The Liberal International Order in Turmoil

Russia's invasion of Ukraine shook the liberal international order of the 20th century as well as the confidence-building process in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

By Yuichi Hosoya


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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shook the liberal international order of the 20th century as well as the confidence-building process in Europe since the end of the Cold War. Can we restore a stable international order again?

Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine which began on February 24, 2022, was not merely an armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. This will shake up the post-World War II international order and have a colossal impact that will transform the future of global politics. Japan cannot be a bystander to the tectonic shift caused by the war in Ukraine.

Since 2014, there has been intermittent fighting in eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian army and Russian armed soldiers. However, the recent invasion of Ukraine by the Russian military means that the situation has clearly entered a new stage.

This was the first major war fought between European powers since World War II. Having learned from two world wars, Europe has promoted the development of international law which outlawed warfare, and the establishment of peace through integration. Academics argued that war is no longer possible in post-Cold War Europe and that war between great powers is a thing of the past. However, we now face a reality that such hopes and ideals are limited to the member states of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and do not necessarily apply to the entire continent of Europe.

To understand this war, it is important to look at the nature of the post-Cold War European international order which includes Russia, and the way in which it has changed historically. This is because Russian President Vladimir Putin has often argued that the reason for the recent military attack was that NATO broke its initial “promise” and expanded eastward, thereby threatening Russia’s security. He believes that the post-Cold War European security order has evolved due to the expansion of U.S. hegemony.

In this article, we aim to better grasp the significance of the Ukraine war in the context of world history and its implications for the international order in the 21st century. We will review the development of the liberal international order in the 20th century and the transition of the post-Cold War European security order.

The War in Ukraine Shook the Foundations of the International Order

In response to the start of the war in Ukraine, on February 24, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida strongly condemned the Russian invasion as “shaking the foundation of the international order.” On February 1, prior to the outbreak of the war, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met with President Zelensky in Ukraine. He spoke against Russian aggression, which he said threatens regional peace and security and undermines the global order. I would like to bring attention to the fact that both British and Japanese prime ministers have spoken about the international order in their speeches.

As seen in these two statements, it is becoming evident that Russia’s use of military intimidation and force not only takes the lives of Ukrainians but also shakes or may even destroy the very foundations of the international order. This has become a global concern. “International order,” like the word “state,” is not tangible, and is a shared abstract concept that is based on shared norms and principles. If they are lost, and norms and principles are rejected, there will be chaos and disorder. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine could lead to the collapse of the international order, something we have been taking for granted. What would this mean?

During the 20th century, the international community has undergone a great transformation. After two world wars, the League of Nations and the United Nations have sought peace and stability in the form of collective security. This is a system that differs from the conventional idea of ​​increasing military power on a national basis and views the international community as a whole and positions aggression against it as a threat to the entire international community.

However, the League of Nations was limited due to its attempt to achieve collective security because it relied solely on economic sanctions and international public opinion. Furthermore, the League member states were obliged to reduce their armaments to the minimum necessary level, which greatly disrupted the balance of power. The balance of power collapsed when Japan, Italy, and Germany withdrew from the League and were released from their disarmament obligations.

The world had learned its lesson, and a movement to make war illegal, which developed in the Covenant of the League of Nations in 1919 and the Treaty of Paris in 1928, was inherited by the Charter of the United Nations in 1945.

Furthermore, the United Nations was now able to impose not only economic sanctions but also military sanctions. The end of the Cold War eased military tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and the collapse of the Soviet Union led to optimism that we will see further developments in the ideology of liberal democracy and the principles of ​​a market economy, as well as the outlawing of war and collective security. In addition, it was assumed that countries with a smaller military scale than Russia, such as the Baltic states and Georgia, would be assured of security to some extent by international law and organizations. But such happy times did not come.

The current Russian aggression raises serious doubts both in terms of its legality under international law and the legitimacy of the grounds for the outbreak of war. That is not all. Rarely has there been such a blatant violation of international law and deviation from international norms by a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It goes against the spirit of the UN Charter, which the Soviet government also signed in 1945. Furthermore, when conducting a military attack, Russia conducts war as if it ignores not only the law of waging war (jus ad bellum) but also the law of conducting war (jus in bello). In other words, a wide range of serious war crimes have been committed, such as the indiscriminate killing of combatants and non-combatants, and the alleged use of highly lethal cluster munitions.

On March 9, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that 41 countries, including Japan, had referred the situation in Ukraine to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for an investigation into a war crime. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine was “an attempt to unilaterally change the status quo by force and constitute an act that shakes the foundations of the international order,” and was “a clear violation of international law and totally unacceptable.” It stated that Japan strongly condemns these actions.

