It feels like an eternity ago, that grim wintry pre-dawn of Thursday 24 February. A time before the place names Bucha and Irpin, Kramatorsk and Mariupol became bywords for the bloodiest war in Europe since 1945; before the letter Z became emblematic of a new fascism; before a new Iron Curtain fell over the continent; before it became impossible to describe the Covid-19 pandemic as a “once in a decade” shock to the global system. A time when a British prime minister could, as Boris Johnson had done in November, blithely declare that “the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on the European landmass are over”.
The final act of that pre-invasion era was at one with the dark poetry of the moment. In a ten-minute video address issued in the early hours of 24 February, after months of Russian troop build-ups on the Ukrainian border and increasingly deranged rhetoric from Moscow, Volodymyr Zelensky made a last-ditch plea for peace. Ukraine’s president appealed directly to Russian citizens in their own language: “The people of Ukraine want peace,” he said, but warned that the country would defend itself: “While attacking, you will see our faces. Not our backs. Our faces.” Then, just before 5am local time, Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation”. Within minutes, air-raid sirens and the first explosions were heard in cities across the country.
The world woke up to a new reality. In a piece for the New Statesman website that morning I argued that “precedents will be set in the next days: precedents about what is acceptable in the international system of the early-to-mid 21st century and what is not; precedents that will shape the decades to come”. It would be up to Ukraine and its Western allies, I wrote, to ensure Putin did not achieve mastery over this historical turning point. At the time reports were emerging that US officials believed Kyiv could fall within one to four days, with Putin then expected to install a Kremlin puppet government and partition Ukraine.
Set against this, however, was the obvious Ukrainian determination to resist. Half a year on, it is true that swathes of the country lie in ruins. Barbaric Russian acts in Kyiv’s northern suburbs during the first weeks of the war and in southern and eastern cities over the spring and summer recalled the genocidal worst of the Balkan wars and the Second World War. Despite many thousands of Ukrainian military and civilian casualties, and the displacement of millions of its citizens, a democratic and free Ukraine still stands tall.
Russian troops turned out to be poorly prepared and unmotivated. They were not able to seize Kyiv in the first weeks of the war and withdrew from the area at the end of March. And while Russia has made gains in the eastern Donbas and along a southern Black Sea corridor to Crimea – itself illegally occupied in Putin’s initial 2014 attack on Ukraine – Russia appears to be making slow progress towards taking the whole Donbas region. US estimates put the numbers of Russian dead or injured at up to 80,000 – more in six months than the Soviet Union incurred during its entire 1979-89 war in Afghanistan.
The war has also changed the geopolitical landscape. Ukraine’s defence has drawn not just on its own impressive resolve, but also on huge transfers of Western military and economic aid. The conflict has jolted American attention back to Europe and revitalised Nato, which is now sending substantial reinforcements to its eastern flank and admitting Sweden and Finland as new members. It has disrupted flows of staple commodities – oil and gas, grain and fertiliser – and contributed to rising inflation, a looming global recession and humanitarian crises in poor countries. It has reshaped how powers further afield, notably China, view the decades ahead.
As much as the morning of 24 February 2022 was a turning point – the Zeitenwende, or epochal shift, of German chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coinage three days later – it cannot be understood in isolation. It came against a tumultuous global backdrop: the debacles of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the rise of China and relative decline of the West, the turmoil of the Trump presidency, Europe’s waning relevance, the shift towards a more multipolar and anarchic world order and, most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic. To understand the meaning of the war, six months in but far from over, is to situate it with that wider move away from the easy optimism of the immediate post-Cold War years and towards something new and, for now, still hazy.
If the war had gone as Putin had hoped, that work of analysis would have been rather straightforward. A Ukraine successfully subjugated and sundered as punishment for its alignment with the West would have made a potent symbol of a new post-Western era, the collapse of the old order and the rise of a new, authoritarian-friendly multipolarity. Instead the events of the past six months tell a sufficiently complex story – of democratic resilience, of shifting power balances, of both authoritarian revisionism and weakness, of global systems both brittle and adaptable – to spark a genuine debate about what they mean.
