Ukraine and the End of the "New World Order"
During a February 2023 episode of NBC’s “Meet The Press,” host Chuck Todd brought up the dire concerns of the Biden administration that China may begin offering direct military assistance to Russia in its year-old war against Ukraine. With a look of incredulity, he turned to one of his panelists and asked, “Why would China do this?”
Mark this moment down as a turning point in modern international relations—a moment when it suddenly became clear that the world we have known since at least the end of the Cold War, and which many assumed would continue indefinitely, was in fact confronting tectonic shifts.
Whether or not China moves forward with more extreme support for Russia, the genie of global change is out of the bottle, and likely will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Indeed, this moment should not come as much of a surprise. For 30 years, Western optimism that a post-Cold War “New World Order”—or, more specifically, United States-led “rules-based” liberal order—would sustain global governance has been slowly fraying. The 1990s turned into a decade of vicious civil wars and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The 2000s was defined by a globalized terrorist war between al-Qaeda and the United States, along with two land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 2010s was a decade of clean-up from the 2008 global financial crisis and the rise of anti-liberal populism in the world’s leading democracies, including the United States, Britain, and France.
And now, it is increasingly clear the 2020s will be the decade that witnessed the return of realpolitik to the Westphalian system—a time when a powerful array of non-Western states began openly challenging the U.S.-led global order. Though such pressures may have been building for some time, the West’s united front against Russia following its brutal invasion of Ukraine has offered the starkest evidence to date of the softening underpinnings of American and Western global leadership. Not because supporting Ukraine was not the right thing to do—it certainly was. But because it has exposed fissures and fault lines between the world that adherents of Western ideology have long believed would emerge, and the one that has emerged.
This may seem like a pessimistic take on the future of world politics. It is not. If fairly grasped, this turning point might offer a more realistic future of stable global relations. But for that to happen, the West will need to scale back significantly on its ideologically-driven hubris. And the non-West will need to recognize that Western democracies are not going away and will in fact remain amongst the most powerful actors in the international community.
This article will first analyze the foundations of the post-Cold War “New World Order” and its increasing vulnerabilities. Next, it discusses the evolution of challenges to the order, culminating with today’s direct Westphalian (state-based) challenge from non-Western states and budding coalitions of states. Lastly, it concludes with thoughts about the future.
The Not-So-New World Order
It should not be particularly surprising that in the early post-Cold War period, the United States sought to make its vision for a world based on its own liberal ideals permanent. Beginning with Thomas Paine’s 1776 cry that Americans “have it in our power to begin the world over again,” though to Woodrow Wilson’s vow to “make the world safe for democracy” and Franklin Roosevelt’s creation of the post-World War II liberal international order, America has always thought in terms of refashioning the world in its own image.
After vanquishing the competing ideologies of fascism in the first half of the twentieth century and communism in the second, the time was ripe to build a world order based on “universal” liberal values, which many in the West—taking their cues from the Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama—believe represents the “end of history” in world politics. America’s first post-Cold War president, George H.W. Bush, declared it his mission to inspire the creation of this “New World Order,” while his successor, Bill Clinton, operationalized it with his administration’s aggressive strategies of free market “engagement” and democratic “enlargement.”
To be clear, liberal values have proven to offer the soundest foundations for domestic political and economic systems and, when used efficiently, to positively influence global politics. During this early period, the world witnessed what liberal values can do at their best by extending freedom and opportunity to parts of the world that never had them before, notably to former Soviet republics, India, and China, helping to pull hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
However, Western governance of the liberal order has veered off of its efficient path ever since, mostly due to Western hubris and a near-universal certainty amongst Western elites that liberal values, liberal politics, and neoliberal economics are the only legitimate ways to organize domestic and international society. This hubris, and the overreach that has come along with it, has abetted the emergence of serious counter-movements that now openly threaten the contemporary world order.
Before discussing these threats, it is necessary to review the basic foundations of the post-Cold War liberal order and the many missteps committed in its name.
First, it is important to recognize that the liberal order is not a U.S. concept, even if the United States has been its titular and tangible leader since World War II. It’s a Western concept, grounded in Western liberal philosophy, and Western notions of liberal internationalism.
