From the end of the Second World War until early 2022, the geopolitics of our world followed a very similar pattern. The pattern was that borders were sacred, they could not change, and this narrative was enforced by the United Nations and America’s military might. This meant rival ethnicities and religious sects were often forced together into nations they despised—as in the example of Iraq—where different groups have fought continuously since independence in 1932. Any attempt by the Sunnis, Shias, or Kurds to break off has been met by Western condemnation, yet military intervention by the latter exacerbated the chaos.
The problem is that the West’s foreign policy is informed by liberalism, the central pillar being that people should get along. This is why Washington disapproved of Serbia annexing areas of Kosovo populated by Serbs, and why it despised the idea of reshaping the Middle East’s boundaries so that Kurds, Shias and Sunnis could have their own states. Even though such moves make sense from an ethnic and religious perspective—and would certainly make peace more likely—the option is always repudiated. This is because redrawing the maps would entail admitting an obvious truth: that some cultures are incompatible with each other.
One of the standout takeaways from Craig Whitlock’s The Afghanistan Papers was how the West’s foreign policy is so fatally flawed—and just how liberal it really was following 9/11. Funded by taxpayers and handed out by civil servants, billions were spent on idealism rather than realism. They built women’s institutions in areas where women weren’t allowed outside the house and joint community centres for tribes that had blood feuds. What’s more, criticising foreign spending was taboo because the U.S. state department believed that it was the righteous arsenal of a moral crusade. There was almost no local knowledge about the customs, religion, history or law of the concerned regions to inform the judgement of policymakers. These places were considered as fit for liberalism as New England. One might presume that this approach would last throughout this century, but it was not to be.
In early 2022, something happened that shouldn’t have happened—Russia invaded another sovereign country and got away with it. Suddenly international borders, held to be sacred by the UN, had been trampled on by Putin. Again, Ukraine is another example of a state made up of two major groups (Ukrainians and Russians) and many smaller ones (Romanians, Belarusians, Bulgarians, Poles, Hungarians, Jews etc.) being held together, at least in part, by the American-led international system. Yes, Russia had already annexed Crimea in 2014, but that peninsula has a Russian majority population. Plus, back then Western power was still impressive, and Moscow was cautious enough nine years ago to ensure that invading personnel didn’t wear Russian uniforms. (As a result they became known by locals as the ‘Little Green Men,’ because initially nobody knew who they were.) Fast forward to 2022 and Putin felt no need to hide anything. Not only did he put on a dress rehearsal for the invasion in spring 2021, but he slowly built up his troops in the three months prior to the actual war, without making an effort to hide them.
The reason for this is that the West’s power has declined significantly in the last decade. Beset by an internal culture war, mass immigration, and other general symptoms of declining self-belief, the unipolar moment is over and multi-polarity has become the new status quo. America might remain the major superpower thanks to the strength of the dollar and its aircraft carrier groups, but it no longer enjoys the dominance it once did. This is similar to the British Empire’s position in the interwar period, where the Lion could still roar, but there were now more vigorous cubs emerging from the shadows.
Putin’s invasion has of course met endless setbacks and hurdles, with the failure to take Kiev being an embarrassment that won’t be forgotten. However, although a stalemate has ensued and he’s taken the predominantly Russian speaking areas only at great cost, the West still cannot defeat him. Last year, many commentators on social media were adamant that Russia would lose because they’re the bad guys, yet over the last six months this mood has gradually changed. Realism is beginning to set in, the same way that the endless spiral of COVID lockdowns had begun to feel increasingly absurd by 2021. The narrative of liberalism dictates that Ukrainians must win and the West must ensure that, but there is no logic to this mindset. Such conflicts are settled by military power, not idealism.
The West is unlikely to reverse Russia’s occupation of the south-east of Ukraine, yet Russia is unlikely to conquer much more either. Realism would dictate a deal along ethno-linguistic lines, and the West’s foreign policy elites are beginning to move towards such an outcome. There is no longer a superpower who can force a one-sided deal—Washington’s aid money is beginning to run out—and so eventually a compromise will be made. The narrative of a total Ukrainian victory was broken by the failure of last summer’s counter offensive, and the West’s position has now changed.
When you consider the amount of time, money, and media coverage given to Ukraine this will come as a surprise to much of the public. Yet if you step back a little and observe a similar crisis, then America’s growing international apathy is no surprise. In relation to Israel’s current struggle, the Biden administration correctly supported Jerusalem following Hamas’ invasion. Yet Washington dragged its heels for two months before reacting to the plight of merchant shipping in the Red Sea, which is being bombarded by Shia Islamists. These Iranian proxies, known as the Houthis, are not the only crisis which received a lacklustre response. The reality is that American forward operating bases—in both Iraq and Syria—have been attacked relentlessly since October 7th. In retaliation, America has launched minor airstrikes, which is an unconvincing response that will deter nobody.
This all shows that the West’s reach is dwindling, and its goal of spreading liberalism is accordingly beginning to fail. Military budget cuts, especially in Europe, have now reached such a point that conducting a war is becoming impossible. The idea that a coalition could conduct simultaneous campaigns—as occurred during the war on terror—is now off the cards. For example, Britain can no longer field even a single armoured division, when in the Cold War it stationed four in Germany alone. There is not enough money, not enough troops, not enough equipment, and more importantly not enough competence and willpower to see it through.
You may not have agreed with America appointing itself the world’s policeman. However, it did make the global order relatively stable as compared to most of human history. All it takes is a weak response to Houthi mischief in the Red Sea, and suddenly the world’s trade routes are imperiled. We are now living in that reality. Although the experts may have predicted that a multipolar world would bring diverse opinions and global compromise, the reality is very different. So far we are seeing trade and currency wars, declining birth rates, local conflicts flaring up on multiple continents, and the explosion of mass migration from poorer countries into wealthier ones. What we are witnessing, at least to some degree, is a gradual decline into anarchy on the world stage, a free-for-all royal rumble without a referee. The reality is that a multipolar world, ushered in by Western decline, will not bring balance and stability—it will bring absolute chaos.