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Ukraine and Westphalia

I have fallen behind in reporting on Westphalia in the news. Here is a down payment toward catching up, starting with two articles relating to Ukraine. The Global System Has Failed. Ukraine Is Showing the World How to Build A Better One, published in Time, is written by a Ukrainian political figure. He considers the existing world order, established at Westphalia, to be broken because of the failed response to Russian aggression. Unfortunately, his argument seems a bit muddled and I’m not sure it’s consistent with itself. He begins with the fascinating comment that “Clockwork toys, robots’ mechanical ancestors, became fashionable with the European royal courts during the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century.” This is true, and I have wondered myself what effect it had on political thinking, and diplomacy in particular. But the author is only able to connect mechanical toys vaguely to a new “world order” based on principles commonly associated with Westphalia, such as state sovereignty. “All the subsequent systems,” he continues, reference Vienna (1815) and Versailles (1919), “were in fact more or less successful attempts to amend this order to ensure the balance of interests of leading states (known as the Great Powers).” But balancing interests is not the same as enforcing rules like sovereignty. In order to maintain the balance, sometimes sovereignty must be compromised, and frequently was in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The author asserts that “Moscow has consciously chosen the path of international relations archaization” by ignoring international law and violating agreements. To the contrary, Russia continues to pay lip service to the sanctity of international agreements. They repeatedly call attention to Ukraine’s alleged violation of an agreement from 2015 regarding the Donbas region, and they have framed the current war as the rescue of the Russian minority living there. It is true that this assertion is hollow and is believed by no one, but surely it is significant that Russia has not tried to justify its aggression by the fact that its own security is threatened by having a hostile alliance on its border. If they wanted to throw out the old order of agreements, this would have been the logical path rather than clinging to justifications that would theoretically appeal to other nations if they were true.

The author then argues that NATO has double standards when it comes to accepting Ukraine and Georgia into its alliance — a process that dragged on for years and was never consummated — versus its rapid acceptance of Sweden and Finland. But this ignores the “balance” issue that he brought up previously. No one operating under the Concert of Europe after 1815 would have thought it an acceptable plan to create an alliance with other stands surrounding one of the major powers. It is true, again, that this undermines sovereignty, but sovereignty was not really part of Westphalia’s legacy.

The authoer confidently presents the fact that Europe, and the world, have not sufficiently punished Russia (by Ukrainian standards, at least) as evidence that international law has failed. He seems not to notice the crucial fact that Russia has a large nuclear arsenal, and any moves against it bring the risk of a war that would devastate Ukraine and many other countries as well. Even the military supplies that Ukraine has received from the West come at some risk. The idea of implementing something so aggressive as a no-fly zone over Ukraine seems to be dicing with nuclear holocaust in a war that Ukraine is already winning.

My heart is with Ukraine, as it is with any independent people who regard themselves as a people and who are unjustly denied independence. However, international relations are not only a matter of justice, but also of war and destruction, and one must balance the two carefully. Justice accompanied by peace is a blessing, but justice followed by war becomes an even greater injustice to many people who are killed, wounded, and impoverished by the conflict. We can’t pretend that letting Ukraine into NATO would not be a provocative move in Russian eyes. Accepting other Eastern European countries into the alliance was also provocative, but not on the scale of Ukraine, Russia’s neighbour and long time member province. There is no world order if we proceed to act as though our choices have no repercussions among other powerful states.

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