Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The Ukraine War Doesn't Change Everything

| Apr. 13, 2022

Russia's war marks the definitive end of America's unipolar moment and returns the world to a state best explained by realism.

Sooner or later, the fighting in Ukraine will stop. No one knows how or when or what the final resolution will be. Maybe the Russian forces will collapse and withdraw completely (unlikely). Maybe Russian President Vladimir Putin will be removed from power and his successor(s) will cut a generous deal in the hopes of turning back the clock (also unlikely). Maybe the Ukrainian forces will lose the will to fight on (very unlikely). Maybe the war will grind on in an inconclusive stalemate until the protagonists are exhausted and a peace deal is negotiated (my bet). Even in that scenario, however, it's hard to know what the final terms might be or how long it would endure.

Whatever the outcome, many observers believe the war will have a profound effect on the broader condition of world politics. They see the war in Ukraine as a watershed moment: a giant fork in the road. If Russia loses big, the "liberal world order" will get a new lease on life and the forces of autocracy will suffer a setback. If Putin ekes out some sort of win, however, they foresee a dark slide toward the totalitarian abyss. Existing norms against the acquisition of territory by force will be eroded, and other autocrats will presumably be empowered to launch similar campaigns whenever the geopolitical stars align in their favor.

I see it differently. The war in Ukraine is a significant event, but not because the outcome will have a dramatic independent effect on the global balance of power or the normative environment that states have constructed (and sometimes adhere to). Rather, it is important because it signals the end of the brief "unipolar moment" (1993-2020) when the United States was the world's sole genuine superpower and because it heralds a return to patterns of world politics that were temporarily suppressed during the short era of unchallenged U.S. primacy. The end of that era was in sight long before Russia invaded Ukraine, however, and the war itself is more of a punctuation mark. (For a similar take, see Stephen Kotkin here.)

I am less inclined to see the war in Ukraine as a transformative moment because I've heard that song too many times in recent decades. We were told that "everything had changed" when the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union imploded, and the Warsaw Pact dissolved. A new world order was at hand, the "cynical calculus of pure power politics simply [did] not compute," mankind had supposedly reached the "end of history," and liberal capitalist democracy (preferably the American version) was now the only game in town.

But then "everything changed" again on Sept. 11, 2001, and we were suddenly in a "global war on terror," which some overwrought analysts tried to repackage as "World War IV." But hold on! "Everything changed" yet again when financial markets collapsed in 2008 and Wall Street's "masters of the universe" were revealed to be gullible, fallible, and corrupt. And then "everything changed" once more when Donald Trump became president and began trampling every norm in the U.S. political playbook....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“The Ukraine War Doesn't Change Everything.” Foreign Policy, April 13, 2022.

The Author

Stephen Walt