Putin still clings to the narrative he had hoped the war would substantiate. At the St Petersburg economic summit on 17 June, he accused Western countries of being in denial over their own decline: “They do not realise that in recent decades, new and powerful centres have been formed on the planet, each of which is developing its own political systems and public institutions.” This chimes with the Chinese view of the conflict. Writing of a recent discussion with a Beijing academic, Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations reports: “My Chinese interlocutor sees the situation in Ukraine not as a war of aggression between sovereign countries, but rather as a revision of post-colonial borders following the end of Western hegemony.”
Within the West itself, opinion is divided. Optimists see in Ukraine’s resilience, and in the new purpose the war has given Nato, the seeds of some sort of Western revival. By contrast, realist-pessimist types have mostly deemed it either a distraction from America’s contest with China or a demonstration of the need to do unpalatable deals with thugs like Putin to prevent international chaos – or some combination of the two. Thus the war has conformed to the wider habit of sweeping, “return of the West” or “death of the West” binary arguments. Such thinking goes back decades, but it has intensified in the recent years of international and domestic turmoil.
I noted one example of this feast-or-famine demeanour last summer. A year before, in February 2020, the Munich Security Conference had warned of an era of Trumpian “Westlessness”. Yet by June 2021, ahead of a G7 meeting in Cornwall that would be the first of Joe Biden’s presidency, the hubristic slogan of the moment seemed to be “the West is back” (as if one favourable US election result could rewind the clock to the late 1990s). I argued then that a better term for new global realities would be “Westishness”, defined as a middle-ground scenario “in which aspects of the West’s values and power endure but others fragment”. This might include a “Eurasian” Europe more bound up with events to its east, as well as more heated internal battles about the values and meaning of the West and a fragmentation of global governance.
What that term “Westishness” lacks in lexical elegance it perhaps makes up for in nuance. It captures something of the past half-year of war in Ukraine, and of an age defined not by the binary triumph of one system over another but by its own in-between-ness. We are living through neither the old post-Cold War era nor the first chapter of a fundamentally new international order, but a transitional period with its own distinct rules and realities.
A useful exercise after six months of a war that has exemplified Westishness is to ask what it tells us about this interstitial time. To ask: what are the defining characteristics of a Westish world? In the hope of starting a discussion, and of at least providing some examples, here are ten:
1. A West too reliant on the US
For all its misery, the war has been a reminder of US strength. From halfway around the world, Washington has supplied Ukraine with intelligence, military and economic resources, enabling the country to largely hold off a nuclear-armed aggressor with a military budget ten times its own. Between 24 February and 1 July this year, America allocated €23.8bn in military aid, while the largest European donors, Britain and Poland, committed €4.4bn and €1.8bn respectively. It is thanks especially to American Himars (multiple rocket launchers) that Ukraine has been able to stall the artillery-led Russian advance in the Donbas. The Biden administration has driven the reinvigoration of Nato in recent months: it has committed to establishing a new permanent military headquarters in Poland and providing the backbone of a proposed expansion of Nato’s rapid-response force to 300,000 troops.
These developments are the quintessence of Westishness. They tell a story of robust, even awe-inspiring US strength that simply does not square with the gloomy proclamations of American collapse and retreat issued at dark moments, such as the storming of the Capitol on 6 January 2021 or the debacle of the Afghanistan withdrawal eight months later. Yet they also tell a story of in-between-ness, of circumstances produced by the very fact of the West swaying between supremacy and decline. For the war has also illustrated Western over-reliance on American strength. After all, if support for Ukraine had been left to the Europeans, Kyiv might now be in Russian hands. And an overly US-centric West is emphatically vulnerable to a Trump or Trumpist victory in the 2024 US presidential election.
2. Cutting-edge technology matters more than size
In mid August, Russian forces in southern Ukraine have been blindsided by devastating strikes on their anti-aircraft missile systems, including one on a major airbase in occupied Crimea. These may have involved advanced anti-radar Harm missiles, part of a recent US arms shipment. By contrast, Russian military hardware captured by Ukrainians has turned out to contain US-made microchips – some of them reportedly extracted from dishwashers and refrigerators, in a sign of Russian technological backwardness.
The role of Western technology in helping to level the field in the David-vs-Goliath struggle points to a broader trait of the Westish world: it is at least debatable whether the reality of the West’s declining relative economic weight matters as much as its prevailing (if now contested by China) technological leadership. Washington certainly hopes it does not. As Adam Tooze wrote for the New Statesman last year (“The new age of American power”, 10 September 2021), “the ultimate goal of the Pentagon planners is to loosen that link between economic performance and military force”, by using “ultra-advanced technology”.
