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.
So forgive me if I have trouble seeing the war in Ukraine as a decisive turning point in the history of humanity. For all the damage and suffering that have already occurred, it has a long way to go before it reaches the levels of destruction wrought by the wars in Indochina, between Iran and Iraq, or in central Africa—or by the U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The war could still get there, of course—especially if weapons of mass destruction are used—but the odds are against it (a prediction that I fervently hope turns out to be correct). More importantly, what is different about the current war is that for the first time since the early 1990s—but hardly the first time in history—there are rival great powers on the opposite sides of a major war. But this is a reversion to familiar patterns of great-power conflicts (and proxy wars) and not something novel or unique.
As suggested above, this war is more accurately seen as marking the official end of the brief quasi-peace that followed the end of the Cold War. War didn’t disappear in that period—the United States fought in a bunch of them and started several—but the conflicts during this period were either civil wars, wars between minor powers, gross mismatches between major powers and minor powers, or some combination of all three.
Direct great-power competition was muted because neither Russia nor China was strong enough to openly resist the United States. Dartmouth College political scientist William Wohlforth was partly right when he wrote of the “stability of a unipolar world”: Few countries wanted to face the “focused enmity” of the United States or take actions that might bring the United States into the game in opposition. Where Wohlforth erred was his prediction that unipolarity might last even longer than Cold War bipolarity.
That misjudgment was not entirely his fault, however, as he could not have foreseen the repeated blunders that hastened the end of the unipolar era. U.S. primacy and unipolar stability would have lasted longer if U.S. policymakers had been smarter, less ideologically driven, and more realistic (in every sense of that term).
Instead of preserving U.S. power, resolving conflicts wherever possible, and working to ensure that no peer competitor emerged, U.S. officials mostly did the exact opposite. They helped China rise more rapidly and squandered trillions of dollars in costly and misguided crusades in the greater Middle East. Instead of extending liberal institutions gradually through mechanisms such as the Partnership for Peace, they expanded NATO with scant regard for Russian concerns and blithely assumed that Moscow could or would do nothing to stop it.
Instead of taking a more measured approach to globalization and making sure its benefits were widely shared inside the United States, they embraced neoliberal approaches to global trade and investment and did not do enough to insulate endangered sectors of the U.S. workforce from globalization’s consequences. And instead of working overtime to make American democracy a model that other societies might want to emulate, U.S. politicians—and here I refer primarily to the Republican Party—repeatedly trampled on the principles and norms that are essential for true democracy to survive. The unipolar moment was never going to last forever, but repeated sins of omission and commission—for which no one was ever held accountable—brought it to a premature end.
So where will this leave us? In the immortal words of Talking Heads: “Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.”
First, it is a world where hard power still matters, as everyone has now been reminded. If Russia succeeds in incorporating the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and a land bridge to Crimea, it will be because its military forces were able to accomplish that mission despite their earlier miscalculations and missteps.
If Ukraine retains all or most of its former territory, it will be because of the hard power its citizens employed (with lots of outside help) to stop its larger neighbor. If the much ballyhooed “norm against conquest” gets reinforced, it will not be because Putin suddenly remembered that norms ought to be followed but because the combination of Ukrainian nationalism and effective weaponry proved too much for Moscow to overcome.
Second, the world has been reminded—again!—that economic interdependence is not without risks and trade-offs. Markets surely matter, but politics matter more. Connecting the world through trade, investment, complex supply chains, and gas pipelines brought obvious and enormous benefits, but tight economic links are not an ironclad barrier to conflict and being dependent on others can cause real pain if those ties get sundered, whether by a dangerous virus or a sudden geopolitical fissure.
Looking ahead, most states and most firms are going to sacrifice some amount of economic efficiency for the sake of redundancy and resilience. Economic growth will be lower than it might have been otherwise, but disruptive shocks will occur less often and states and firms will be less vulnerable to economic pressure. When forced to choose between security and profits, most countries will choose the former.
Third, even if Russia achieves some limited gains in the Donbass, the war will accelerate its relative decline. Putin may prevent Ukraine from ever joining NATO, but the long-term consequences of that achievement will leave Russia worse off as a whole. Unless he erects a new Iron Curtain, talented young Russians will continue to leave. State revenues will decline as more and more countries wean themselves off Russian oil, gas, and coal. Ukraine will continue to move toward Europe economically, a process that was already underway before the war began.
If Putin does achieve “victory” in Ukraine—which is by no means certain—it will be a Pyrrhic one. Russia’s autocracy may be more secure but less consequential. The world of the future will be closer to true bipolarity than lopsided multipolarity, with Russia playing the role of China’s junior partner (and one whose economic vitality and long-term strategic value may be diminishing). It won’t help Beijing’s image to be closely linked to Russia’s destruction of Ukraine, and Moscow could need more propping up as Russia’s economy falters and its population ages and shrinks.
The emerging future will be neither a U.S.-centered “liberal order” nor a Chinese-centered autocratic one. Instead, each of these two major powers will lead partial orders that incorporate states that either share similar values or have little choice but to align with one side or the other. And make no mistake: Both Washington and Beijing are going to expect a lot of loyalty from some of their allies. Expect to see greater division and contention in the digital space as the two countries compete to determine which technical standards will predominate and as the digital world gradually segments behind firewalls, safeguards, incompatible privacy standards, and other restrictions.
But as the global response to Ukraine suggests, many countries—especially those in the global south—will resist pressures to pick a side and will try to remain aloof from quarrels that do not involve them directly. Some of them will try to extract greater benefits by playing the United States and China off against each other. Among other things, this situation is a reminder that trying to base U.S. foreign policy on a rigid dichotomy of “democracy vs. autocracy” is a recipe for failure. As in the past, success will require cooperating with like-minded partners where possible and with states that do not share U.S. values when necessary.
Unfortunately, cooperation among the major powers is going to be a lot harder to achieve and sustain, even when their interests are partly aligned. This could be the most significant fallout from this nasty but thus far localized war: It gives major powers the excuse to ignore the less imminent but far more ominous danger of accelerating climate change. Dealing with climate change is going to require sacrifices by all the major powers, but they will be less willing to make them when they are worried about the global balance of power and are reluctant to give up more than their rivals.
We are back in a world that realism explains best, one where great powers compete for power and influence and others adapt as best they can. The jungle isn’t “growing back,” as Robert Kagan would have us believe; it never really went away, even when the United States was the biggest beast and deluded itself into thinking it could make all the other animals behave. That’s not a particularly happy thought, but the world that realism depicts is not a particularly happy world.
Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.