We see this most clearly in the four big institutions—the United Nations (UN), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), World Trade Organization (WTO), and European Union (EU)—that serve as the foundation of the post-World War II liberal order. The UN manages international law, NATO manages international security, the WTO manages international economics, and the EU represents the exemplar of “post-sovereignty liberalism” (for which it won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2012). Again, there is plenty to praise here: this institutional order played a crucial role in bringing a peaceful end to the Cold War and in helping to facilitate the greatest period of shared prosperity in world history.
But in many ways, these successes contributed to the order’s potential unraveling. That is because, after the Cold War ended, each of the foundational institutions endeavored unrealistically to expand their missions too far and too fast.
Indeed, the biggest mistake supporters of global liberalism have made over the past seventy-five years is presuming that the post-World War II order and its corresponding institutions ushered in what the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire would call “the apotheosis of human history” and that this new world could escape the traditional forces that drive international relations, such as nation-states, nationalism, and counter-ideologies. Once the Cold War ended, this view was injected with steroids.
We see this in the major transformations that the UN, NATO, WTO, and EU underwent in the 1990s. Two of them—the WTO and EU—didn’t even come into existence until the 1990s. The WTO was a vastly more expansive and ambitious version of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)—born of the Bretton Woods system in 1944—while the EU was a more expansive and ambitious version of its Cold War predecessor, the European Economic Community.
The same goes for new expansive roles for the UN and NATO. What were once foundations of stability after World War II—keeping peace and ensuring prosperity during the Cold War—became “apotheosis institutions” bent on the fundamental transformation of world politics.
The pushback against each has been unsparing and helped bring about the pivot point we face today, with each institution and the world order more broadly under duress.
The UN, for example, began the post-Cold War period on a high note, with a Security Council resolution supporting the U.S.-led war to liberate Kuwait after Iraq’s invasion in the summer of 1990. But the organization soon found itself stalemated in the 1990s over the bloody civil wars in the Balkans—particularly in Bosnia and Kosovo—as Russia and China began exercising their veto power in the Security Council to prevent any expansive UN action.
Nonetheless, a major move was undertaken in the late 1990s to transform the mission of the UN from managing relations between sovereign states to supporting humanitarian interventions within them. By 2005, the UN unveiled its new responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine, based on a strictly Western liberal post-sovereignty view of international human rights law. This was something sovereignty-sensitive countries like Russia and China uneasily accepted up until the 2011 UN-authorized no-fly zone in Libya, which quickly turned from a limited humanitarian intervention to protect civilians carried out by NATO members into an expansive regime change operation.
The blowback was swift and severe. When a humanitarian crisis erupted later that year in Syria, Russia and China blocked any UN role at all out of fear of “a replay of the Libya scenario.” Syria today remains a killing field, Libya is a failed state, and the UN’s credibility has yet to recover.
NATO is much in the news lately, having discovered newfound unity and purpose following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But let’s not forget that NATO also underwent significant changes after the Cold War, evolving from a military alliance defending Western Europe to a globalized organization involved in out-of-area humanitarian interventions, most notably in Kosovo in 1999 (and unauthorized by the UN) and in Libya in 2011.
It also expanded from sixteen member states at the end of the Cold War to thirty-one today, with Finland’s recent accession and Sweden soon to be included. Alongside this growth came a new functionality, beginning in the mid-1990s, to serve as “a catalyst” for advancing democracy, market liberalization, and the protection of human rights, including the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. No doubt these are all worthy goals, but is it any wonder Russia, China, India, and many other non-Western countries have grown increasingly distrustful of the organization? And that was long before NATO described its new mission in June 2022 as “upholding the rules-based international order”—specifically directing its attention not just to Russia and Ukraine, but to China and Taiwan as well.
Regarding the WTO, I will not overly criticize the goal of expanding liberal markets and free trade, which both the GATT and WTO have accomplished. However, specifically as it relates to China, we have seen the ideological underpinnings of the WTO based more on end-of-history certainty, and full faith in liberal peace theory, than the realities of a rising Asian superpower with traditional geostrategic interests and goals.
The historic bet made by the WTO on China’s accession to the organization in 2001 was that as long as China remained true to market economics and integrated into Western institutions, it would inevitably transform into some form of liberal democracy.