3. Disorderly interdependence
Another element of the in-between state is that interdependence, the watchword of the 1990s utopians, has not gone away. Borders, in many places, still matter less than they used to. Nation-state sovereignty remains, on the whole, relative rather than absolute. Yet, as the world becomes more anarchic, that interdependence is creating more and more vulnerabilities. The invasion has exposed the weaknesses of multilateral international institutions like the UN. Europe is now bracing for a chilly winter of gas cut-offs, the political effects of which could be severe. Putin’s blockage of Black Sea ports – now tentatively lifted – has threatened famine and political breakdown in states such as Ethiopia and Egypt. This is neither a world of “the West is back” nor of ubiquitously rising walls, but of highly networked international systems that no institutions or rules are capable of managing.
4. A new map of globalisation
In the Western pessimist camp, it is fashionable to proclaim globalisation over. The war in Ukraine has lent credence to this idea. By triggering severe Western sanctions on Russia, pushing Russia and China closer together, and spooking Western investors out of Chinese markets – given the parallels between Putin’s war and a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan – it has accelerated the shift to a world of closed economic blocks.
Yet the story really is more complex. Western trade with Russia has been replaced by trade with others – witness the European rush to do gas deals with Azerbaijan, Algeria and the Gulf states. Likewise, as John Springford of the Centre for European Reform noted in a recent article for the think tank, Covid-19 has caused services trade to rise and goods trade to fall but recover relatively quickly, while foreign direct investment and migration flows have continued to surge. Globalised systems can adapt, in other words. And much of what is termed “deglobalisation” is in fact politics taking primacy over economic considerations. As power becomes more contested and diffuse in a Westish world, globalisation is not dying; rather, it is being shaped more by those contests and less by purely market- and price-based factors.
5. Weaponised crises of the Anthropocene
We live in an era of crises of the “Anthropocene” – that is, crises caused directly by humankind’s impact on the planet. But those crises can also be harnessed for geopolitical goals, as Russia attempted to do in recent months by limiting grain and fertiliser flows out of Ukraine and Russia. Putin may lack the economic and technological heft to defeat a Western-backed adversary, but he does hope to sow chaos in the West’s near-abroad (through, say, the collapse of a Western security client like Egypt or massive new European migration crises). The greater the strains on environmental and commodity ecosystems, the more opportunities such actors will have to exploit them.
Illustration by Doug Chayka
6. An ambivalent Global South
On 2 March, the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution condemning the invasion. Countries representing fully 59 per cent of the world’s population either abstained or voted against this. That pattern has continued in the months since: states in the Global South have broadly erred towards neutrality. Most notable among them is India. The country about to overtake China as the world’s most populous is aligned with the West on several topics – most notably the containment of China in the Pacific and Indian Oceans – but has in the past months shown its resistance to Western pressure to condemn Russia over its war.
That resistance is rooted in decades of Indian strategic doctrine, specifically a military relationship with Russia dating back to Soviet days, but it is also a window onto the mercurial instincts of states in the Global South in a period of Westishness.
7. Power to the pivot states
Related to this is a particular role for states capable of pivoting between Western and non-Western powers. It is a useful ability in a Westish age: no economic alliance remotely competes with the West – the US remains by far the world’s greatest power – and yet the West’s relative decline also presents new openings for contrary alliances. States that can walk this tightrope have particular advantages.
One is Kazakhstan, long in Russia’s shadow but a state that has sought to keep its distance from Putin’s war in Ukraine (refusing to recognise the Kremlin’s puppet regimes in the Donbas, for example) while maintaining cordial relations with both the West and China. Another example is Saudi Arabia, as tightening oil markets have thawed a relationship with the US that had been frozen by the brutal murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Other pivot states include Algeria, Vietnam and Brazil. But perhaps the best example of all is Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has simultaneously supplied Ukraine with valuable Bayraktar drones while maintaining relations with Russia and negotiating a deal to free up grain shipments through the Black Sea and the Bosphorus. The symbolic capital of Westishness is surely Istanbul.
