Ukraine is just another casualty of America's imperial approach
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Europe is facing its first major conflict since World War II, save the Balkan crisis of the 1990s, as a major power has attacked a weaker state. But was the dangerously evolving conflict in Ukraine avoidable? Is Russia to blame, as the U.S. and its European allies say? Or, was the NATO enlargement the real cause, as Moscow alleges?
Our search for answers must begin from the fall of the USSR three decades ago, when the U.S. emerged as a sole superpower and tried to impose a new world order. While the reverberations of its unilateral approach which subsequently led to devastating wars are still felt far and wide, the world has moved on to embrace multipolarity since then. China has become a great economic power to lead the global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); and Russia has achieved the economic and security resilience to assert itself in the "near abroad," including Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia.
Beijing and Moscow have also driven the momentous progress of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Moreover, Russia has led the Collective Security Treaty Organization to maintain security and order in Eurasia. China has likewise increased its geo-economic footprint in Asia-Pacific by joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
This post-Cold War transition to multipolar world order has occurred despite the exclusivist nature of the U.S. conduct in expensive and retributive wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East since 9/11, and also because of it. The U.S. could have chosen to take other countries along, or at least reposed the necessary trust among its allies, to avoid these wars in the first place or fight them responsibly if they occurred. Instead, the all-powerful U.S. military-industrial complex has kept the world engaged in these wasteful geopolitical conflicts, distracting its attention from solving real global issues like poverty, disease and climate change.
The U.S. pursuit of unilateralism at the expense of global multipolarity is at the heart of the Russian military operation with Ukraine, as well as its emerging confrontation with China in the Indo-Pacific. The relationship with Russia on the issue of NATO enlargement offers an insight into this policy paradox.
The U.S. had led the creation of NATO in 1949 to defend Western Europe against the USSR and its Eastern and Central European members of the Warsaw Pact established in 1955. With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the Warsaw Pact ceased to exit but NATO remained intact. During the German reunification process in 1990-91, then U.S. Secretary of State James Baker assured Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand "an inch eastward" to Central and Eastern Europe. Russia was also promised integration into Europe under the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act.
But NATO failed to keep both promises, largely under U.S. dictation. Ten Central and Eastern European countries were added into its fold during 1999-2005. Efforts by France and Germany to integrate Russia into Europe were also ignored. Therefore, as soon as Russia gained stability under Vladimir Putin's leadership, it began to thwart NATO's further enlargement into Georgia and Ukraine.
By amassing its military along the Ukrainian border in recent months, Russia's message to the U.S. and its NATO allies was that it would go into Ukraine without credible guarantees against Ukraine's NATO membership and presence of NATO forces in Central and Eastern Europe. But while France and Germany opted for diplomacy with Russia; the U.S. and UK spared no effort in provoking it into war.
In the end, Putin chose to face the unprecedented sanctions the Joe Biden administration and its NATO allies threatened to impose against Russia, first by recognizing the independence of the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk in the strife-ridden eastern Ukraine and then by ordering the special operation against Ukraine by land, air and sea.
How the Ukraine war unfolds finally remains to be seen. Russia would like Ukraine to act as a buffer state, rather than become a de facto NATO state to threaten its security. It has indeed set a bad precedent by attacking and violating the sovereignty of an independent nation.
China has also been no less a victim of U.S. unilateralism. The BRI global development project, now involving 145 countries and 32 international organizations, is an offshoot of its miraculous economic and technological progress, especially under President Xi Jinping. Biden could have defused the U.S. trade war with China launched by his predecessor. Instead, he has ramped it up. By deciding to shift the U.S. geopolitical focus from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, he has opened a second front.
The Middle East has itself suffered a great deal due to irresponsible interventionism and broken promises by the U.S., as apparent in a series of wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. This greatly damaged the U.S. credibility as a reliable Arab partner, especially in the eyes of time-tested allies like Saudi Arabia. By renegotiating the same deal without any fool-proof guarantees, the Biden administration is now repeating the same mistake.
The U.S. needs to be on the right side of history. Its unwillingness to adapt to the emerging multipolar global order seems to be a key factor behind recurrent conflicts of the past three decades. The Russia-Ukraine conflict is just another episode in America's paradoxical approach to world politics. And it won't be the last, unless the U.S. accepts that Russia and China are also great powers, which need to be competed with not contained; and sheds its global hegemonic ambitions for the sake of a sustainable multipolar world order.
Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist, who has subsequently served as the vice chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and the Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford. The article reflects the author's opinions.