The desire for world order has become so universal over the past century that even as Russian troops were taking Crimea at gunpoint in February, President Vladimir Putin felt impelled to cite “international norms” to justify the action. Most countries didn’t buy his arguments, however, for what was really a power grab to redraw boundaries by force.
Now Russia has been tossed from the club of wealthy democracies known as the Group of Eight, isolated by sanctions, and cold-shouldered in many other ways. There is a rush to restore the global order.
The immediate task is to prevent further Russian aggression in the rest of Ukraine. But behind that goal lies the need to refute Mr. Putin’s clever misuse of world rules and norms. The international system cannot afford to have a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council – one whose territory spans 11 time zones and houses nuclear missiles – operate outside its borders on its own norms, in pursuit of what Putin calls “Russian civilization.”
The world today relies on so many global institutions, from air-traffic control to UN peacekeeping. Before World War II, norms were largely set by empires and mainly to avoid conflicts. Since then, rules have been codified in global bodies and trade pacts, in large part to uplift all nations, and led by the United States. Private activist groups also took up the spread of universal ideals, such as freedom of speech. Today, the Internet empowers the individual to define values and interests that are shared across borders.
Norms are no longer only a necessity to keep the peace but also to further progress. Twisting them for national gain, as Putin and many other leaders try to do, only heightens a demand to embed them as a permanent fixture on the global landscape. There’s no going back.
Europe has done the most to shape universal norms, such as respect for national sovereignty, starting first in the 17th century but lately with the European Union. The EU now includes 28 countries that, at least most of time, put the group’s economic and political interests ahead of national concerns. It was the EU’s effort to extend that experiment to Ukraine that incited Putin’s drive to re-create a mini-Russian empire.
The last major challenge to the world order was the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. That ended the cold war and its largely stable balance-of-power standoff between communism and free-market ideals. With foresight, President George H.W. Bush wrote a letter to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, asking for his help to define “a new world order.”
Later, in a speech to Congress, Mr. Bush said: “What is at stake is more than one small country. It is a big idea, a new world order where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind, peace and security, freedom and the rule of law.” Since then, many global bodies have been put in place, especially on nuclear security.
Putin’s actions in Crimea have not shattered the current order. But they have shaken it. At some point, either President Obama or a European leader might approach the Russian leader, as Mr. Bush did with Mr. Gorbachev, and work to patch up the international norms. No one country is strong enough, even the US or Russia, to defy the deep desire to keep – and improve – them.