War in Ukraine could the mark the end of decades of relative global peace
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could mark a troubling shift: the end of a relatively peaceful global era.
Though it has not always felt like it, the world has since the 1990s endured less war than any other period in recorded history. Wars and resulting deaths plummeted with the conclusion of the Cold War in 1991 — and the subsequent end of direct and proxy conflicts between the world’s great powers.
“The end of the Cold War was the greatest thing to happen to peace in a long time,” said Jeremy Shapiro, the research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
But the world has since changed. After emerging from the Cold War as the lone superpower, the U.S. grew weaker, bogged down by failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Russia and China evolved into more formidable powers; they are now better positioned to challenge a world shaped by American norms and rules.
Invading Ukraine is the biggest example of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to challenge a U.S.-led order. Another is Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war. China has its own interests — in controlling Taiwan and increasing influence in East and Southeast Asia.
The strengthening alliance between Russia and China in recent years also suggests they are sketching new lines of global competition. And in response to these threats, other potential great powers, like Europe, are rebuilding their own militaries.
Peace, experts said, has not looked this fragile in decades.
How conflict receded
For much of human history, war was the norm. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, great powers battled each other most years. And in the 19th and 20th centuries, they fought in conflicts that culminated in two world wars that killed more than 100 million people and displaced tens of millions more.
But after the Cold War, the rate of new conflicts fell more than half, according to Bear Braumoeller, an international security expert at Ohio State University. The conflicts that did occur were on a smaller scale. Deaths from war plummeted. (Part of that decrease was also thanks to militaries getting better at treating wounded soldiers.)
The drop was unprecedented, William Wohlforth, an international relations expert at Dartmouth College, told me. “We can’t find another period with a shift in conflict trends that compares,” he said.
Several ingredients factored into this peace. There was a lack of great power competition; no country could seriously challenge the United States. Nuclear weapons also continued to deter nations from warring against each other, given the potentially apocalyptic consequences. An increasingly integrated global economy made any war a risk to everyone’s continued growth. And peacekeeping institutions, like the U.N. and the E.U., created outlets for countries to try to settle disputes and enforce antiwar rules (although not always successfully).
Another element: Great power is no longer synonymous with an appetite for conquest. U.S. officials in the nation’s century as a superpower have viewed attempts to take over other countries as a direct route to sinking the world order they had built and led. America’s own acts of aggression — in Vietnam, Panama, Iraq and elsewhere — were aimed at upholding that order, however flawed the justifications.
Russia and China never liked the idea of a U.S.-led world order. For decades, both have called for a new structure in which they get a bigger, or even dominant, say over how the world works.
Russia has its own imperial ambitions in Eastern Europe, and it views NATO’s expansion toward its western doorstep as an existential threat.
China has benefited economically from the liberal order and globalization. But its leaders also want to oppress domestic dissidents, the democratic government in Taiwan, protesters in Hong Kong and predominantly Muslim Uighurs, among others, without outside interference.
These are longstanding goals for Russia and China, but they now have a greater ability to act on their beliefs. Putin has cemented his rule after more than two decades in power, and in that time he moved to modernize Russia’s military (though the stalemate in Ukraine has exposed major weaknesses). China has grown its economy to a point that it may soon rival the United States’, and it is expanding its military power and regional influence as well.
That could lead to more great power competition — potentially through a new wave of proxy wars between these countries and the West or, worse, direct conflict.
But any great shift in the world order hinges largely on what China does, as the only real rival to the U.S. Given the risks of war, China could continue to pursue its interests with economic or diplomatic levers over military force, said Stacie Goddard, an international security expert at Wellesley College.
China also has repeatedly called for respecting every nation’s sovereignty. There are good reasons to be skeptical of that pledge, including China’s interests in Taiwan and its continued support for Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. But if China means it, the war in Ukraine could end up looking less like a sign of what is to come and more like a deadly last gasp from the Cold War era.
Credit: New York Times Morning Letter