The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’
The maps are in flux again, and so is the fate of many nations.
Putin did what was thought to be unthinkable by many. He has launched a brazen attack across the internationally recognized borders and brought the existing Ukrainian state to the brink of extinction. But why was this act considered highly unusual or even unthinkable by many? What are the implications of this act for the World Order? After all, since the dawn of history, numerous such events have occurred. States have been attacked, states (and nations) have been destroyed, and the lines on maps have shifted many a time. We can’t even say that these things haven’t happened in the “modern” world.
From Napoleon to Hitler, many have played fast and loose with the lines on maps and the “sanctity” of Westphalian states. We can’t even say that such events haven’t come to pass in the post-World War II era. The Soviet invasion of Hungary (1956), Joint Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt (1956), Israel’s redrawing the borders of the Middle East through fire and blood (1967), India’s invasion of East Pakistan (1971), and the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979) are just a few examples. We can’t even say that invasions stopped after the cold war’s culmination.
The Gulf war (1991), the US invasion of Afghanistan (2001), and the US invasion of Iraq (2003) are pertinent examples. But now we are coming closer to the point. While in all other above-mentioned periods barring this one, the “invasions” haven’t been a monopoly of any single geopolitical grouping, in the post-cold war period, the USA (and its allies) had monopolized the right to invade. This “exclusive right to invade” was one of the most vivid symbols of unipolar world order, a “rules-based” world order in which the rules were set on the orders of “the West”. Putin has now encroached upon this exclusive domain and opened a huge Pandora’s box.
Periods in which a single geopolitical group monopolizes the right to invade have also been seen in the past. The most pertinent example is that of 1918 when after winning the First World War the allies (the USA, UK, and France) barred the rest of the world from invasions. A “rules-based world order” was created which enforced the sovereignty and freedom of all nation-states based on ethnic and linguistic criteria of nationhood. But there were exceptions. Ho Chi Minh’s appeal to President Wilson of the USA for granting these same rights to Vietnam was rudely ignored because Vietnam was under French oppression (or “civilizing mission”) then. The same was the case for India (Jalianwala 1919), the Arabs and Africans, etc. Basically, you could invade, loot, decimate and humiliate nations or nation-states as long as you belonged to the club of victors.
So, now we are close to establishing a historical principle. The principle being,
“When the victors of a global conflict (world war, cold war, etc) bring “peace” and claim exclusive policing powers to “maintain peace”, that “Peace” and “Order” holds as long as the victors maintain this grip and monopoly.”
Whenever the up-starts challenge the World Order of victors, it creates the roots of a new conflagration.
Let’s dive into the history of the end of the post-world war 1 global order and try to gaze into our own future. On 18 September 1931, Japan brazenly attacked the Chinese region of Manchuria. By March 1932, Japan had cemented its control of Manchuria and created a new puppet state by the name of “Manchukuo” there. Japan’s invasion was the first such invasion after World War 1, and it challenged the existing world order explicitly. The USA responded with the “Stimson Doctrine”, but all measures of the status-quo powers pushed Japan more towards the forces challenging the existing order. Thus, the 1930s became a tumultuous decade in which Germany, Japan, and Italy formed an anti-status-quo alliance and events like the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (1934), Japanese full-scale war with China (1937), the German annexation of Austria and Czechia (in which Poland and Hungary also took part), German/Soviet invasion of Poland (1939) and Soviet invasions of Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Finland (1939-40).
As we all know, the last two are considered to have occurred within the Second World War. This brings us back to Mr. Putin, and the Pandora’s box he has opened. It’s the same box that was opened by the Japanese on 18 September 1931. Putin has shattered the existing “rules-based” world order. He has demonstrated that now all states can again invoke their right to invade others. In trying to maintain her carefully crafted world order, the USA had tried to restrict actors other than herself from invasions. Now, that will change as well. Events such as Ukraine’s invasion will lead to embolden would-be invaders (belonging to all blocs) and provide justification to them. This will greatly endanger the security of weaker nations that have aggressive and covetous neighbors.
Speaking of aggressive and covetous neighbors, Saffron-clad, fire-breathing, looting, and pillaging goons come to mind.
Now, Modi also knows that the times have changed and so does the World Order. Fait accompli is the new normal. Now, no “rules-based” order will discourage him from invoking his right to invade. The only thing that will deter him from invading Pakistan (and Azad Kashmir) in the future is Pakistan’s own potential to resist. The likes of Naftali Bennett will now feel encouraged to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. Iran might deem it quite proper to hurl missiles at the UAE. China might think of embracing its renegade province of Taiwan in a tight bear hug. Germany and Japan might re-militarize with American blessing and start some adventures of their own.
In short, the façade of international law and the perception of the sanctity of lines on maps has been decisively destroyed by Mr. Putin. Now, the insecurity of the world has been laid bare for the strong and the weak to behold. Events are coming to a head, and the next few short years might well decide which nation will thrive, which will survive, which will be truncated, and which will be obliterated. Surely, we don’t want to be part of the latter two categories. But, to ensure our security, we need to understand that in the world of today only our own unity, willpower, hard work, and resilience will bring us success and security. No one from abroad will gallop to our rescue. We have so far failed to learn that lesson despite our bitter experience of 1971. If we fail to heed it now, we might well end up in the wastebasket of history. We don’t want that at all but now this nightmare has become a possibility because:
The maps are in flux again, and so is the fate of many nations.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the South Asia Times.