How the War in Ukraine is Driving a New Global Order

KYIV, UKRAINE – MARCH 08: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a speech during the joint press conference with Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres following their meeting on March 8, 2023 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Antonio Guterres made his third visit to Ukraine since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion. (Photo by Roman Pilipey/Getty Images)

By John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).  He is a former Acting Director of Central Intelligence and a former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence. He was a US Army Officer in the 1960s, with service in Vietnam.

Is the Ukraine a Global Inflection Point? And if so, with what Consequences?

OPINION / EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — Since early on in the Ukraine war, practically every Western leader has said that this war marks an “inflection point” in world affairs — a turning point, a tectonic shift, or moment of transition from one era to another. I think we all sense that … but what does this mean and is it really true? And if it is, what does it tell us about the future?

There are not many things in modern history that rise to such status. 

In the 20th century, World War I would surely qualify as an inflection point, given that it was marked by the collapse of two empires – the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman – and the emergence of many new countries, including the Soviet Union. 

World War II also has to make the cut, because it ushered in new institutions such as the United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund, along with decolonization, the European unification drive, and seventy years of global tensions during the Cold War.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, were other dramatic moments that certainly brought sweeping changes but arguably not of the magnitude of the two world wars. 

And the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States homeland had transformational impact on U.S. national security policy and alliance relations, elements of which endure after more than twenty years – but still of lesser scope than the World Wars.

So, what is it about Ukraine that has so many people talking “inflection point”?  

First, there is the sheer surprise and shock of it. In most minds – Western minds at least – this sort of thing was not supposed to happen again, that is, a full-scale invasion of one major country by another in the heart of Europe.

Remember that almost no one, including the Ukrainians, believed it when U.S. intelligence predicted it would happen. So, Putin’s attack redefined the concept of threat among those who were wary of Russia but assumed Putin’s style was more careful, stealthy, and incremental.

Second, there are all the widely-discussed changes that came in the wake of the war – Finland and Sweden joining NATO, Germany and Japan adopting more robust national security policies after 75 years of caution and restraint.

There is also the increased volatility of oil prices, food shortages, and the division globally between those who condemn Russia and those such as China, India and many other countries that remain focused on their own problems, blame both sides, or, like China, walk a fine line – simultaneously deploring the violence but offering at least rhetorical support to Russia. That’s enough to say that the war is having at least as much impact on global dynamics as the 9/11 attacks and possibly more.

There is another big factor shaping the feeling that everything could change fundamentally.   This is the nagging fear that Chinese leader Xi Jinping is finally serious about forcefully integrating Taiwan into China in the near term, with all the attendant dilemmas this would pose for the U.S. and Asian allies who have pledged to oppose this.

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This mix of ongoing horror in Ukraine, uncertain dread about Taiwan, and evolving policies elsewhere raises in turn, a whole series of alarming ‘what if’s’ feeding the feeling that we are on the verge of a great transition. What if some concatenation of events, accidents, and miscalculations pulls NATO and the U.S. more directly into conflict with Russia? What if Xi moves on Taiwan while the U.S. is still preoccupied with Russia’s aggression? What if that pulls in Asian allies at just the moment that the Ukraine war becomes more demanding on European partners?  Perhaps most importantly, what if there is a partisan-driven change of administration in the U.S. in the midst of all this? If that all happened, it would indeed start to feel like a major discontinuity in international affairs, in which another global conflict would not be unimaginable.

None of that is predictable of course, and most analysts would hesitate to say it is probable. But most would probably also say the chances are not zero.  It is this ‘hard-to-articulate’ sense of looming catastrophe that contributes to the conviction that we are now standing at one of those watershed moments in modern history.

In wondering whether the Ukraine war will really upend things, here is a key question to ask: what are the possible counterreactions to the reactions we’ve seen so far? 

Thinking back to times at CIA when we were surprised by something (often then charged with “intelligence failure”) the origins of surprise sometimes came in barely-noticed incremental changes. These are the small, hard-to-see shifts whose significance is obscured until they achieve the critical mass necessary to plainly reveal a major change. In other words, a surprise.

With that in mind, here are two areas that merit special attention.

One has to do with the way the Ukraine war has altered calculations about nuclear weapons. Nuclear weaponry has been a constant in international affairs for decades but in recent years, we’ve not witnessed the big nuclear ‘scares’ that were an ever-present possibility during the Cold War. However, Putin’s nuclear threats during the war have forced everyone to think anew about the dangers that nuclear weapons pose.  War with nukes is still the ultimate nightmare. And it can become more likely, the more nuclear weapons spread.

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In that regard, it cannot be lost on many countries that if Ukraine had kept the nuclear weapons stationed on its soil when the USSR collapsed (Kyiv gave up 5,000 strategic and tactical nuclear weapons in 1994, under an agreement among Russia, Ukraine and the U.S.), Putin might have thought twice before launching his war.  To date, there are no signs that Ukraine is moving to build nuclear weapons. And although some experts call rumors of this ‘dangerous nonsense’, an end to the war is still not in sight. If it does not end in a way that gives Ukraine total confidence in its future security, it’s hard to believe Ukraine would not consider regaining a nuclear arsenal.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s plight must also be causing policy debates in other countries with worries about their future security. 

