Lessons Repeat Themselves Until Learned
One of the inescapable features of human existence is that lessons we fail to learn repeat themselves over and over, usually with increasing ferocity until the lesson is learned. This principle applies not only to our individual lives, but to humanity’s collective life as well. One of these global lessons that has been repeating itself with ever-increasing intensity is that localized or regional conflicts have global repercussions.
A good example is the war in Syria, which spawned a number of crises that impacted countries far beyond its border. One of them was the refugee crisis, which affected not only Syria’s immediate Middle Eastern neighbors like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey but had far-reaching effects in Europe as well. The wave of refugees washing up on Europe’s shores was a driving force in the rise of right-wing governments in several countries. It was also one of the factors that precipitated Brexit, as the United Kingdom frantically attempted to take control of its own destiny and limit the flow of unwanted refugees to its shores.
The Syrian conflict also created fertile conditions in Syria and Iraq that allowed ISIS to flourish and carry out brutal acts that impacted the citizens of many nations near and far. In addition, the civil war in Syria resulted in the creation of what some of the media referred to as a “proto world war,” as countries arrayed themselves on opposing sides of a widening conflict.
We Missed the Opportunity to Learn from the War in Syria
Unfortunately, the international community failed to grasp the opportunity arising from the conflict in Syria to devise a global mechanism to end the Syrian conflict. It is therefore no surprise that one of the most pressing conflicts of the day, Russia’s war against Ukraine, has left our global leaders paralyzed, dithering, taking half-measures and seemingly unable to take the kind of decisive and effective action that would have nipped it in the bud before it festered into the global morass it is today.
The War in Ukraine Has Triggered Several Global Crises
This latest regional conflict has been having its own world-encircling impact: indeed, it has been responsible for triggering several global crises. They include a global food crisis that has resulted in food shortages and the rise in the price of bread, a staple food which so many, especially in the poorest nations, rely on for survival. The Ukraine conflict has also sparked a global energy crisis as the flow of natural gas from Russia, on which many countries have relied, has significantly diminished. The result has been a spike in the price of energy across the world, including the richer nations of Europe. In the U.K. alone, the cost of heating homes has risen dramatically, causing much economic pain. As though this were not enough, the war has contributed to the rise of stubborn inflation worldwide which is having a significant and deleterious impact on the global economy. Some, including the World Bank, fear that we will soon find ourselves in a global recession.
To add to all these global crises, the nations of the world are dividing themselves into two opposing camps with the United States, Europe, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand arrayed on one side and Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and possibly India on the other. This level of global polarization constitutes a threat to global peace and security. In the past, it has led to world wars, a consequence we want to avoid at all costs. The threat is exacerbated by the increasing worry that nuclear weapons may be used either accidentally or deliberately by one of these nations in a moment of heated miscalculation, triggering a nuclear war, which, even if limited geographically, would have disastrous consequences for humanity.
It’s Time to Revisit President Wilson’s 14 Points and the Atlantic Charter
The ever-increasing cascade of crises points to the imperative need for the international community to devise a viable global system of collective security that is capable of ensuring international peace. It is time for the world to revisit and finally implement two principles proposed by two American presidents in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century.
The first is the principle that was proposed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1918 as part of his 14 Point program which called for limiting the number of arms each nation can possess to the smallest amount consistent with domestic safety. Alas, the world failed to implement this recommendation when it created the League of Nations in the aftermath of the First World War. It failed to do so at its peril and suffered another devastating world war. The world then missed another opportunity to implement President Wilson’s recommendation when the United Nations was created after the Second World War.
The second principle that the world should seriously revisit and implement is set out in Article 8 of the Atlantic Charter, drawn up by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill in August 1941. This principle called for nations to abandon the use of force “for realistic as well as spiritual reasons.” It, too, was never implemented.
The Key to Peace is Creating a Global System of Collective Security
Given the recent horrors humanity has experienced as a result of the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine (and in many other nations, including Yemen, Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Sudan), the international community may finally be ready to build a global system of collective security that is firmly grounded in these two foundational principles.
