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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchUkraine, Gaza, and the International Order

Ukraine, Gaza, and the International Order

Author: Faisal Devji

Affiliation: University of Oxford

Organization/Publisher: Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft 

Date/Place: February 6, 2024 / Washington D.C, USA

Type of Literature: Research Article 

Number of Pages: 21 Pages



Keywords: Ukraine, Gaza, Power Competition, US, Israel, Global Order, Cold War


Faisal Devji commences his essay by highlighting the persistence of Cold War-era thinking in shaping contemporary international politics. Despite the end of the Cold War more than three decades ago, our political categories and perceptions continue to be influenced by its shadow. He stresses that even influential post-Cold War visions, such as Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man” and Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,” have not fully replaced the Cold War paradigm. Furthermore, the international system has evolved in ways not entirely predicted by these visions. For example, due to Russia’s reduced power compared to the Cold War, the conflict in Ukraine cannot be easily categorized as a great-power competition or a struggle between unipolarity and multipolarity. Devi suggests that the persistence of Cold War thinking affects how events are interpreted, citing the war in Gaza as redirecting Western attention from the Indo-Pacific region. The wars in Ukraine and Gaza challenge the conventional view of the world order as being defined by the struggle between unipolarity and multipolarity. He suggests that the United States, despite being the most powerful country in the world, no longer maintains a unipolar order. Instead, the idea of great-power politics is being questioned, and the conflicts in question are not driven by the traditional notions of major power competition. The United States has faced unexpected challenges since the end of the Cold War, such as non-state threats like global militancy, represented by groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. The War on Terror, intended to solidify American unipolarity, did not lead to global hegemony. Rather, the unilateral deployment of American power contributed to the dismantling rather than the strengthening of the international system.


Devji critiques President Biden’s linking of the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza as examples of America’s essential role in protecting the international order from threats. Rather, the true similarity between the two is the US and its allies’ reliance on war, rather than diplomacy, negotiations, and ceasefires, reflecting a broader shift in American power. He suggests that the response to conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East indicates a changing structure of American power. The wars themselves are not the primary threat to the unipolarity that has defined the international order since the Cold War’s end. Instead, it is the reluctance of many allied and client states to align with the US in these conflicts. The failure of the War on Terror to establish a new international order serves as a cautionary precedent, dissuading countries from choosing sides in the Ukraine war. Western historical narratives about global conflict have been provincialized, as many countries are now prioritizing neutrality over alignment with either the US or Russia. Neutrality, which was marginalized in the post-Cold War period and the War on Terror, has resurfaced as a fundamental principle in international relations. This has allowed the Ukraine war to become geographically limited and regionalized against American wishes, while countries like Turkey use their neutrality to mediate between conflicting parties. Global politics, made possible by a unipolar international order, is being threatened in Ukraine. The United States has responded by forming a Western bloc of countries, including Canada, the UK, Australia, Japan, and South Korea, against Russia, reducing the regional autonomy of the European Union. Devji in this article asserts that a similar challenge is faced in the Middle East, where Hamas’s attack in October 2023 disrupted the region’s post-Cold War politics, characterized by a globally agreed and guaranteed peace process leading to normalization. The previous unipolar moment, characterized by negotiations and agreements such as Camp David, Oslo, and the Abraham Accords, is now being defended by the United States through military intervention to restore the previous status quo. This approach may lead to pushing for a two-state solution in which the Palestinians could be funded and managed by the international order, reminiscent of post-Cold War situations like Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, and South Sudan. Devji here critiques the dated nature of this vision, citing historical narratives like World War Two and the Cold War in Ukraine and 9/11 in the Middle East, emphasizing the absence of a new vision for the future despite President Biden’s mention of a historical inflection point.


While the Hamas attack of October 7th is often compared to 9/11, there is a striking difference in the way each event is understood. The 9/11 attacks were considered unprecedented, and their scale signaled a new political era. However, the current conflict is seen in the West as a continuation of the past. For Israel and its supporters, it represents a continuation of Palestinian and Islamic terrorism, while for those supporting the Palestinians, it is viewed as an attack against the continuation of colonialism and apartheid. Devji points out the failure of political imagination on both sides, where victimology is mirrored, revealing an intimacy of perspectives. However, he recognizes some novelty in the narratives and actions of the so-called Axis of Resistance, which includes Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, Shia militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen. In this context, Israel is portrayed as losing its war, and the international order as undergoing transformation. Thus, the focus shifts from victimology to martyrdom for a perceived worthy and victorious cause. Faisal Devji argues that the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks led to the destruction of the international order established during the Cold War. With the collapse of the USSR and the absence of global opposition to the United States, the US marginalized the entire UN system through the expansion of preemptive strikes, unilateral and third-party sanctions, confiscation of sovereign funds, legitimization of torture and extra-judicial killings, limitations on citizenship rights, and the dismantling of civil liberties through anti-terrorism laws. These practices, developed through interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Libya, formed what Devji calls a “rules-based international order,” distinct from the international law that characterized the UN order during the Cold War. He suggests that these political practices were initially intended to be exclusive to the United States and its Western allies, and were viewed as exceptions justified in the name of security. However, a growing list of countries have invoked them as a new norm. Russia, for instance, cited American practices in the War on Terror to justify its actions in Ukraine, while Israel referenced the Allied bombing of civilians during World War II to justify its actions in Gaza. This shift in political practices, drawing inspiration from periods before or after the establishment of a post-war international order and its rule of law, raises questions about the status of international law today and whether these practices are forming a new, albeit informal, model of international relations or signaling the breakdown of the existing international order.