Iran’s neighbors, principally Saudi Arabia, have to confront the reality that Tehran is now at nuclear “break out”; early this year, a senior Pentagon official said Iran was 12 days away from having enough enriched material for a bomb. And in 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman plainly said Riyadh would “follow suit” if Tehran succeeded in acquiring the bomb.

In Asia, Japan and South Korea must be impressed that China is likely by 2030, to more than triple its nuclear weapons force (to about 1,000) at a moment of great political uncertainty in the U.S. and therefore about Washington’s fidelity to “extended deterrence” — that is, provision of its protective ‘nuclear umbrella’. (It is almost impossible to exaggerate the anxiety expressed by foreign counterparts regarding the political turmoil they now see in the U.S. and the weakening effect that worry could have on long-standing U.S. commitments.)

The second development with potential to inject new currents of surprise into international affairs, is the hardening of opposing alliances. 

On the US side, the tightening of NATO is by now obvious but just coming into view is a comparable tightening of U.S. ties with key Asian partners. This was most recently visible in a new tripartite security pact between the U.S., South Korea, and Japan, in which the three countries pledged to set up a crisis “hotline” and to cooperate more closely on missile defense and in joint military exercises. This is remarkable when set against the long history of suspicion and tension between South Korea and Japan tracing back to WW II. China has already blasted the pact and my guess is we will see an increase in Sino-Russian military exercises in the region.

Mirroring this among the autocracies of the world is the growing cooperation the Ukraine war is stimulating among Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. These four countries are drawing together across the board, driven by opposition to US global preeminence and the sanctioning power of the U.S. dollar.

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Tangible cooperation is most apparent in the weapons trade that Russia has initiated with North Korea and Iran. North Korea is supplying Moscow with rockets and artillery shells it needs in Ukraine under an arms deal that the U.S. says was arranged during the Russian defense minister’s recent visit – in violation of unanimously adopted UN Security Council resolutions.  Meanwhile, Iran has become a key source for missiles and drones. 

For its part, China is investing in Iranian and North Korean infrastructure in return for oil and manufactured weapons. It’s only logical to ask what Tehran and Pyongyang might seek in return for such assistance. One obvious quid pro quo is Russia’s help with the nuclear and missile programs of both countries.  CIA Director William Burns has already noted signs of Russian assistance to Iran’s missile program. Russian assistance could enable the Iranian program to finally gain success with longer range missiles, including an intercontinental capability that has long eluded Iranian engineers.

In short, some aspects of the Ukraine war have brought into closer alignment, the tangible interests of these four autocratic countries. These are likely to tighten the longer the war persists.

A third global alignment that is changing involves the grouping of nations called BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. It took shape between 2001 and 2006, to increase economic cooperation and political clout among the five countries.  Now, about 40 other countries are seeking to join, although only Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Argentina, the United Arab Emirates, and Ethiopia were accepted at the group’s meeting earlier this month.  This is a big win for Russia and China both of whom have been pushing to make the group larger as a counterweight to what they see as a U.S.-dominated global order.

This expansion is another offshoot of the Ukraine war insofar as the surge of interest in BRICS represents opposition to the East-West split that the war has crystalized – and opposition to the dominance of the U.S. dollar and the power that gives the U.S. to sanction other countries. For now, BRICS expansion is mainly of symbolic importance, but key countries that desire a global order less driven by the U.S. – especially Russia, China, and India – have every incentive to try translating it into concrete power. One tactic would be voting together more often in forums such as the UN and the International Monetary Fund. At minimum, BRICS expansion shows that broadly-shared grievances with the current global order, offers Russia another way to limit its diplomatic isolation, and gives China an arena in which to push for changes to the status quo.  

In sum, whether or not the Ukraine war turns out to be the global inflection point many leaders foresee, it has already had a powerful impact on key aspects of what is commonly understood to comprise global order – especially thinking about nuclear weapons and the composition and direction of alliances and other international groupings. The question of whether these trends continue to evolve and mature has an unsatisfactory answer: it depends.

Above all, it depends on how and in what circumstances the Ukraine war ends.  A war that grinds on or coincides with major conflict elsewhere or with a major political change in the United States, would probably open up a period of inconclusive maneuvering among all of the forces I’ve discussed here. If, on the other hand, Ukraine succeeds in expelling Russia, there is a good chance we will see regime change in Moscow, a loss of momentum among autocracies, and a recalibration of strategies in many of the arenas I’ve discussed. 

So, tectonic plates are moving in global politics. The only question is how they will settle.   

The Cipher Brief is committed to publishing a range of perspectives on national security issues submitted by deeply experienced national security professionals. 

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