The Ukraine War has provided a challenging time for the nations of the world and, particularly, for international law.
Since antiquity, far-sighted thinkers have worked on developing rules of behavior among nations in connection with war, diplomacy, economic relations, human rights, international crime, global communications, and the environment. Defined as international law, this “law of nations” is based on treaties or, in some cases, international custom. Some of the best-known of these international legal norms are outlined in the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Geneva Conventions.
International Law and Ukraine
The UN Charter is particularly relevant to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Article 2, Section 4, perhaps the most important and widely-recognized item in the Charter, prohibits the “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” In Article 51, the Charter declares that “nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations.”
Ukraine, of course, although partially or totally controlled by Russia or the Soviet Union during portions of its past, has been an independent, sovereign nation since 1991. That year, the Soviet Union, in the process of disintegration, authorized Ukraine to hold a referendum on whether to become part of the Russian Federation or to become independent. In a turnout by 84 percent of the Ukrainian public, some 90 percent of participants voted for independence. Accordingly, Ukraine was recognized as an independent nation. Three years later, in the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine’s government officially agreed to turn over its large nuclear arsenal to Russia, while the Russian government officially pledged not only to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine,” but to “refrain from the threat or use of force” against that country. In 1997, Ukraine and Russia signed the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership, in which they pledged to respect one another’s territorial integrity.
The Russian Military Assaults of 2014 and 2022
Despite these actions, which have the status of international law, the Russian government, in 2014, used its military might to seize and annex Crimea in southern Ukraine and to arm pro-Russian separatist groups in the nation’s eastern region, the Donbas. Although a Russian veto blocked a UN Security Council rebuke, the UN General Assembly, on March 27, 2014, passed a resolution (“Territorial Integrity of Ukraine”) by a vote of 100 nations to 11, with 58 nations abstaining, condemning the Russian military seizure and annexation of Crimea. Ignoring this condemnation of its behavior by the world organization, the Russian government incorporated Crimea into the Russian Federation and, in August, dispatched its military forces into the Donbas to bolster the beleaguered separatists. Over the following years, Russia’s armed forces played the major role in battling the Ukrainian government’s troops defending eastern Ukraine.
Then, on February 24, 2022, the Russian government, in the most massive military operation in Europe since World War II, launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Although UN Security Council action was again blocked by a Russian veto, the UN General Assembly took up the issue. On March 2, by a vote of 141 countries to 5 (with 35 abstentions), it demanded the immediate and complete withdrawal of Russian military forces from Ukrainian territory. Asked for its opinion on the legality of the Russian invasion, the International Court of Justice, the world’s highest judicial authority, ruled on March 16, by a vote of 13 to 2 (with Russia’s judge casting one of the two negative votes) that Russia should “immediately suspend” its invasion of Ukraine.
The Illegality of Russia’s Annexation of Ukrainian Territory
In late September 2022, when the Kremlin announced that a ceremony would take place launching a process of Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that “any annexation of a state’s territory by another state resulting from the threat or use of force is a violation of the principles of the UN Charter and international law.” Denouncing the proposed annexation, Guterres declared:
- It cannot be reconciled with the international legal framework.
- It stands against everything the international community is meant to stand for.
- It flouts the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
- It is a dangerous escalation.
- It has no place in the modern world.
Nevertheless, the following day, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an accord to annex the regions, declaring that Russia would never give them up and would defend them by any means available.
In turn, the nations of the world weighed in on the Russian action. On October 12, 2022, the UN General Assembly, by a vote of 143 countries to 5 (with 35 abstentions), called on all nations to refuse to recognize Russia’s “attempted illegal annexation” of Ukrainian land.
