Wars start in the most unexpected of places. World War I was triggered not in Berlin, St. Petersburg, Vienna, London, Paris, or Istanbul, but on the streets of Sarajevo by several shots fired by the Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914. A few years earlier, on Oct. 26, 1909, the Japanese statesman Itô Hirobumi was assassinated by Korean nationalist Ahn Jung-Geun on the platform of the railway station in the remote Manchurian town of Harbin. This proved a landmark incident ultimately enveloping all of East Asia. And the irredentist instinct of Adolf Hitler to absorb ethnic German populations (the Sudetendeutsche) from Silesia, Moravia, and Bohemia was a cause of World War II. The temporary truce negotiated in Munich in September 1938 has remained in history as a synonym of appeasement.
So what are we to make now of Simferopol? Hardly a household name, the capital of Crimea, along with highly unfamiliar Ukrainian place names such Donetsk and Luhansk, may well resonate as epicenters of tension for some time. Crimea has certainly been off the global beaten track for a long time. Nor since the “Orange Revolution” that occurred 10 years ago has Ukraine featured prominently on anyone’s radar screen. In the more than 50 pages of the World Economic Forum Global Risks 2014 Report, the words Crimea and Ukraine do not appear once. So does the Ukrainian crisis signal the return of revengeful European ghosts from the past?
The answer is almost certainly “no.” The Ukrainian situation may turn nastier, but it will not propel Europe into war. Europe, including Russia, no longer has the demographic, economic, military, political and geopolitical dynamics it possessed in the past. In that sense, we have witnessed the “end of European history”–that Europe has reached a post-modern stage which has displaced the earlier eras of empires, armies and ideologues. A reenactment of the enthusiasm with which Europeans went gaily off to war in the summer of 1914 is impossible to imagine in 2014. We were young then, we are old now.
Ukraine is a detour on the ineluctable march of history beyond European frontiers and toward the East. The narratives of the 19th and 20th centuries were written in Europe, but the narrative of the 21st century will be written in Asia, extending from the Persian Gulf to the East and South China seas.
However, the Ukrainian crisis does demonstrate how the global ship is in turbulent seas without a rudder, without a proper compass, and without proper pilots. Though the US, apart from Russia of course, is the only power seeking to impose itself in this region, Washington has lost credibility. The decline of the US–and the degree to which the American people prefer emphatically to disengage from global issues–is made further evident by these developments. As recent surveys have shown quite conclusively, a very large proportion of Americans suffer from Afghan/Iraqi wars fatigue and want to see a future where they can cultivate their own garden.
What Ukraine also highlights in spades is the degree to which recent 21st century transitions are not leading to a “new global order,” but to a “new global disorder.” The post-American order is generally presented as occurring simultaneously with the “rise of the rest.”
So where, one may well ask, are the rest? Let us look at the capitals of the new members of the G20—which is meant to expand the G8 to include “emerging” powers. Buenos Aires, Brasilia, Beijing, Delhi, Jakarta, Seoul, Mexico City, Riyadh, Pretoria, and Istanbul have not made any particularly interesting policy statement. It is also highly unlikely that any collective initiative will emerge. There has been nothing from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and nor is it probable that the 2014 “BRICS Summit,” scheduled for July in Fortaleza, will do anything that might indicate the rise of a new order. While on the global agenda and global institutions, the emerging powers have wanted to be at the global governance high table, with Brazil and India also pursuing permanent membership of the UN Security Council. But now that they are there—they have nothing to say. The silence on Ukraine corresponds to a broader and deeper syndrome.
This can be illustrated by Beijing’s attempt to hide the outcome of a World Bank study showing that in fact in GDP terms China has already taken over the US. Chinese leaders wince at the idea of the responsibilities that being the world’s biggest economy would entail.
The Ukrainian crisis is not a harbinger of a new cold war or in any way a return of Europe to global center stage. Rather, it provides yet another flagrant illustration of the fact that in respect to global governance the world is making a most chaotic transition to a new global disorder.
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