At a joint EU-US news-conference on 26 March 2014, Presidents Barroso, Van Rompuy, and Obama discussed the problematic Russian invasion of the Crimea province of Ukraine. The “chairman” of the European Council and the “chief executive” of the European Commission both responded to concerns that the European Union had not stood up to its business interests in order to enact economic sanctions capable of putting Putin back in his pen. Even though the two EU presidents sought to "puff up" the force latent in the sanctions already in place, Barroso insightfully made the more significant point that invading parties just aren't done in the new century. In this essay, my task is to sideline the debate over whether the EU had not stood up to its domestic commercial interests in favor of Barroso's much more significant point concerning a paradigm shift whose time of recognition has come in the new millennium.
Did President Obama miss a chance to put Putin's exploits into historical perspective? President Barroso may have come out of the news conference as the visionary leader.
(Image Source: Reuters)
The turn from one century to another is admittedly artificial as far as empirical (i.e., observed) change is concerned “on the ground.” Even so, a temporal benchmark, especially if involving a new millenium, can spark a “taking stock” of gradual shifts in values and practices that would otherwise go unnoticed in their accumulated significance. Put another way, while turning 50 does not instantaneously trigger the symptoms of aging, the milestone birthday can prompt a person to recognize that he or she is no longer young.
To the people who came of age in the twentieth century, the twenty-first is virtually synonymous with innovation. This really is saying something, given how much technological innovation took place during the twentieth century—daily life in the previous centuries having differed only modestly from each other. Of course, innovation in one sphere, such as electronics and transportation, does not necessarily spark development in other spheres, such as political organization. From the vantage-point of the early twenty-first century, therefore, I submit that a certain amount of impatience regarding “old habits that die hard” is quite understandable. With daily life so novel and open-ended grace á computer technology, it is only natural to perceive Putin’s “Hitleresque” military adventurism into Ukraine as antiquated as stale smoke in a “smokeless city.” Being unaccustomed to people smoking in hotels, bars, and restaurants, a person might be shocked at a smoker’s stubborn refusal to be courteous and say, “That just isn’t done anymore.” To the smoker in a decadent establishment (and city), the non-smoker’s objection is easily dismissed.
Similarly, Putin undoubtedly found it quite easy to dismiss the public statements of political leaders around the world critical of (and likely shocked by) his blazen land-grab. Invading other countries just isn’t done anymore, yet there was Putin willfully violating the post-World War II norm anyway. Ironically, he could go right along with his “bad habit” with virtually impunity on account of the existing system of international governance, whose growth had been stunted by the antiquated notion of “absolute national sovereignty” that had been espoused by Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes centuries earlier. Putin’s selective recognition of national sovereignty (i.e., Russia’s but not Ukraine’s) is but one sign that the existing global governance system is, like the US Articles of Confederation in the eighteenth century, structurally unsound. Not coincidently, so too is the structural and procedural over-emphasis of the state governments in the EU (hence the mitigated sanctions against Russia).
Beyond the impotence of the United Nations and the imbalances in both the American and European empire-scale federal systems lies the true significance of the world’s novel perception of Putin’s power-grab beyond Russia’s borders. President Barroso made the point in the news conference. The real problem is this, he said; “in the twenty-first century it’s just not acceptable that one big power takes part of another sovereign country recognized by the United Nations.” The world had significantly changed—the people had changed—such that Hitler simply would not be tolerated in the modern, or post-modern, admittedly “high-tech” novel context. The matter of economic costs that the EU and US were seeking to impose on Russia pales in comparison, according to the EU Commission’s head. Obama only vaguely touched on the central motif, yet crucially without differentiating the current century from the last, very bloody, one. “It’s about the kind of world in which we live,” he said, including respect for national sovereignty and international law, both of which Russia violated in invading Ukraine.
Whereas pallid calls to respect other countries’ respective national sovereignties and international law could easily be heard as antiquated in themselves by 2014, the notion that the old bad military habits were no longer acceptable in the new millennium was new; accordingly, the “game change” required an infusion of energy to counter the spinning inertia of the old habits that die hard, if at all. By analogy, an old smoker mired in his old ways as a sort of ongoing entitlement might need to be escorted out of a bar or restaurant in a newly “smokeless city” before the message sinks in. Generally speaking, a person used to doing something as it’s always been done will need to feel the considerable force of the “new rules” for them to have any effect. In terms of international relations, the problem facing the civilized world is how to apply the force without resorting to the (also antiquated) knee-jerk military response.
I suspect that coming up with the requisite energy to apply as an obstacle capable of effecting the “game change” of the new century “on the ground” must involve standing up to domestic commercial interests that naturally oppose economic sanctions that hurt the bottom line. By implication, development of international governance mechanisms not based on the historical notion of absolute sovereignty is vital as well. At least with regard to the EU, the commercial interests and their political patrons seemed unwilling to make the self-sacrifice necessary to amass the sort of “new energy” necessary to expunge the old-time bully from his exploits as if to say, you really cannot do that anymore.
In short, the muted sanctions against Russia really point to the lapsed state of new alternative “energy sources” and corresponding international governance mechanisms capable of transmitting a voltage capable of putting up a “fire wall” without a myriad of obstacles poking holes in it. By not taking sufficient stock of the energy required to stop the well-grooved momentum of yesteryear from coming around again, governmental officials around the world are holding the new millennium back from breaking through—and with it, a sorely needed burst of fresh air.