We are all concerned by the ongoing war triggered by Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. Some are wondering why anyone should be bothered about what happened in such a remote place; however, Harari argues that what is at stake is the ‘direction of human history’. Others are wondering whether the relatively peaceful times we have enjoyed since the end of the Second World War are coming to an end, and what lies ahead.
The generation born after 1945 has been very fortunate in that major wars have been avoided. The world order that resulted from the Second World War has proven to be stable, even if that stability was achieved in the presence of a Cold War where two superpowers with enough weapons to destroy the earth, managed to avoid open conflict, in a process with the morbid name Mutually Assured Destruction.
The chaos that preceded the post-1945 world order started with the rise of the newly independent Germany in the late 19th century. The German Question as it was known at the time was how this growing power in the center of Europe could be accommodated. History tells us that it could only be resolved by two world wars that ended with the division of Germany.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 the stability of the post-1945 world order is again threatened, this time by two major challenges. The first is the rise of China and the second the decline of Russia. As a result of its spectacular economic development since 1978, China has become a major power and is demanding a place in the world order commensurate with this. Like Germany 125 year ago, China has been demanding recognition in multilateral organizations for which the rules had been drawn up by the victors of the Second World War. It is also demanding the same control over its ‘neighborhood’ that the USA has long taken for granted in the Western hemisphere and in the Caribbean.
The decline of Russia as a world power is also creating challenges to the existing order as some in that country regret Russia’s loss of status and are seeking ways to undo recent history. Russia strengthened its armed forces, and invaded Georgia and later the Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Russia has also involved itself in conflicts in Syria, Libya, and other parts of Africa. While this is suggestive of great power behavior, it is important to note that the Russian economy is smaller than that of South-Korea and only just larger than that of Spain.
How will the world achieve a new equilibrium, one that accommodates China and reconciles Russia to its reduced status? Of course, nobody knows. Nobody knows whether, like 125 years ago, a major war will be needed to resolve these tensions that threaten the peace, or whether wise statesmen will emerge who can find the way forward without wars.
Gerry van der Linden is a former Vice President of ADB and is now active in microcredit and governance NGOs in the Philippines.