Over the past twenty years, China’s growth has exploded thanks to its integration with the West but its political system has regressed. As the Stanford economist Elizabeth Economy put it, China has become “an illiberal state seeking leadership in a liberal world order.” Ironically, just a few years ago, it was widely assumed in the West that China would seamlessly replace the United States as the leader of the global liberal economic system. Now, many of those same voices are clamoring for renewed hawkish American leadership, as tensions continue to escalate between the world’s two largest economic and military superpowers.
Finally, there is little need to rehash the troubles confronting the EU in recent years. Suffice it to say, what was once the shining example of post-sovereignty liberalism is now a cautionary tale on centralized decision-making by small groupings of governing elites, increasingly out of touch with their often-rowdy democratic underpinnings. Tensions over hot-button issues relating to borders, immigration, and economic globalization have forced a healthy dose of introspection across the continent.
However, it is also important to note that—as with China and the WTO—it was once widely assumed that fully integrating Russia into Western European energy markets would all but guarantee a more restrained and peaceful Russia. The reasoning came straight from liberal peace theory: Russia’s costs of severing ties from its bad behavior would outweigh any potential gains.
This belief was so strong that some countries were willing to completely wean themselves off of their own fossil fuels—and in the case of Germany, nuclear power as well—to rely almost entirely on Russian oil and gas as they developed clean energy economies.
All of those assumptions were dashed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as Europe scrambled for new energy supplies (including coal) to keep its lights on. Though most European governments still support a 100 percent fossil-free future, the path ahead is rife with hurdles, not least of all China’s plan to become Europe’s dominant supplier of renewable goods such as lithium batteries, wind turbines, solar panels, and the rare-earth materials that power them. If Europe is not careful, it may simply trade one hostile supplier of vital energy needs for another.
These are some of the most obvious ways in which the post-Cold War liberal order—and the core components of it—has overextended itself in recent decades, aiding the rise of serious counter-movements, first by nonstate actors, and then by states themselves.
Cracks in the Armor
For the first two decades after the Cold War, the unrivaled economic and military power of the United States and its Western allies precluded any significant state-based challenges to the prevailing world order. The same could not be said, however, of ideologically-driven non-state actors that were intent on utilizing asymmetric tactics to undermine and weaken the United States and global liberalism generally.
The most important of these, of course, was al-Qaeda, which shifted from helping to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s to battling the victors of the Cold War in the 1990s.
The group formally declared war against the United States in 1996 and the West in 1998 and commenced, on September 11, 2001, a global terrorist war that continues to this day through a loose network of affiliates.
Though militant jihadi movements had been at war against the West (and Western-aligned Muslim governments) ever since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the dramatic upsurge in jihadi activity and recruitment in the post-Cold War 1990s signaled that all was not well in the U.S.-led, rapidly-globalizing world. Large swaths of humanity, particularly in the Global South, felt left behind in a world dominated by Western liberal institutions and practices, and those grievances were increasingly making themselves known with car bombs and suicide belts.
But such grievances were not just bubbling over outside of the West. On April 19, 1995, in Oklahoma City, the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history (up until September 11, 2001) was carried out by white nationalists opposed to the economic and political openness corresponding with America’s global leadership. In both the United States and Europe, such fringe right-wing militant movements have, particularly since the 2008 financial collapse, broadened into nationalist-populist backlashes against globalization and global liberalism generally, as seen with Trumpism, Brexit, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban, etc.
Equally important, America’s heavily-militarized approach to the War on Terror, and its elite-driven response to the 2008 crisis—tripling down on globalized banking capitalism—did not go unnoticed by actors questioning the ability of the United States to sustain global power.
Al-Qaeda and associated movements view the twenty-two years since 9/11 as an extraordinary success: the United States fought two bloody and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with a hugely expensive (and ongoing) global war on terrorism, which they believe places time on their side. Likewise, it is no coincidence that China chose the early 2010s to break from former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum: “Hide our strength, bide our time.”
Now, it certainly may be the case (as balance of power theory would predict) that China’s rise would create inevitable friction between itself and the United States, including the likelihood of escalating conflict. But context matters. Thanks to many of the events described above, China’s leadership has become convinced that U.S. global hegemony is in terminal decline, and that Western ideology—and the “rules-based order” created to serve it—is being employed as a cudgel to prevent China’s rightful ascendancy to that role.
