I appreciate that readers might disagree with my comments below; find them unrealistic or even distasteful. Be that as it may, I hope that my words will at least provoke a bit of contemplation of what we are currently witnessing in Eastern Europe.
Today, Russia officially and forcibly annexed Crimea, previously part of the sovereign territory of Ukraine. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-26630062)
Today, we may have witnessed the most important watershed in international affairs since the Second World War.
I state this based on my belief that post-World War international stability has, to a significant extent, been based on international law within international society; on the existence of the United Nations as the institutional embodiment of such law; and on the prohibition against wars of territorial conquest that is a centrepiece of the UN Charter.
Against this argument, the vast majority of observers and analysts believe that this crisis, while serious, will soon dissipate. The West and Russia will suspend some cooperation for a time, some sanctions will appear on both sides, and after a few years - if not months - everything will be back to business as usual. Ukrainian territorial integrity will be sacrificed, but the great powers and international affairs will remain stable as in the last seventy years. Such reasoning rests on three assumptions:
1) Rationality is stability
All actors act according to rationality. This statement is a mainstay of most international affairs theory, and also of lay understandings of relations between states. Indeed, history has witnessed few, if any, cases of states or other actors acting against what they rationally perceived to be their best interest.
Following from this, it is claimed that any state acting rationally will seek international stability, at least at a systemic level. Revanchist aggression, as per the 1930s, simply cannot happen in a world of nuclear weapons, where war can be so final, so destructive. While nuclear-armed great powers, such as Russia and the USA, can attack and dismember weaker states from time to time, confrontation between great powers is irrationally dangerous for all states and therefore highly unlikely, if not impossible.
Unfortunately, both of the above assumptions are flawed.
While all actors may act according to a rationale, this does not prevent misperception and miscalculation. This is especially the case for states, since states are neither unitary actors nor hold interests similar to each other. Russia, for instance, is not run as a one-man band by President Vladimir Putin, but is controlled in cautious, murky and sometimes faltering cooperation by a range of figures from the business and security services worlds, some of whom may mistakenly believe it would be easy for Russia to take and hold eastern Ukraine. Also, while all states want to increase their security it is difficult to see how annexing Crimea enhances Russian security. If the Russian regime really believes conquering Crimea makes the country safer in the long run from Ukraine and NATO, then we are witnessing a miscalculation of enormous dimensions. And if the West waits for Russia to finish conquering sufficient territory for the Kremlin to view the world as stable, then we may yet blunder into armed confrontation between two sides, which both think their counterpart is bluffing.
Similarly, rationalities may be very different for different actors. While all states may view survival as their ultimate goal, war and conquest may be attempted for a range of "rational" reasons, if the attacking party believes the prize of conquest outweighs any risk to its own survival. What makes a "rational" prize for a given state can be difficult to guess for outsiders - certainly Crimea's historic importance for Russia is at least as important as any strategic value it may have.
And as for the alleged pacifying role of nuclear weapons in the grander scheme of things, the nuclear-sated Cold War world was often unstable - particularly because of nuclear weapons. Only by 1962 was implemented the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction, which aimed to prevent major war through the understanding that such war would necessarily lead to widespread desolation throughout the world. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17026538). This MAD policy appeared as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As this Crisis did not result in war it is often overlooked today that the risk of war (and all-out destructive war, at that) was significant at the time - 50/50 by some estimates. (plenty of accounts document this, for instance Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight, 2008; Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, One Hell of a Gamble, 1997; and Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow, Essence of Decision (2nd ed.), 1999).
The point here is not that nuclear weapons may be used today - that is and will always remain extremely unlikely for a range of reasons - but that states may end in war through miscalculations and different rationalities, and despite knowing that fighting may have devastating consequences.
2) Prosperity is the new peace
The second assumption is that the seach for prosperity has replaced the search for peace. Previously, the statesmen of the world were occupied by the thought of how national military and other power could be secured. The peace of your country could only be secured if you challenged the rest of the world constantly and thereby proved you and your community ready to prevail in an international struggle. This was the thought behind treaties and arms races before the First World War, in particular - and behind the phenomenon of mercantilism, which dominated international economy for centuries with its focus on busines serving the interests of the state. Well, today such posturing for power is no longer necessary - or so this assumption goes - for the world of inter-state competition has been replaced by a world of inter-business competition, where national borders are shown as an irrelevance both for companies, seeking to curb or take advantage of that nebulous phenomenon of globalisation, and for individuals seeking their next iPad. (Kenichi Ohmae, The End of the Nation State, 1995, is an example of this attitude; as is any work derived from Milton Friedman or Friedrich von Hayek).
If this assumption were correct, we might assume that Russia, Ukraine and the West would tacitly or vocally agree to avoid an escalation of hostilities, as this would not be in the material interest either of these states or of their citizens. Following some discomfort, Russians, Ukrainians, and people in the EU and the USA would go back to looking at the economy. Ukraine would be enriched by much-publicized financial assistance from the IMF and from the USA, just as Russia and the international financial markets would continue to trade with and benefit each other.
