How the Peace was Lost
February 15, 2024
  • Richard Sakwa
    Professor Emeritus, University of Kent, UK
    Author of The Lost Peace: How the West Failed to Prevent a Second Cold War (Yale University Press, 2023).
Richard Sakwa explains why after three decades and all the hopes vested in a positive peace order after the end of the First Cold War in 1989, Europe is once again trapped in a more amorphous but no less dangerous Second Cold War.
The anticipated new peace order after the end of the Cold War in 1989 came to a dramatic and catastrophic end. The conundrum at the heart of the failure remains unresolved. After all, the anticipated ‘new world order’, to use President George H. W. Bush’s phrase, had long been maturing within the carapace of cold war conflict.

In the West, there was a degree of popular revulsion against the escalation of militarism, as evidenced in the enormous growth in various peace movements in the early 1980s, protesting in particular about the deployment of cruise and Pershing missiles to Europe. Technically, NATO planners had a point in arguing that the move was a response to the Soviet Union’s deployment of SS-20 intermediate-range cruise missiles. However, the protests signalled that it was the fundamental cold war rationality – or lack of it – that was being challenged.
Mikhail Gorbachev addressing the UN General Assembly in December 1988. Source: Wiki Commons
Failed anticipations of peace

In the Soviet Union, the ‘new political thinking’ that would give rise to Mikhail Gorbachev’s radical rethinking of foreign policy priorities had long been gathering strength within the institutes of the Soviet Academy of Science, and more broadly within society itself. Gorbachev’s perestroika did not come out of the blue, but was a response to the long pent-up demand – and necessity – for change. This was given voice in the various movements in support of the implementation of the ‘third basket’ human rights provisions of the Helsinki Final Act of August 1975.

In short, the first Cold War ended amidst anticipations of the transformation of the structure of international politics. This was to be a transformation that reverted to the highest ideals of the peaceful management of international affairs vested in the creation of the United Nations in 1945. The Charter international system established at that time provided the context for international politics that endures – just – to this day. It was to the universal norms embedded in the UN Charter to which Gorbachev appealed in putting an end to the Cold War. It was certainly not a capitulation to the power of the Western allies, or simply a response to the various crises that had long been evident in the Soviet economy and society.

A positive peace order looked possible. The Cold War had been a negative peace. By the end, conflict management had achieved a high degree of professionalism and was embedded in numerous practices, notably in a ramified system of arms control and various confidence building measures, building on the Helsinki declaration. The Moscow leadership hoped to take the next step – working towards a positive peace built on trust and cooperation, within the norms established by the UN Charter and the body of international law devised on its foundations.

All this has now gone.
Even the talk of peace appears anachronistic and hopelessly out of touch with current realities.”
The talk now is of a ‘pre-war situation’, as argued by the British defence minister, Grant Shapps. This makes it all the more important to examine how the peace was lost in the post-Cold War years, and on the basis of that analysis, to think of possible pathways to a renewed peace agenda. That is the ambition of my book, The Lost Peace.

We need to start a debate about how to put peace back on the agenda, before we ‘sleepwalk’ inexorably into World War III. Some, like Emmanuel Todd, argue that in fact the third world war has already begun. In certain respects he is right, and that makes it all the more urgent to devise a counter-narrative focused not on war but on peace. For that, we need to examine what went wrong after 1989, and on that basis lessons may be learned.

Losing the peace – a conceptual analysis

The Charter international system created a framework for international law, global governance, and humanitarian engagement, and it was to this universal order that any renewed project for peace must appeal. Unlike after the evident failure of the Versailles international system, there are no alternative ideas waiting in the wings. It is the Charter international system, or a global anarchy the like of which we have not seen since the 1930s. Of course, some argue that we are indeed back to the earlier age, but this is a distinctively Western perspective. By contrast, Russia, China, and most of the global South repeatedly invoke the Charter system and its principles as the bedrock of international politics. It is another matter that the invocation is as much honoured in the breach as in practice, but the normative appeal is important. Its increasing denial in the heartlands of the West is no less disturbing.
Why is the political West giving up on the international system that it did so much to create?
Admission of the Federal Republic of Germany into NATO. May 1955. Source: Wiki Commons
The answer takes us to the heart of international political developments in the post-Cold War era. First, during the first Cold War a political West was created, combining an expanded version of the two wings of the wartime Atlantic alliance. The US-led political West combined normative and power concerns. The former derived from the Atlantic Charter of August 1941, including Washington’s anti-colonial sentiments and an appeal to democracy to rally the fight against Nazi Germany. These principles were then incorporated wholesale into the Washington Treaty creating NATO in 1949.