8. Authoritarian limits exposed
Ukraine’s resilience and the role of US might and technology have shown the limitations of authoritarian systems. Russia’s leadership has been exposed as overly centralised, its troops as under-motivated and its system as slow to correct mistakes. It so happens that this has taken place over the period in which the weaknesses of the Chinese system have also become clear. The emerging superpower’s inept Covid strategy has merged with twin debt and property crises to raise doubts about when – and even whether – China will overtake the US as the world’s most powerful state.
That does not change the fact of Western decline. But it does indicate a dangerous new reality: of authoritarian states strong enough to accrue more relative power within the global system but not strong enough to found new poles of stability. Much has been made in recent months of the new links between China, Russia and Iran, for example. But the notion of the three coalescing into a serious, trusting, enduring alliance comparable even to today’s fragmenting Nato is ludicrous.
9. Old Western assumptions examined
A Westish international order is inherently fluid. Therefore one of its defining traits is a constant and febrile process of debate and questioning. In the US, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has put Biden’s central foreign policy agenda in doubt. (Is an “alliance of democracies” really the priority of a president fresh back from a trip-of-necessity to Riyadh to bump fists with the man behind Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment?)
In Washington it has intensified debates between defenders of a proactive liberal-democratic America (say, writers like Anne Applebaum or David Frum), voices of old-school realism (such as the political scientist John Mearsheimer) and the new “restrainers” (such as the historian Stephen Wertheim) arguing for a US policy of non-intervention abroad. In Berlin the war has triggered an unsettling examination of Germany’s old assumptions about “Wandel durch Handel” (change through trade). In London it has coaxed out a fascinating tension between idealist Atlanticist Brexiteers (like Liz Truss) and Brexiteers of a more realist persuasion (like Dominic Cummings).
10. The decisive role of domestic factors
To the extent that it has been tough and proactive, America’s response to the war speaks of internal robustness. It has required: Biden to have prevailed over Trump’s attempt to override the US constitution in early 2021; the country to draw on its economic and technological supremacy; and American politics to generate stable consent for the White House to do things such as revitalise Nato.
Likewise, the extent to which Europe will get through a winter of gas shortages orchestrated by Moscow will be largely determined by the state of its political and economic systems. Can the EU, its states, firms and citizens, pull together to get through the cold months with disrupted energy supplies?
In a world in which many Western strengths endure, but the challenges to them are becoming more formidable, the deciding factors may turn out to be domestic ones. America retains the ability to attract many of the world’s brightest scientists and researchers in a way China cannot. Europe’s economies can adapt to adversity and change in ways that Russia’s cannot. But all that depends on a degree of cohesion and openness that is far from certain in times of such disruption. Whether these can be sustained may well ultimately decide what sort of world-historical era follows our own period of Westishness.
Observant readers will notice just how many of these points also apply to the pandemic. Covid-19 also showed us many of the contours of a Westish world: the centrality of technology; the awkward middle-zone of an interdependent order without the structures to manage its own interdependence; an adaptive but political globalisation; a geopolitical edge to an Anthropocene crisis; authoritarian states at once too strong to be boxed in entirely by Western power but too weak to provide real stability; and a West whose fortunes depend most on its own internal cohesion. The pandemic and the war belong together as a double-headed crisis.
Truly, then, we are in a global Zeitenwende. But history tells us that such epochal shifts tend to take at least a couple of years to play out. The French Revolution was more than the Storming of the Bastille. The start of the Second World War was more than the first German tanks rumbling into Poland. The end of the Cold War was more than the Berlin Wall falling on 9 November 1989. If we are indeed entering the era of Westishness, the period of transition will surely be dated to at least as early as the start of 2020 and at least as late as 2023.
That is not to take away from the importance of the war. In a future in which, say, the world of 2060 looks back on the early 2020s as a significant turning point, 24 February 2022 will doubtless be a – or even the – date that serves as shorthand for a wider shift.
So too will the events of autumn and winter 2022. At the time of writing, Ukraine’s long-mooted offensive to retake Kherson (the only major occupied city west of Crimea) is reportedly stalling for lack of weaponry. Its success depends on further increases in Western backing. China has just conducted its biggest ever military exercise simulating an invasion of Taiwan, yet remains mired in its Covid woes at home. Donald Trump is said to be canvassing the announcement of a second-term run. These are symptoms of an age of Westishness that may well last decades. The mid 21st century is dawning.
This article appears in the 17 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Six Months that Changed the World