Russia’s war is an action that undermines collective security norms laid out by the UN Charter and the laws and norms set out by the 1949 Geneva Conventions on the use of force. It is this understanding that is behind the intense criticism from the international community and the unprecedented level of broad economic sanctions that have been implemented.

True or False: The “Promise” of No NATO Eastward Expansion

Another important background that led to the Ukraine war is the post-Cold War transformation of the security order in Europe. The first issue was the unification of Germany and NATO afterward; the second was the stabilization of the regime changes in the former Eastern European countries. The third was building a relationship with the former Soviet Union after its collapse. These three issues overlapped each other, creating various destabilizing elements.

Of particular interest is whether the U.S. government or NATO had made a promise to Russia that NATO would not expand eastward during the negotiations at the end of the Cold War. This is because President Putin is using this as an excuse to justify the current military action.

It is often pointed out that during the meeting in Moscow on February 9, 1990, the U.S. Secretary of State James Baker made a “promise” to President Gorbachev that NATO would not expand even “one inch” eastward after the end of the Cold War. The U.S. diplomatic record does indicate that such remarks by Baker have been made, but they were not necessarily a formal proposal by the U.S. government or a resolution of NATO’s North Atlantic Council. Nor was it an agreement ratified in writing by both parties.

According to studies of diplomatic history, the promise is nothing more than a provisional proposal made among other various proposals by Baker in his personal capacity in order to obtain the approval of the Soviet government for the realization of German unification. Equally important, it was reconfirmed in 1997 that there was no such agreement between the U.S. and Russia when the decision was made to expand NATO eastward.

In the European security order of the 1990s, deepening cooperation between NATO and Russia was a priority issue. In that context, Russia did not necessarily feel a realistic threat of a military attack from NATO. The turning point was at the 2008 Bucharest NATO summit when then U.S. President Bush attempted to start the process of nominating Ukraine and Georgia as candidates for NATO membership. However, even then negotiations for the accession of the two countries did not start due to the opposition of Germany and France, which were wary of alarming Russia. Since then, they were removed from NATO’s realistic agenda.

However, Russia must have become concerned about the possibility of former Soviet countries joining NATO. Putin’s sense of alarm and distrust heightened at once with the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine in 2014, resulting in Russia’s annexation of half of Crimea using military threats. Relations between NATO and Russia have decisively deteriorated since.

Scope of the Budapest Accord

Russia’s action to unilaterally overturn the agreement on Ukraine’s territorial integrity and non-aggression on its borders, and the current invasion is a tectonic shift that we have not seen in the last thirty years. To understand this issue, we must go back to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 was triggered by the Ukrainian declaration of independence on August 24, 1991. The most important diplomatic issue at that time was how to deal with the nuclear missiles that had been deployed and equipped in large numbers in Ukraine after its independence. Regarding this issue, at the Budapest Conference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 1994, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan decided to abandon their domestic nuclear weapons (and transfer them to Russia), and at the same time, the nuclear powers Russia, the U.S., and the U.K agreed to respect the independence and sovereignty of the three former Soviet countries and refrain from using military force. In other words, it stipulated that the three nuclear states that signed the treaty would guarantee the security and borders of the three former Soviet countries in exchange for their compliance with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Furthermore, in the Russian-Ukrainian Friendship Treaty between Russia and Ukraine in 1997, Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity and non-aggression on its borders.

Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and its recent military invasion of Ukraine are clear violations of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the 1997 Russian-Ukrainian Friendship Treaty. In other words, in addition to violating international norms, Russia also undermined the bilateral agreements with Ukraine, thereby fundamentally destroying the foundations of the stability of the European order.

In this way, it is important to position Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine as an attempt to destroy the liberal international order of the 20th century and alter the post-Cold War European security order. This would undermine the rules-based international order that Japanese diplomacy has upheld and promoted. If that is the case, then Japan must exert even greater pressure on Russia, in solidarity with other countries, to stop the acts that shake the very foundations of the international order. Failure to do so would mean a denial of the principles of Japanese diplomacy.

This article is a translation of the Japanese original published in vol. 72 March/April 2022  of the Gaiko (Diplomacy) magazine.

Yuichi Hosoya is a professor at Keio University and an editorial member of the Gaiko magazine. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Keio University Graduate School, Division of Law, in 2000. He is the author of Rinriteki na sensou (Ethical Warfare), Kokusai Chitsujo (International Order), Meisou suru Igirisu (Straying Britain) among others.


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