The creation of NATO formalised the anti-Soviet alliance system, reinforced by the development of a ramified security state in the US and its equivalents in other allied countries. There are plenty of tensions and contradictions within the political West, but alliance management has traditionally been one of Washington’s main concerns. It has also been jealous of its prerogatives, blocking the development of a separate European defence and security identity. In recent years the strivings of the European Union for a degree of ‘strategic autonomy’ were resisted, and the Ukraine war from 2022 has put paid to the idea for the duration. Bloc politics is back with a vengeance.
Conference at the Council of Ministers Palace in Warsaw during which the Warsaw Pact was signed. May, 1955. Source: Wiki Commons
Second, after 1989-91 the political West radicalised. In the absence of the Soviet Union, which slid from the tableau of contemporary history in December 1991, both the norms and the power relations of the political West rushed to fill the perceived vacuum. This came as a surprise to Moscow, which denied that a vacuum existed. Gorbachev and his successors, Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s and Vladimir Putin from 2000, believed that it would be Charter internationalism that would prevail. With the ideological and military divisions of the Cold War over, it was envisaged that UN system would come into its own. This would not prevent the US exercising appropriate leadership, as it did in leading the coalition against Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait in August 1990 (with the USSR in support), but hegemony was something else entirely.

The American hegemony and enewed contestation

Hegemony is derived from representations of US exceptionalism, which in turn generates a universalism that is intolerant of other centres of power and influence. The long-term normative aspect was reshaped in the form of liberal hegemony. This is reminiscent of the liberal imperialism practised by Britain in the nineteenth century, where domination was couched in the language of the standard of civilisation. In the 1990s, liberal hegemony fostered illusions of enduring unipolar predominance, but by the 2010s it was clear that Russia for one was not prepared to accept a subaltern position.
Unlike Germany, France or Japan, Russia was not prepared to retire from the ranks to become just another legacy great power.”
In his Munich speech in February 2007 Putin said that "the use of force can only be considered legitimate if the decision is sanctioned by the UN" and called for leaving behind the "disdain for international law". Source: Wiki Commons
It was then joined by China, while a growing host of middle powers in the global South also refuse to return to the walk-on role to which they had been mostly relegated during the first Cold War.

Third, renewed contestation is as much over the practices of international politics as it is over its organisational form. The Charter peace order is based on the idea of ‘charter liberalism’, based on a pluralist idea of the international community. Gerry Simpson describes it as a ‘procedure for organizing relations among diverse communities’. This stands in contrast to ‘liberal anti-pluralism’, described by Simpson as ‘a liberalism that can be exclusive and illiberal in its effects’, above all in its ‘lack of tolerance for non-liberal regimes’. Liberalism thus divides into two traditions: ‘an evangelical version that views liberalism as a comprehensive doctrine or a social good worth promoting and the other more secular tradition emphasizing proceduralism and diversity’.

This distinction can be formulated in terms of a tension between sovereign internationalism, in which respect for sovereignty is tempered by commitment to Charter values, and the more expansive liberal anti-pluralist view of international politics, which can be described as democratic internationalism. This is a radical version of liberal internationalism, generating interventionist strategies based on humanitarian and even regime change strategies. Sovereign internationalism can be described as ‘Westphalia Plus’, in which sovereign statehood is combined with a commitment to pragmatic multilateralism. It thus stands in stark contrast to most forms of realism, and certainly to the stark statism of offensive realism. The institutions, norms and practises of the Charter system matter, although of course no one suggests that they represent a world government, even in embryo.

International politics today

The US remains the heart of the political West, but it is also the leading player in the Charter international system. However, while acknowledging the central role Washington played in creating the Charter system, the latter does not ‘belong’ to the US and its allies. The Charter system is an achievement of all of humanity, and the Chinese, the Russians, the Arab world and others are right to stress that they were founder members of this vision of international human community.

After 1945, the US at points was ready to embed its leadership in Charter formats, but it always retained the option of acting outside of the Charter system. Hence, Washington has refused to subordinate itself to a number of Charter institutions, and has refused to ratify a range of international treaties. Worse, at certain points the allies in the political West usurp the functions of Charter institutions and practices. This grand substitution is formulated in terms of the ‘rules-based order’, a parallel Western-dominated order. Moreover, if this analysis has any validity, then the concept of some sort of ‘liberal international order’ dissolves. There is no such construct, except in the imagination of the political West.

Amidst the endless debates today about world order, there is a fundamental confusion. We need to distinguish between the international system, which today remains the UN-based framework established in 1945, and various world orders that compete and contest at the level of international politics. The Charter system establishes the norms and parameters of international politics, defining what is legitimate and what is not, and creates a legal mechanism for sanctioning recalcitrant actors.
However, as part of the grand usurpation, the political West has now taken it upon itself to generate rules and norms of its own.
From this perspective, it is the political West that has become revisionist, repudiating the principles upon which it was originally established to fight the Cold War. The perpetuation of cold war practices and institutions after 1989 has now arched back to subvert the foundations of the political West’s own normativity. This does not exonerate the non-Western powers of their own subversion of Charter principles, but it does suggest a framework in which new Cold War hostilities can be tempered.

Unfortunately, the current clash of world orders is if anything more intense than anything seen during the original cold war. The struggle between capitalism and communism was legible and intelligible, but the struggle today, couched as it is in such terms as democracies vs autocracies, liberalism vs illiberalism, and even between the rules-based order vs anarchy, renders it both deeper and more amorphous. It will be much harder to navigate a passage out of this cold war than out of the first, especially since the institutions and practices of diplomacy have themselves become the arena for contestation.

Few signposts remain, except one – recognition of the equality represented by sovereign internationalism. Civilisational and political difference have once again to be normalised, although contestation over models of modernity will undoubtedly endure. This leads the way back to the primacy of Charter liberalism, and with it perhaps a new peace agenda.
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