Over the past ten years, President Xi Jinping (now emperor for life) has been espousing stark alternatives to America’s values and principles (the “China Dream”), political system (“socialism with Chinese characteristics”), and global leadership (“a Chinese approach to solving problems facing mankind”). And he has put China’s money where his mouth is, committing hundreds of billions of dollars toward creating China-centric global institutions to compete with (and ultimately replace) Western ones, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and Global Development Initiative.
Most recently, China has been seeking out alliances and partnerships to counteract Western influence, notably its “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Russia, reiterated just days before Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, as well as its foray into the politics of the Middle East to broker peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia (and new oil contracts for itself). The messaging surrounding all such endeavors is that “liberalism is obsolete,” the West has “weaponized democracy as a tool to maintain hegemony,” and China represents a “fairer and more just” alternative to the U.S.-led global order.
Whether or not the rest of the world views things that way is almost beside the point. What matters is that for the first time since the end of the Cold War, major state actors have become willing to directly contest the premises underlying U.S. and Western global leadership.
Ukraine Divided the World
The trajectory of modern history can be traced to watershed moments— Waterloo, Gettysburg, Sarajevo, Hiroshima. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 may well be recalled as one of those moments. Not because it signaled a triumph of Russian nationalism—it did not. Rather, because it forced into the open the growing tensions between how the West views its global governance and how much of the rest of the world does.
Indeed, what is most striking about this moment is that despite Moscow’s brutal and blatant violations against Ukraine—running roughshod over international norms that long predate America’s rise to power—most of the world outside of the West has shown little interest in ensuring that Russia fails in its designs on Ukraine, let alone to punish it for its transgressions.
Contrast that with the repeated insistence by U.S. president Joe Biden and other Western leaders that the war in Ukraine represents an existential “battle between a rules-based order and one governed by force,” presenting all of humanity with a global “test for the ages.”
Despite over 140 countries voting in favor of two (nonbinding) UN resolutions demanding that Russia unconditionally withdraw, the real news is in the notable powers who have abstained—China, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Vietnam, Iran—as well as those who voted in favor but whose behavior toward Russia tilts neutral, especially on economic relations—Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and even NATO-member Turkey. With the exception of Turkey, what these countries have in common is that they all reside in the Global South, which has become ground zero for growing discontent against the U.S.-led order and where (at least for many) support for China playing a vastly larger role in world politics has gained the most traction.
According to data compiled by Cambridge University, the world is increasingly dividing into two opposing blocks: liberal democracies backing the United States, and citizens of more authoritarian nations—mostly in emerging economies and the Global South—who favor China and Russia. Though this divide first became measurable a decade ago, it has—tellingly—accelerated since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This helps explain why most non-Western countries, even those with strong official ties to the United States and Europe, do not view the war in Ukraine as a global threat: they view it as primarily a European and American problem, and remain largely focused on protecting their own interests amid the economic and geopolitical upheaval caused by the war. And it helps explain why American and Western messaging about existential crises and threats to the global order are increasingly falling on deaf ears.
With 1.2 billion people residing in the world’s liberal democracies, and 6.3 billion residing everywhere else, spikes in global perception that the Western-led liberal order is primarily a tool for promoting Western interests—and dismissing the interests of others—represents the true existential threat to the order.
Clean-Up in the Global Governance Aisle
As the great New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra famously quipped, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
For example, the war in Ukraine could further reshuffle world politics if (God forbid) Russia chooses to use tactical nuclear weapons at some point or if China decides to take advantage of the West’s focus in Eastern Europe to make a move on Taiwan.
Additionally, China’s certainty that the United States is facing inevitable decline, and will soon be supplanted by China as the world’s number one economic and military superpower, seems, at best, premature, if not altogether misguided. There’s a reason why—even after three decades of tumultuous global (and domestic) politics—the U.S. economy remains nearly one-third larger than China’s, despite having one-fifth its population. In fact, with China on an increasingly autocratic path, at odds with its more liberal growth-driven strategies of the past, it is an open question whether China’s economy will catch up to America’s.
