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Wealth for All Nations
The war in Ukraine and the making of a new global order.
For those that missed it, I published my first essay for Foreign Exchanges last month. (I’ll be a regular columnist for FX; look for next piece in a few weeks on the political economy of military spending since the Cold War). As a proponent of a foreign policy of restraint, I’ve been frustrated by the discussion of Ukraine policy now that the war has entered a period of stasis, of incremental progress for Ukraine that inches toward a stalemate. My piece laid out the landscape of policy options, posited some potential paths for the war, and tried to convince restrainers to codify an internationalist vision for restraint—premised on global equity, demilitarization, and international cooperation on issues like climate change and pandemic relief— that can be employed when the war does end.
I also avoided the “diplomacy or not” debate that has preoccupied the discourse on Ukraine. I find it reductive and circular, and too controlled by the most hawkish voices, whether motivated by good intentions or self-interest (media appearances, solicitations for op-eds, likes and retweets on Twitter). I’ve been struck—but not surprised— by how the requisite support for Ukraine has prevent foresight and squashed a fair-minded assessment of the war’s future.
This is a space, I argued, where restrainers can make an impact. Restrainers have thus far been preoccupied with lobbing critiques at hawkish pundits or advocating for a diplomatic resolution to the war. But the former is unfulfilling, and the latter is not going to happen now. (I’m suspicious of those who claim to know when the right conditions will be for diplomacy, whether on the restraint or liberal internationalist camp.) Putin does not want to end the war and recognize Ukrainian sovereignty—Ukraine’s precondition for negotiations. And as much as restrainers, and all of us, want the war to end soon, it is unreasonable to think Ukraine will capitulate to Russian demands (including the annexation of the four regions of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia) after making significant inroads against Russia’s military—and with the reliable help of American weapons and financial support. Few nations would seek diplomacy from a place of strength—or in Putin’s case, from an unwillingness to lose face.
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But a brokered diplomatic settlement, the most likely outcome at this point, should not just be the basis for ending the war, but the foundation for a new international order. When the war ends, the perennial question remains: How can national interests be leveraged to the ends of a more peaceful world?
The operative framework of “great-power competition” means that the conduct of nation-states (and nationalism) will define global affairs for the foreseeable future. As historian Daniel Bessner has rightly claimed, also in Foreign Exchanges, supranational institutions cannot erode the prominence of nation-states given that we live “in an age where…the withering away of the nation-state [is] not on the table.” For Bessner, therefore, “the US empire/nation-state might ironically (and tragically) be the path to global governance.”
My fear is that if the U.S. determines the parameters for the reconstruction of Ukraine in an age of “great-power competition”, it will reify a “New Cold War” and the reconstruction effort will become a means to weaken Russia and constrain China rather than revitalize Ukraine. One might argue that these are not mutually exclusive projects, but as I suggested along with Van Jackson in Foreign Affairs, great-power relations rarely serve global humanitarian ends.
The preeminent challenge for restrainers vis-à-vis Ukraine is to prevent great-power dynamics from dictating diplomacy after the war. Current solutions to the problem of rebuilding Ukraine—where infrastructure losses and reconstruction expenses are estimated at $349 billion, which exceed Ukraine’s 2021 GDP by almost $150 billion—reflect the limits of our political imagination. They are an homage to Cold War era or neoliberal ideas: a “Marshall Plan for Ukraine,” a private investment campaign to expedite reconstruction. As Adam Tooze argued in the New Statesman, these proposals are anachronistic and revive nostalgia for Cold War liberalism:
Rather than the magic wand of a “Marshall Plan”, think the trench warfare of EU budget negotiations and bitter stand-offs between Warsaw, Brussels and the rest of western Europe. That is what the politics of a future assistance package for Ukraine might look like. If it is not to become a free-for-all for “disaster capitalism”, something to be exploited by Western contractors and local oligarchs, it will require intense oversight, and that is a recipe for fraught relations between Ukraine and its supporters in the West. It will be a 21st-century struggle, but it will have far more in common with the actual Marshall Plan of 1947 than the myth of later making. This is what high-stakes international political economy has looked like all the way back to the peacemaking after the First World War. Less deus ex machina and more hard grind.
Ukraine’s future, our future, will be determined by an investment in bureaucratic politics on an international scale unrealized since World War II. This requires prescience and planning. It also requires summitry that will invariably be legislated by realpolitik, as well as sacrifice and collaboration among nations willing to exploit the abundance of goodwill, the outpouring of sympathy for Ukraine for the purposes of peace. And finally, building a postwar order must truly be a global effort that offers recourse and remuneration to nations in the Global South who have received less attention than Ukraine, but who have suffered from war, environment catastrophe, or political disorder—many of which have sidelined their criticisms of Russia and withheld support for Ukraine. This is an effective way to ameliorate great-power conflict, to pull “non-aligned” nations away from Russia, and create better conditions for a lasting peace.
Buildings in Kyiv destroyed by Russian bombings, March 2022
Indeed, the reconstruction of Ukraine can be the basis for a reconstruction of the global community. And restrainers can be on the frontlines of such an effort. The issue for restrainers is how to create a progressive, feasible paradigm for world cooperation in a time of great-power competition, to align nation-states around progressive goals for global justice and material redistribution among rich and poor nations.