Law Without Enforcement
What, then, after surveying this sorry record, are we to think about the value of international law? It is certainly useful for defining the rules of international behavior―rules that are essential to a civilized world. Addressing the UN Security Council recently, the UN Secretary General declared that “the rule of law is all that stands between peace and stability” and “a brutal struggle for power and resources.” Even so, although it is better to have agreed-upon rules rather than none at all, it would be better yet―indeed, much better―to have them enforced.
And therein lies the fundamental problem: Despite agreement among nations on the principles of international law, the major entities providing global governance―the United Nations and the International Court of Justice―lack the power to enforce them. Given this weakness at the global level, nations remain free to launch wars of aggression, including wars of territorial conquest.
Surely the Russian invasion of Ukraine should convince us of the need to strengthen global governance, thereby providing a firmer foundation for the enforcement of international law.
Although all wars are not imperialist wars, it is remarkable how many imperial conquests have occurred over past centuries.
Mobilizing their military forces, powerful states and, later, nations carved out vast empires at the expense of weaker or less warlike societies. Some of the largest and best-known empires to emerge over the millennia were the Persian, the Chinese, the Mongol, the Ottoman, the Russian, the Spanish, and the British.
The standard policy for these and other empires was to absorb new, conquered lands into their domains, either as parts of the mother country or as colonies. In the eighteenth century, the British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese empires used their military muscle to seize substantial portions of the Western Hemisphere from the native inhabitants. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, imperial conquest accelerated rapidly around the world. By 1913 almost all of Africa had been colonized by European powers, while Imperial Russia, having annexed its neighbors, had become the world’s largest nation. Asia, too, had fallen largely under foreign domination. Meanwhile, the United States, established by a thin string of colonies along the Atlantic coast of North America, expanded across the continent to the Pacific, mostly thanks to successful wars against Mexico and Indian nations. Thereafter it moved on to colonize Hawaii, the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam.
Rising Resistance to Imperialist Wars
But imperialist conquests didn’t sit well with the emerging democratic spirit of the early twentieth century. They didn’t sit well with the rising socialist movement that denounced imperialism as a tool of the ruling class. They didn’t sit well with subject nationality groups and nations that were beginning to demand national self-determination and independence.
Consequently, as the horrors of World War I engulfed large portions of the globe and as war-weary soldiers and the public turned increasingly against imperialist war aims, government leaders adapted to the new mood. Having, belatedly, brought the United States into an alliance with Britain and France in their war against the Central Powers, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson issued his Fourteen Points in January 1918. This document promised no secret imperialist treaties, an adjustment of colonial claims, and a League of Nations to guarantee “political independence and territorial integrity to great and small States alike.” The Fourteen Points evoked an enthusiastic response, including from the young Ho Chi Minh, who turned up at the 1919 Versailles peace conference to press for Vietnam’s independence from French colonial rule.
In many ways, the Versailles peace settlement proved a failure. The promised “self-determination” was limited to Europe, and although the League did establish a “mandate” system to prepare colonies elsewhere for independence, it merely shifted their rulers from the Central Powers to the war’s victors. Moreover, the rising fascist nations—Germany, Italy, and Japan—threw off even a pretense of favoring decolonization and launched imperialist wars in Africa, Europe, and Asia.
Important Breakthroughs and Setbacks After World War II
Ultimately, it took World War II to shatter the old colonial system. In its aftermath, the imperial powers gradually abandoned their colonial rule in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In some cases (for example, in Indonesia, Algeria, and Vietnam), they were driven out by anti-colonial revolutions. More often, however, internal agitation for independence and external pressure by the United Nations led to the advent of self-government, after 1945, in most of the former 80 colonies.
Even so, as the old-style imperialism crumbled, a newer model—replacing outright colonialism with political control through occasional military intervention—arose during the Cold War. For the most part, this new imperialism was practiced by the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan and by the United States in Latin America, and Vietnam. With the end of the Cold War, however, even the new imperialism declined.
