to reorder the world, and accept the limits of liberalism. But we can find strength in aligning further: accepting more refugees; increasing military assistance to Ukraine; toughening sanctions against Russia, particularly for oil and gas; and bolstering front-line states such as Poland and the Baltics. Once more the world is in flux. Caution, humility, pragmatism, unity, resilience, realism and moral fortitude should guide the Western response as we enter this new era of darkness. Above all else, we must not waver in our support for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.
This article appears in the 16 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War Goes Global