This Crisis Is the Crucial Test of the New World Order; Only by Sticking to an International Framework of Agreed Rules Can We Ensure Peace among Today's Great Powers

The Evening Standard (London, England), July 21, 2014 | Go to article overview

This Crisis Is the Crucial Test of the New World Order; Only by Sticking to an International Framework of Agreed Rules Can We Ensure Peace among Today's Great Powers


Byline: Philip Bobbitt

THE terrible events in Ukraine, electrified by the interception and destruction of a Malaysian passenger plane, should be a thunderclap, shaking us from our torpor and confusion.

We cannot begin the 21st century in the way we began the 20th, with powerful states determined to overthrow the international system, tossing away the rulebook for international behaviour that states of the previous century had used to maintain peace. Now, as then, there are claims of justice and ambition, fired by nationalism and envy, by a sense of historical grievance and by contemporary domestic political manoeuvring, that intermingle to animate and justify the destabilising violence of an insurgent power. Now, as then, the states that need to be united in opposing that violence are divided among themselves.

What does the current rulebook, written with such pain and suffering, provide? First, it requires that no territorial aggrandisement can be achieved by invasion and conquest. As much as Europe's present borders result from accidents of history, so much more are they ratified by that history, so that while we can accept the creation of new states, such as those that emerged from the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union, we cannot begin the process of reconquest without unravelling the European state system with the kinds of consequences we saw in the 20th century. Second, the rulebook provides for various oversight mechanisms to monitor elections, investigate atrocities and prosecute war crimes. Third, these rules prescribe the autonomy of states in their interstate relations, what groups they may join and what alliances they may maintain.

All these rules were ratified in the Peace of Paris, a collective name for a series of agreements among which are the Moscow Declaration, the Copenhagen Declaration and the Charter of Paris, by which the long war of the 20th century was finally ended. These agreements, to which Russia was a party, memorialised a commitment by their signatories to the legitimacy of market-based democracies and the rule of law. Whatever may be the objections to the Euromaidan demonstrations that led to the fleeing of the Ukrainian president earlier this year, the elections in May have surely settled the question of the legitimacy of the current regime. One of the agreements of which the Peace of Paris is composed guarantees the territorial integrity of Ukraine. It's awfully rich, some will say, for the members of Nato to object to Russia aiding a breakaway republic whose people are being oppressed; what about Bosnia and Kosovo? Didn't Nato air strikes compel Serbia to release these territories? If all you read was the Russian propaganda of the last year, you might believe that the pro-Russian peoples of eastern Ukraine were subject to the same sort of depredations by Kiev as were Albanians and Bosnian Muslims by Belgrade. But of course they're not. The very reason that Moscow has been pumping out these stories is to blur the distinction between an intervention that stopped the killing and one that commenced it.

Or, around the dinner tables of London and in the letters columns of its broadsheets, one may find this reaction: is this awful incident in Ukraine really so different from the downing of an Iranian airliner by an American warship in the Persian Gulf in 1988? Isn't it simply a tragic accident, regrettable of course, but only of historical significance if we lose our heads and overreact? …

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