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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchThe Ukraine War Doesn’t Change Everything

The Ukraine War Doesn’t Change Everything

Author: Stephen M. Walt

Affiliation: Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Policy 

Date/Place: February 13, 2022/ USA

Type of Literature: Article 

Word Count: 1987



Keywords: Ukraine War, US Foreign Policy, Realism, the Return of Great-Power Rivalry, the End of Unipolarity


Stephen Walt refutes recent claims that the war in Ukraine is a “watershed moment: a giant fork in the road” of history because of its “profound impact” on world politics, and similar claims that Russia’s big loss in the war would grant the liberal global order “a new chance for life” to put the forces of autocracy to a deep setback. Moreover, a victory by Russia will not cause the world to slide into the abyss of totalitarianism, nor erode the established norms against the acquisition of territory by force, thus motivating other authoritarian forces to launch campaigns similar to Putin’s in Ukraine whenever geopolitical conditions become favorable to them. In contrast, Walt argues that the war in Ukraine is significant because it marks the decisive end of America’s brief “unipolar moment” (1993-2020), and also foreshadows the return of patterns of world politics that were temporarily suppressed during the brief unipolar era when the United States was the only and real great power in the world. It is a return to the world of great power rivalry for which the realist paradigm offers the best explanation.


The article is divided into three parts. In the first part, Walt explains why he believes that the war in Ukraine does not represent a turning point in human history. Similar claims have been made before, commenting on past events in recent decades, but they were never really turning points. It has been said that “everything changed” with the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new world order has emerged, and that humanity has reached the “end of history” in which the politics of pure power has ended. It was said that “everything changed” after the 9/11 attacks when the world suddenly found itself in the midst of a “global war on terror,” which some exaggerated by calling it “the Fourth World War.” The same claim was repeated after the 2008 financial crisis, and again when Trump became president. But, nothing changed in world politics according to Walt. Moreover, the war in Ukraine (until now) has not reached a level of mass destruction caused by other historical wars such as the war in Indochina, Iraq, or Afghanistan. What is different about the Ukraine 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”. This is an explicit return to the familiar patterns of great power struggles. That is why this war represents the official end of the quasi-brief peace between the major powers that followed the end of the Cold War—Russia and China have now become strong enough to openly resist the United States.


In the second part, the author holds the successive US administrations since the end of the Cold War responsible for the early end of the unipolar era and the end of US global primacy due to their failure to follow a realist agenda and having committed mistakes that were primarily caused by adopting a liberal ideological agenda far from realistic logic. The unrealistic agenda of these administrations have not only helped China rise more quickly (with the delusion that bringing China into the liberal international order would make it a responsible stakeholder and hasten the change of its political system into a liberal one) but even made it a peer competitor. This agenda also squandered trillions of USD in costly wars in the greater Middle East, it paid no heed to Russian fears when it embarked on NATO enlargement and assumed that Russia could do nothing to stop the enlargement, as well as damaged American democracy and impeded it to become an attractive model that other societies might want to emulate.


In the last part, the author predicts what will happen to world politics after the end of the war, emphasizing the explanatory power of realism in explaining a world whose characteristics have never disappeared and are now re-appearing. The war will bring the world back to the situation it has always been, for which realism has best explained. It is a world of great power rivalry in which hard power remains an important tool. The credit will be for the hard military power if Russia succeeds in incorporating Donetsk and Luhansk and establishing a land bridge to Crimea, as well as if Ukraine retains all or most of its former territory. Moreover, the repercussions of the war in Ukraine remind us of the realist arguments for the importance and priority of security over economic interdependence (which liberalism emphasizes). It is true that global trade and economic interdependence have clear and enormous benefits, but close ties do not have the ability to be a solid barrier to conflict (as liberalists claim). Dependence on others can also cause real pain if these relationships are severed, whether by a dangerous virus or a sudden geopolitical fissure. In short, when nations are forced to choose between security and profit, most will choose security, as the Ukraine war has shown and as realism has always argued. In addition, the author expects that the war will accelerate Russia’s relative deterioration, especially on the economic level in the long run, even if Russia achieves some limited gains. The emerging future world will be closer to true bipolarity than to multipolarity, in which Russia will play the role of China’s junior partner vis-à-vis the United States. “It 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.” It will be difficult to achieve and maintain cooperation between major powers even when their interests are partially close to each other. The most dangerous repercussion of this war is the major powers’ overlooking the 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”. In short, we are back in a world best explained by realism, a world in which great powers vie for power and influence while others adapt as best they can. The jungle isn’t “growing back,” as Robert Kagan would have us believe (in his book of the same title), it never really went away.

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA  Senior Research Associate



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