Devji claims that Israel’s military actions, particularly in Gaza, are unlikely to achieve a lasting solution, suggesting that a political settlement is the key to stability. He criticizes the expectation that the Abraham Accords, which aimed to align Israel with Sunni Arab nations, which were expected to fall in line behind Saudi Arabia against Shia Iran, as being based on Orientalist stereotypes. He also states that the United States, fearing regionalization, is intervening to prevent Israel’s autonomy, re-globalizing the conflict to maintain its unipolarity. However, this intervention may inadvertently contribute to the regionalization of the war, shifting the conflict’s center of gravity away from global politics. Devji proposes a ceasefire that represents neutrality as an alternative, highlighting global disapproval of unipolarity and comparing voting patterns on UN resolutions related to Ukraine and Gaza. The US pursuit of a global transformation project appears desperate and may fail to bring the region under its control. The reliance on force or the threat of its use indicates the collapse of the remnants of the Cold War’s international order and the erosion of Western authority and hegemony in the Middle East and beyond. Hamas’ attack is seen as demolishing the post-Cold War Palestinian movement, which was centered on international law and a stagnant peace process. Devji claims that Israel’s defense doctrine, built on military and technological superiority, failed in the face of a major attack from Gaza, leading to a brutal response. The Israeli bombardment aims to recover deterrence, degrade Hamas, and potentially render Gaza uninhabitable to delay the establishment of a Palestinian state. However, these efforts are simultaneously squandering Israel’s goodwill among allies and eroding US hegemony. Thus, Devji proposes that, at the end of the conflict, the US might force the creation of a Palestinian state under international auspices, acknowledging that Israel will either need to join the region or become an increasingly embattled American protectorate within it.


The post-Cold War history, as seen through the examples of Ukraine and Gaza, reveals the limited duration of America’s undisputed unipolar moment. The emergence of al-Qaeda interrupted this period, with its globalized militancy aiming to disrupt Western societies from within. The US response to 9/11 unintentionally demolished the Cold War international order it sought to reinforce. The War on Terror, leading to the rise of ISIS and a shift to regional forms of militancy, did not bring about a return to the UN system. Instead, the world witnessed events like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and conflicts in the Middle East, particularly Gaza, showcasing a trend toward regionalized politics. Devji suggests that neither China nor Russia can assume the superpower role of the Cold War, and regional powers are gaining prominence internationally due to the West’s destruction of the UN system and the failure of the rules-based international order.

Deglobalization is not about states implementing protectionist measures but rather reflects the separation of politics from the global economy. Economic development, despite legislative acts like President Biden’s Green New Deal, remains global, making it challenging for any one state to control or significantly impact rivals. Devji here suggests that the political arena allows for deglobalization due to the separation of the state from the economy, facilitated by the fact that global economic growth is no longer confined to or controlled by the West. However, he acknowledges that not all international politics can be regionalized, citing examples like the West being shaped into a global formation through events in Ukraine and Gaza. He argues that certain regions, like China, are fully integrated into the global economy but lack political hegemony over their regions, making them regional political actors. India’s ambiguous international status, torn between global and regional ambitions, exemplifies the challenges faced by alleged rivals of the West. Hence, civilizations, rather than great-power competition, are emerging as the defining units of global politics. Devji suggests that a more benign version of Huntington’s civilizational logic is the dominant dynamic today, as these states aim to entrench regions as the foundations of the international order. He emphasizes, however, this would entail a shift from a purely spatial understanding of global politics to a temporal one based on distinctive and non-replicable ideas, characterizing this vision as an essentialist approach to diversity. He notes with some irony that this matches the West’s own culture wars and political polarizations, all of which stems from the fraying consensus that defined politics during the Cold War.


Devji asserts that there is a possibility of overlapping incompatible political models in the international order. He identifies two potential paradigms: a global order characterized by great-power competition, where the United States seeks to maintain unipolarity, reminiscent of the Cold War; and a regional order where middle powers play an active role, and great powers have reduced political influence to avoid risking the international order. The US, at present, is seeking to maintain unipolarity against non-existent threats while being unable to prevent the increasing regionalization of international politics. This regional politics might eventually limit America’s global scope of action, even without diminishing its military or economic dominance. There have been instances where both Western and non-Western allies and clients have refused to align with the United States on issues like Ukraine and Gaza. Furthermore, the United States itself is acting in a puzzling behavior, trying to resurrect its post-Cold War unipolar moment rather than building a new international order. Devji proposes the idea of regionalization and a refusal of global politics as potentially restoring a balance to international relations. He envisions the possibility of a new international order where the United States and its allies reach agreements with their enemies, giving emerging powers decision-making roles. This order could involve a reimagined UN, with a Security Council that interprets rather than ignores General Assembly decisions and may not have veto powers, thus fostering more legitimate and inclusive decision-making.


Current geopolitical developments could lead to the formation of a new political imaginary. However, it must take into consideration the challenge of bridging old-fashioned great-power global politics with emerging regional politics and the growing trend of regions delinking from global powers, as witnessed in states’ responses to the United States over Ukraine. This refusal to compete directly with superpowers, representing a unique balance of power, is an extraordinary political development that may not always be viable but cannot be easily halted. In the meantime, we murk in the antiquated visions of the Cold War, waiting for a new world to be born.

By: Sara El Souhagy, CIGA Research Assistant



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