One solution is “world government,” a lofty, elusive goal that can be traced to Immanuel Kant. The idea of world government, if not the logistics for it, was the foundation for the United Nations. As Franklin Roosevelt wrote in April 1945, in his last speech before his death—and never delivered—international institutions were needed as “an end to the beginnings of all wars—yes, an end to this brutal, inhuman, and thoroughly impractical method of settling the differences between governments.” Visions for world government have received new attention from liberal internationalists like Anne-Marie Slaughter and Council of Foreign Relations president Richard Haass who seek to manage, rather than transform global affairs for the interest of democracy promotion, but also achieve important goals like enhancing global vaccine distribution and ending climate change.
In contrast to liberal internationalists like Slaughter and Hass, socialist philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger has called for a “coalition of the willing” (G-7 or G-20 nations, for instance) to prioritize the sharing of “global public goods” over competition for national resources. Unger has ambitious proposals (“reconciliation panels” to arbitrate disputes among coalitions) as well as tenuous projections (a reserved faith in BRICS as an effective, countervailing organization to great-power rivalry), but he has much to offer in his small, pamphlet-sized book, Governing the World Without World Government.
In my view, restrainers should not expect a “world government” in their lifetimes (I don’t), and certainly not one that can deliver on progressive goals. In the interim, while those on the left must reject the framework of great-power competition, its language can be co-opted by progressives for the ends of global cooperation. One way to do this, as Stephen Wertheim has offered in Foreign Affairs, is to talk of “national interest.” This term is considered verboten among left-wing restrainers, but has salience in national security circles and is thus essential to building an alternative foreign policy in our current national security environment. Here is Wertheim on how the term can be appropriated by progressive restrainers:
To succeed, progressives, who prefer to speak the language of values, should not shy away from talking about the national interest. To some on the left, that phrase can sound like narrow nationalism. In fact, it expresses the public good in an international context. As competition with China and Russia unfolds and exposes Americans to larger risks and costs, it will be essential to show why overreach would harm the people whom U.S. foreign policy is supposed to serve, and why a principled and restrained approach would make them safer. A hardheaded progressivism is not a concession to right-wing nationalism but the antidote to it, robbing demagogues of the specter of a naive, anti-American “globalism” to decry.
Progressive restrainers must show that it is in the “national interest” of the United States to push for a comprehensive development and reconstruction plan that goes beyond the question of Ukraine, or the G-7’s Build Back Better World program premised on great-power rivalry. There are a host of “non-aligned,” Global South nations currently in Russia’s economic orbit—India, Philippines, and Brazil, for instance—who are currently playing both sides in the war. These nations share a history from the 1960s and 1970s, when developing nations in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, formed institutions like the G-77 and New International Economic Order (NIEO) that, as historian Christy Thornton has argued, aimed to create a “comprehensive vision for a fairer world economy, one that would limit the privileges of multinational corporations, redistribute resources from North to South, and level the playing field regarding trade and investment.” These G-77 nations have sought for decades to achieve, as historian Michael Franczak has written, the “redistribution of political power in international economic relations.”
Instead of treating Global South nations as pawns in a competition among great powers, progressive restrainers can offer ideas on how tie Ukraine’s development to the Global South. Development and collaboration on infrastructure, climate, and pandemic response among “non-aligned” countries like India (projected to be the third largest economy by 2030), are essential to ensure that the Russian-Indian alliance is not strengthened in the years to come. This is in the “national interest” of the United States. There is opportunity, more than risk, in trying to draw “non-aligned” G-20 nations to the future of Ukraine. Here is Tooze (again) in Foreign Policy back in November on the power of the G-20:
The nonaligned powers are a force to be reckoned with, more individually than as a group. But even individually they are significant players. They may be nonaligned and wary of any overt alignment with Washington, but at least, as far as Ukraine is concerned, they are not blind to the disruption caused by Putin and the risks of escalation. Clearly, both Beijing and Washington recognize the need to keep channels of communication open.
For the fact is that while Ukraine has captured the world’s attention, it has limited leverage over the international system as presently constituted. It is not—and is not expected to be anytime soon— a member of NATO, and while a vital agricultural state and grain exporter, and rich in coal and titanium, it ranks 55th among countries in the world’s economy. Combined with its role as a cudgel to Russian aggression, Ukraine’s economic assets make it an important player in Europe. But it has the potential in a postwar international environment to be ignored by the great powers depending upon the state of Russia’s government, or if there is a crisis in Taiwan or China, or if (or when) larger economies like India assert further influence on the world stage.
Restrainers can work to prevent this by offering a strategy premised around the redistribution of wealth and resources to war-torn and impoverished countries that create new “coalitions of the willing” between the Global North and the Global South. A repeated refrain on the left during the early weeks of the war was that Ukraine took precedent over other Global South nations (like Afghanistan) that deserved our sympathy too. What about Syria? Or Somalia? Or the Democratic Republic of Congo? As well as the sheer shock of the invasion, some on the left suggested that Ukraine received America’s attention and assistance because it was a white, European, “civilized” nation, to paraphrase the words of CBS journalist Charlie D’Agata.
Restrainers need to recognize the racialized contours of U.S. foreign policy while rejecting the “either/or” framing—neglect Ukraine to focus on Afghanistan, or vice versa—to show why there needs to be an international, but state-based movement to tackle global poverty and strife. Given that countervailing institutions of world government cannot be constructed at the moment, restrainers must find ways to show how preexisting institutions like the United Nations and G-20 can become avenues for reimagining global affairs. We should strive for a new, postwar global order built on redistributive wealth—for Ukrainians, but also for the Global South. Rather than disassociating peace-building from reconstruction, it is better for us to imagine what their conflation entails for a more collaborative approach to global affairs. Otherwise, the war in Ukraine will become, in historical terms, a proxy for great-power conflict.