Irrespective of the ins-and-outs of what’s to come in world politics, one thing we know for sure is that the global governance system the United States fashioned after World War II, and sought to reinvigorate in the post-Cold War period, is leaking oil, and has been for some time.
We also know that the United States and its Western allies continue to hold much of the power in the world, including seven of the top ten economies and nearly two-thirds of global military spending. This means the West still has the biggest interest—and responsibility—in fostering order and cooperation in world politics, which is confronting an array of challenges from increasing multipolarity to climate change to the disruptive impact of new technologies.
But for that to happen, the West must first re-earn its global leadership. Though this will not be easy, the ledger can begin moving in the right direction with two common-sense adjustments.
First and foremost, the West must begin viewing the world through the eyes of others, recognizing that what Westerners consider “universal values,” others see as Western countries advancing their own interests. A new respect for others’ perspectives (and sovereignty) may not advance global liberalism (at least not in the short run) but it could lead to a good deal of peaceful and productive coexistence, including through global institutions of more modest scale and scope.
A good place to start would be scaling back over-the-top rhetoric regarding the war in Ukraine, which is a European conflict in the backyard of NATO, not a final battle between democracy and tyranny. It is certainly true that if Russia succeeds in redrawing Europe’s borders, it would signal severe weakness in the West, and a breakdown of global norms—which is why the West must not let that happen. But instead of lecturing the world about the war’s stakes, it should show empathetic global leadership by offering direct assistance to the world’s poorest countries hit hardest by its effects.
Second, the West must take real stock of the ill effects of Western-led globalization, particularly in the Global South, where both China and Russia are directly competing for hearts and minds, as well as within democracies themselves, where anti-liberal sentiment is growing. Liberal economics has proven to be the best means of generating enormous wealth, alongside world-changing innovations, but too often those at the lower rungs feel more like subjects than stakeholders in the system.
The West urgently needs new, long-term strategies to redress these ill effects globally and locally. These must include a new approach to development assistance and opportunity creation abroad, as well as a new appreciation of the rights of all nation-states—including the democracies of Western Europe and North America—to protect the economic well-being of their own citizens and control migration flows within their own borders.
A little give on these issues will not harm the foundations of Western liberalism and would go a long way toward renewing its credibility for the current age. The world is increasingly divided between a West that many view as in decline, and revisionist powers intent on a truly new world order. The time has come to take this seriously, and respond accordingly.
 See Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” The National Interest, no. 16 (1989): 3-18, https://www. jstor.org/stable/24027184.
 See George H.W. Bush, “Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the Persian Gulf Crisis and the Federal Budget Deficit,” September 1990, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/addressbefore-joint-session-the-congress-the-persian-gulf-crisis-and-the-federal-budget.
 See Bill Clinton, “A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement,” Department of Defense, July 1994, https://history.defense.gov/Portals/70/Documents/nss/nss1994.pdf.
 For an extended analysis of these points, see Stuart Gottlieb, “Will the Liberal World Order Survive an Era of Upheaval?” The National Interest, October 2022, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/will-liberalworld-order-survive-era-upheaval-205519.
 See President Barack Obama on political freedom in China, Jonathan Weisman, Andrew Browne, and Jason Dean, “Obama Hits a Wall on His Visit to China,” The Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2009, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB125857743503654225.
 Elizabeth C. Economy, “China’s New Revolution: The Reign of Xi Jinping,” Foreign Affairs 97 (May/ June 2018), https://www.jstor.org/stable/44822145.
 See G. John Ikenberry, “The Rise of China and the Future of the West,” Foreign Affairs 87 (January/ February 2008), https://www.jstor.org/stable/20020265.
 See David Pierson, “China’s Courtship of European Powers Hits a Russian Wall,” The New York Times, February 21, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/21/world/asia/china-europe-russia-ukraine.html.
 For more on China’s opposition to liberalism, see David Pierson, “China’s Role in Iran-Saudi Arabia Deal Shows Xi’s Global Goals,” The New York Times, March 11, 2023, https://www.nytimes. com/2023/03/11/world/asia/china-saudi-arabia-iran-us.html.
 See The White House, “Remarks by President Biden on the United Efforts of the Free World to Support the People of Ukraine,” March 26, 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speechesremarks/2022/03/26/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-united-efforts-of-the-free-world-to-support-thepeople-of-ukraine/.