Therefore, it came as a shock when, this February, the Russian government, having formally recognized Ukraine’s independence in 1994, launched an old-fashioned imperialist war against that nation. Only a few days before the invasion, Vladimir Putin issued a proclamation denying Ukraine’s right to an independent existence and claiming that Ukraine was “Russian land.” Not surprisingly, the UN General Assembly condemned the invasion by a vote of 141 to 5.
Although Putin justified the military assault by claiming that Ukraine’s membership in NATO would provide an existential threat to Russia, that membership was not at all imminent when the invasion occurred. A month later, when President Zelensky offered to have his nation remain neutral in exchange for a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, Putin ignored the offer. In May, when Finland and Sweden, horrified by the Russian invasion, announced plans to join NATO, Putin failed to halt it. Instead, this October, Russia annexed about a sixth of Ukraine’s territory. Nor has Putin ever renounced gobbling up the rest of Ukraine.
Stopping Imperialist Aggression
Can anything be done to bring an end to imperialist wars?
Yes, several things could be done. One that has been effective on some occasions is to mobilize an anti-imperialist movement in the aggressor nation and elsewhere. Another that has worked is for the colonized to militarily resist the imperialist power―although, of course, the human cost can be enormous. Furthermore, the international community can roundly condemn imperialist wars and refuse to recognize territorial annexations that flow from them.
Ultimately, though, the world needs a strengthened international security system that will reject both the old and the new imperialism. In some ways, the United Nations already provides this framework through the UN Charter, the power to levy economic sanctions, and a structure for the mediation of conflicts. Even so, the world organization is not yet strong enough to wipe out the vestiges of imperialist aggression. No single country―and certainly not the imperial nations of the past―has the credibility and power to tackle this project alone. But the world community might just possess enough wisdom and determination to finish the job it began a century ago.
The war in Ukraine provides us with yet another opportunity to consider what might be done about the wars that continue to ravage the world.
The current Russian war of aggression is particularly horrific, featuring a massive military invasion of a smaller, weaker nation, threats of nuclear war, widespread war crimes, and imperial annexation. But, alas, this terrible war is but one small part of a history of violent conflict that has characterized thousands of years of human existence.
Is there really no alternative to this primitive and immensely destructive behavior?
One alternative, which has long been embraced by governments, is to build up a nation’s military might to such an extent that it secures what its proponents call “Peace through Strength.” But this policy has severe limitations. A military buildup by one nation is perceived by other nations as a danger to their security. As a result, they usually respond to the perceived threat by strengthening their own armed forces and forming military alliances. In this situation, an escalating atmosphere of fear develops that often leads to war.
Actually, governments are not entirely wrong about their perception of danger, for nations with great military power really do bully and invade weaker countries. Furthermore, they wage wars against one another. These sad facts are not only demonstrated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but by the past behavior of other “great powers,” including Spain, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, China, and the United States.
If military strength brought peace, war would not have raged over the centuries or, for that matter, be raging today.
Another war-avoidance policy that governments have turned to on occasion is isolation, or, as its proponents sometimes say, “minding one’s own business.” Sometimes, of course, isolationism does keep an individual nation free from the horrors of a war engaged in by other nations. But, of course, it does nothing to stop the war—a war that, ironically, might end up engulfing that nation anyway. Also, of course, if the war is won by an aggressive, expansionist power or one grown arrogant thanks to its military victory, the isolated nation might be next on the victor’s agenda. In this fashion, short-term safety is purchased at the price of longer-term insecurity and conquest.
The More Promising Alternative
Fortunately, there is a third alternative―one that major thinkers and even, at times, national governments have promoted. And that is strengthened global governance. The great advantage of global governance is its replacement of international anarchy with international law. What this means is that, instead of a world in which each nation looks exclusively after its own interests―and thus, inevitably, ends up in competition and, eventually, conflict with other nations―there would be a world structured around international cooperation, presided over by a government chosen by the people of all nations. If this sounds a bit like the United Nations, that is because, in 1945, toward the end of the most destructive war in human history, the world organization was created with something like that in mind.
