Russland und Urkaine auf Weltkarte
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Post Bellum: Four Scenarios

The future of the international order depends on the global community's response to this war, argues WZB Director Michael Zürn. It is impossible to predict today whether the West will be able to maintain its unity when the costs of sanctions start to be felt, what role China will play, and what the outcome of the war in Ukraine will be. At least four scenarios are conceivable.

By Michael Zürn

Imagine Donald Trump to still be president of the United States. He probably would have called the invasion of Ukraine a "smart move" that could serve as a model for solving the "Mexican problem." "Putin is a genius" (Trump actually said that after the war began), he might have continued. His friend Vladimir was, after all, a good businessman. Good to do business with and thus, not deserving sanctions. The whole case would only have shown how dangerous NATO was for the US, he would probably have urged. The Europeans might drag the United States into conflicts without paying the bill.

In the light of this transatlantic scenario, one can well imagine the likely reactions in Europe. Certainly, the German government, President Macron and the EU’s Commission chief would all have "strongly condemned" the invasion. But apart from that? Presumably, there would have been heated arguments about an appropriate response. The Germans would have defended North Stream 2, the Swiss stood by their banks, while Eastern Europeans asserted their sovereignty. In this scenario it seems far from certain that a transnational civil society would have stood up so quickly and visibly.

If all this had taken place, one might indeed have spoken of the death of NATO, the United Nations, the EU as we know it; and more generally of the global post 1989 order. Meanwhile a lot of our information suggests that this was precisely the reaction that the Russian president and his supporters were expecting. Otherwise, probably fewer billions would have been frozen in the accounts of European banks. The sums that Russian oligarchs withdrew from their accounts before the war were surprisingly small. Things turned out quite differently.

The West - or more precisely, the global phalanx of liberal democracies - has closed its ranks in a way we have not seen in 20 years. The defense of democracy and the Ukrainian people's right to self-determination seems to take precedence over national interests. Global goods such as peace and the integrity of borders are being upheld. And some of the international organizations feared to be brain dead suddenly make quite an impression: first and foremost NATO, but also the European Union and even the United Nations. Finally, we are seeing an overwhelming response from within our civil societies, even sports federations and some companies with a strong involvement in Russia are following suit.

The liberal international order, as it likes to be called, remains alive. The Iraq War, the Crimean War, and especially the outright slaughter in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria have obviously undermined that order more than the attack on Ukraine. The truth is that an order, and any norm in general, is not shaken by a violation of the rule, but by the lack of an appropriate response. Thou shalt not kill is not called into question by murder. It is through its shrugging acceptance that a norm is erased.

The future of the international order thus depends on the reaction of the global community and the outcome of norm-violating acts. However, it is impossible to say whether the West will be able to preserve its unity when the costs of sanctions are felt, what role China will play, and what the outcome of the war in Ukraine will be. Reliable forecasts are not possible. We may however depict different scenarios. At least four of them are conceivable.

I'll start with a zero scenario, which I believe is quite unlikely: a peace treaty between Ukraine and Russia. It is unlikely because Ukrainians are fighting resolutely for the unity of their country and would be willing to make concessions only in a hopeless situation. But why would Putin go against all his goals in just such a situation? After all, if he cannot completely control Ukraine politically after this war, the rest of Ukraine would strive westward politically and militarily with unstoppable momentum. There is much to suggest that this war will be decided militarily. In this case, the effects on the international order would be minimal. The current order would be somewhat strengthened, while remaining unstable and contested.

In the first scenario, the war passes quickly and Russia establishes a vassal state on Ukrainian soil. The Ukrainian population, also long-suffering in the past, accepts its fate. In this scenario, we would see a revival of the East-West conflict in Europe. European institutions would regain strength and authoritarian populism would be marginalized, at least in its current, Putin-apologist form. Russia would groan economically and repression would increase. In terms of world politics, the effects of this outcome are less clear: Would the United States maintain its course? If so, NATO and other postwar organizations would be strengthened. If, however, the Trumpites do regain the upper hand, Europe would have no choice but to build up its own defense capability, including appropriate decision-making structures. This would not only reinvigorate Europe, but mean the emergence of a very different one. China would hold back and, when the opportunity arises, use the new conflict to strengthen its influence and national interests. The result would be a regionalization of the world order with China in a key position.

At least as likely is a scenario in which Russia quickly wins the interstate war and establishes a Russia-friendly government in Ukraine, but parts of the Ukrainian population engage in a civil war which Russia cannot control. In that case, the domestic political pressures and economic costs for the Putin regime would grow to the point that it could only survive with Chinese support. Russia itself would then lose its independence and fall under Chinese influence. The conflict would structure not only events in Europe but world politics, creating a new bipolarity. In that case, one could expect a kind of remake of the postwar order: strong international institutions within the West and a permanent weakening of global institutions.

In a third scenario, the liberal order as it emerged after 1989 could be revived with strong global institutions. In this scenario, passionate Ukrainian resistance would prove effective and durable. The war would be protracted. The destruction in Ukraine would be horrific, but the consequences in Russia would also be far-reaching. The Putin regime could fall as a result of growing resistance inside Russia, and a new wave of democratization would sweep over Eastern Europe. Such a wave of liberalization would not completely bypass China either. All this could lead to a revival of the post-1989 order, along with greater regulation of globalization processes. Within liberal societies, however, the line of conflict between losers and winners of globalization would be fueled. And whether democratizing forces would indeed succeed in the event of Putin's fall is not a compelling conclusion either. It would probably not be a particularly stable order.

Whether we will see a regionalization of world politics, the remaking of a postwar order, or a revival of the post-1989 liberal order depends on the response to Russian aggression. However extraordinarily reactionary and brutal this war may be, in one respect it is no different from other norm violations. It is not the violation of rules that determines the future of an order but the reaction to it.