Various countries have laid bare their political stands amid the Russia-Ukraine war. Aside from observing how the war will end, people are also worried about whether the post-war world will move towards a new dualistic structure, and whether small countries will remain free to not take sides in this future divided world.
Unlike what was seen in the Cold War, this hypothetical dualistic situation of the future will not simply be determined by the individual will of any two particular powers, nor will each camp be forced into different types of economic production. More likely, these hypothetical camps will be divided by the contradictory political ethics of idealism and realism in their external relations.
Political idealists versus realists
Idealists respect rules and recognise the authority of international organisations, believing that power can and should be bound by international law. Conversely, realists believe in the lack of governance in the international system, abide by the law of the jungle that “might is right”, and want to break down the existing international laws to expand power.
After failing to seek admittance to NATO, Russian President Vladimir Putin has practised military realism. From 2008, Russia has used the right of self-determination as a guise to continually annex, invade and swallow other countries’ lands. Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and Azerbaijan — these small countries became tributes to the law of the jungle.
In comparison, NATO’s response is more idealist — strengthening its own structure to isolate Russia, and drawing on the might of international organisations to denounce and impose sanctions on Russia.
Realist camp is not completely vulnerable
In practice, the “might” that realists rely on includes not just military strength, but also economic strength. Amid the China-US trade war, the world has accused China of ignoring trade rules, establishing trade barriers and imposing forced technology transfers. On its part, the Trump administration also contributed by pulling out of multilateral trade frameworks and exiting multiple international agreements at will, making the China-US conflict a battle involving realism.
Now, the US is back on a familiar route, and without Trump’s eccentric behaviour, Putin’s actions seem particularly glaring. The unprecedented sanctions imposed on Russia by the West show that when it comes to political ethics, national economic interests can be surrendered. Resolving energy shortages and food crises carry a hefty price, which has led to temporary differences of opinion among Western countries. But overall, those who embrace the international order remain united in their long-term goals and show considerable solidarity.
... they can form an economically sustainable and independent group as long as they remain open to one another, even if they face alienation from the opposing camp.
However, realists are not completely vulnerable against the blow to their economy. Although Russia has been cut off from the international economy and financial system, its neighbour Belarus has been working towards integrating the two countries’ economies, while China continues to trade with Russia and provides strong support to Russia in terms of payment system.
If we consider Iran, India and various Central Asian countries that are also lending their support to Russia, the world economy is in fact shifting towards duality. These countries are geographically linked and can complement one another in terms of resources, technology and funds. Hence, in the hypothetical structure, they can form an economically sustainable and independent group as long as they remain open to one another, even if they face alienation from the opposing camp.
Small countries will lose ground
Once a dualistic structure based on political ethics is formed, it would be extremely detrimental to small countries. In particular, when there is a powerful realist state in the geopolitical landscape, the security of small states would be threatened. Even if they choose to join the realist camp, small countries will eventually be subordinate to the big countries and thus lose their autonomy because they too believe that “might makes right”. Thus, leaning towards realism is a tough choice for most countries.
... as soon as the criteria for camp division is raised to the level of political ethics, the definition of national interests will become especially narrow and small states will lose the ground needed to balance the two sides.
At the same time, small countries should not bear high hopes that they could still maintain a balance between the different camps. Choosing political ethics is different from choosing between two powers. When facing a certain power, small countries can define their national interests in various dimensions to achieve a balance of interests.
For example, amid the China-US rivalry, relying on the US for security and China for economic benefits is an effective strategy for maintaining neutrality. However, as soon as the criteria for camp division is raised to the level of political ethics, the definition of national interests will become especially narrow and small states will lose the ground needed to balance the two sides.
Therefore, the best outcome for most countries would be to prevent the formation of this hypothetical duality. This requires all countries to play their part in harshly condemning and even sanctioning all acts of aggression that violate existing international law to dampen the ambitions of realists.
Undoubtedly, a dualistic structure may be inevitable in the end. Just as what we saw in the previous two world wars, realism will prevail at certain times. If that happens, how should most countries prevent the threat from major powers?
Lessons from the Russia-Ukraine war teach us that firstly, it is necessary to build a high-quality, combat-ready national defence system because this is the basis for maintaining national security. Secondly, various countries must enhance regional security mechanisms because most international coordination mechanisms will be rendered useless under a dualistic structure, just as how the United Nations has been embarrassed in this war. Lastly, countries must work together with partners that share the same political ethics and also diversify investments to reduce unforeseen risks to key strategic reserves such as energy and food.
Related: From real war to online war: Small states need smarter skills to survive a multipolar internet age | Ukraine war: Southeast Asian responses and why the conflict matters to the region | Russian invasion of Ukraine poses geopolitical quandaries for Vietnam | Why ASEAN must stand firm against Russia's invasion of Ukraine