Unlike “peace through strength” and isolationism, the jury is still out when it comes to the usefulness of the United Nations along these lines. Yes, it has managed to pull the nations of the world together to discuss global issues and to create global treaties and rules, as well to avert or end many international conflicts and to use UN peacekeeping forces to separate groups engaged in violent conflict. It has also sparked global action for social justice, environmental sustainability, world health, and economic advance. On the other hand, the United Nations has not been as effective as it should be, especially when it comes to fostering disarmament and ending war. All too often the international organization remains no more than a lonely voice for global sanity in a world dominated by powerful, war-making nations.
The logical conclusion is that, if we want the development of a more peaceful world, the United Nations should be strengthened.
How the United Nations Could Be Strengthened
One of the most useful measures that could be taken would be to reform the UN Security Council. As things now stand, any one of its five permanent members (the United States, China, Russia, Britain, and France) can veto UN action for peace. And this is often what they do, enabling Russia, for example, to block Security Council action to end to its invasion of Ukraine. Wouldn’t it make sense to scrap the veto, or change the permanent members, or develop a rotating membership, or simply abolish the Security Council and turn over action for peace to the UN General Assembly―an entity that, unlike the Security Council, represents virtually all nations of the world?
Other measures to strengthen the United Nations are not hard to imagine. The world organization could be provided with taxing power, thus freeing it from the necessity for begging nations to cover its expenses. It could be democratized with a world parliament representing people rather than their governments. It could be bolstered with the tools to go beyond creating international law to actually enforcing it. Overall, the United Nations could be transformed from the weak confederation of nations that currently exists into a more cohesive federation of nations―a federation that would deal with international issues while individual nations would deal with their own domestic issues.
Against a backdrop of thousands of years of bloody wars and the ever-present danger of a nuclear holocaust, hasn’t the time arrived to dispense with international anarchy and create a governed world?
Citizens for Global Solutions stands in solidarity with all peoples and with any nation whose rights have been violated in international disputes of any kind. But at this chilling moment, we especially stand with the people of Ukraine against Russia’s illegal act of aggression. We call for adherence to international law as underscored in Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter which states that, “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” It is obvious that President Putin has violated the spirit, if not the letter, of this most primary of all international agreements.
In 1947, Citizens for Global Solutions was founded as the United World Federalists to promote the concept that peace with justice can only be possible through the creation of a democratic federation of nations. All these years later, it couldn’t be more obvious that although the United Nations has done much good in the world, as it is currently structured it is largely unable to stop military aggression across national borders. We must transform the United Nations from a confederation of nations to a United Federation of Nations with the ability, through the vehicle of a world constitution and a global legislature, to create and enforce international law in order to eliminate war and nuclear weapons, protect universal human rights, save our fragile global environment, and cooperatively manage global pandemics. It is time for all of us to demand this better method to govern our world.
Taking this broader view, we recognize that our current flawed system of global governance lacks mechanisms of law enforcement and fair adjudication—exemplified by the fact that Russia was in a position to veto the Security Council’s condemnation of their own immoral act of aggression. Instead, our current world system depends upon the good will of leaders of all nations upholding their treaty agreements and resolving disputes through diplomacy, in accord with the narrow “self-interest” of their nations. What is playing out before our eyes in Ukraine, as well as in numerous other instances since WWII, demonstrates the inadequacy of a system that depends on good will and self-interest—and ultimately on the global rule of the nation (or alliance) with the strongest military and a willingness to use it—rather than the rule of impartial justice. Situations such as the Ukraine war will only cease when we have enforceable global law and the use of world courts to settle disputes. Without these mechanisms of genuine civilization, all sides are victims of a system that cannot guarantee peace and security.
Given the absence of the just rule of enforceable world law, we call on the Security Council to enforce member agreements, which we view as the best existing means to ensure the safety and protection of innocent civilians. We also commend the International Criminal Court for its decision to open an investigation on the situation in Ukraine. Those who commit genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression must be brought to justice.