This might still happen, at least for a time, but it overlooks two problems. First, the above conditions were equally present before the current crisis escalated. Second, financial motives for individuals might not translate into international state policies. If the Russian regime were interested in simply gaining more prosperity for itself and for Russia, then an annexation of Crimea makes no sense. Financial uncertainty and possible rupture of trade agreements remain risks for a Russia involved in the annexation. Perhaps Russia and its leadership decided such an economic price was worth paying? But then we are left with the question of what is the prize that justifies such an economic sacrifice. No matter the answer here, clearly economic interests do not dominate international affairs.
Similarly, although individual prosperity may be the focus for most people most of the time, clearly this does not always apply. Russian actions here had some support at home, despite the knowledge that Western sanctions and possible economic hardship might follow. More critically, it is clear that state actions in Russia, Ukraine, the West or elsewhere have not been significantly influenced by domestic opinion. If it remains true that the general populace mostly remains aloof to international affairs, then the focus on prosperity held by this populace is of little consequence to the current crisis.
3) We are living in a post-historical world
This assumption really came into general debate with Francis Fukuyama's book from 1992, The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama's argument is more nuanced than is generally understood, but he was widely seen to prophesy that the end of the Cold War signalled the end of all wars. That the (neo-)liberal dogma now encompassed the Western world, at least - and that serious international conflict would be almost unthinkable in future.
This assumption may appear to be somewhat similar to that advanced above. However, in the assumption derived from Fukuyama's argument is the idea that the world is not necessarily one entire, but that we must distinguish between "historical" and "post-historical" worlds. Or between "civilisation" and "barbarity," if you will. Thus, while the EU and the USA now allegedly exist in the conflict-less utopia of Fukuyama's making, other parts of the world - such as Russia - remain caught in unstable modernity, or even pre-modernity. "We" in the EU and the USA have reached the end-goal, while other parts of the world must continue to struggle for survival. And if "We" are threatened it is only by incursions from the outside world, which must therefore be tamed or subdued. (Robert Kagan, Paradise and Power, 2004, is a classic example of this, as are the writings by many so-called neo-conservatives). By such reasoning, what is happening between Russia and Ukraine now is simply to be expected from peoples and states, which have not reached the enlightened peace and stability held in the West. The West will therefore do well to stay out of trouble and let the "Others" in Eastern Europe sort themselves out. (inadvertently, Jonathan Steele's recent article in The Guardian is marked by such assumptions: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/02/not-too-late-for-ukraine-nato-should-back-off)
The problem here is, however, that the world cannot be divided neatly into spheres of "Us" and "Them." And here we come back to my opening argument: that the flagrant Russian breach of a cornerstone of international law can fundamentally change everybody's world of tomorrow.
All law is, to some extent, fiction. Law is a set of rules agreed upon by actors for a range of reasons. Nothing inherent in a legal system ensures that system actors will adhere to the laws. Such adherence is ensured by an actor holding a sovereign monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within the system, and dedicated to upholding the laws.
International law has an even weaker basis. Apart from the fact that international law is far from a coherent body, but instead an amalgam of sometimes contradictory rules, there is no sovereign enforcer in international affairs. A hegemon might fulfil this role, but even when the USA was strong enough to credibly dominate a unipolar system in the 1990s it showed little interest in enforcing international law for the sake of it. A neutral arbiter Washington certainly was not, as Iraq, Iran and Kosovo testified. So, on the face of things, it seems fair to say that international law is an irrelevance in the face of relative power held by states.
Yet as I have sought to demonstrate above, power relations among states are in no way a guarantor of international stability, let alone of international peace. Miscalculations and misunderstandings flourish, absolute economic progress for all is repeatedly sacrificed by individual states for their relative advantage, and from this struggle no part of the world can count itself free in perpetuity.
And yet we are faced with the fact that the world has not suffered major war for seven decades. With the fact that Europe, in particular, has been spared inter-state violence (although civil war has tragically appeared). And I posit that a main reason for such peace has been the existence of a common framework as constituted by international law. When the United Nations was set up in 1945 member states could well fear that the organisation and its world would soon fall victim to another war. For anyone having experienced Hitlerian aggression, the UN Charter's prohibition of territorial annexation would have seemed limpid. Yet the years went by and no state seemed eager to change the borders of the world, especially not in Europe. The USSR could easily have annexed Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968 - the West was never close to seriously oppose these quite brutal invasions. Yet it was the Soviet Union that, almost pleadingly, insisted at the 1975 Helsinki Conference that all post-WW2 borders in Europe must be kept. After 1991, post-Soviet Russia may long have been too weak to really undertake international revanchism, but even Putin's reinvigorated state repeatedly emphasised the international importance of avoiding "land grabs." Tellingly, in 2008 Abkhazia and South Ossetia did not become parts of Russia, but were instead recognised by Russia as independent states, knowing that such a step could be accommodated within the cognitive framework of international law, following Kosovo.
Now, Putin appears to have forgotten this lesson. The lesson that, just like domestic societies need its actors to accept the basic agreed rules of the political game in order to function, international society - in order to be a society in which members can function together on a non-violent basis - needs to agree on some basic, common rules for what constitutes acceptable conduct. Refraining from territorial conquest against another sovereign state (as recognised by the UN) was the most basic of all such rules after 1945. And if Russia is now allowed to openly and unapologetically violate this rule, international society is left ruled by the precept of "might makes right." As I have tried to show in the piece, such a precept is no way to international stability in the years to come, for Russia, for Ukraine, or for the rest of Europe and the world.