“The boredom of peace and prosperity had far more serious consequences in the past,” Francis Fukuyama warned in the final pages of his oft-cited book. The end of the story. Writing in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fukuyama boldly asserted that the great historical battles over the best form of social organization were now effectively settled.
For Fukuyama, the Western model of democratic capitalism had become the most desirable form of governance. Thus, he argued controversially that “history” proper, as a battlefield of ideals, had now effectively “ended” with the triumph of the West. What worried him, however, was the prospect of widespread laziness and complacency amid an unprecedented era of prosperity and peace in the West. As an Asian who came of age during the post-Cold War era, I grew up with an image of Europe that resembled the Elysee Palace in Fukuyama, where martial spirits were supplanted by pacifist materialism.
But at this year’s Munich Security Conference, held in the shadow of an escalating conflict on Europe’s doorstep, I saw not only trouble in heaven, but also a Western alliance revitalized and unified in the face of a Russian military build-up.
Suddenly, Europe seemed a much more familiar place, a continent grappling with the same conflicts and uncertainties that have plagued much of the post-colonial world since the end of the Cold War. Even Fukuyama had acknowledged that his “end of history” would bring neither stability nor prosperity to much of the non-Western world, where the forces of nationalism and demagoguery continue to haunt countless nations.
At opposite ends of Asia, insurgencies, proxy wars, and interstate conflict have become a staple of everyday geopolitics. In fact, many regions, from the Caucasus to Northeast Asia, are home to frozen conflicts dating back to the Cold War era.
Places as radically different as Taiwan and North Korea grapple with the destructive legacy of superpower conflict of the last century. For decades, the survival of governments in these places has depended on the strategic patronage of the West or the East.
During the Munich Security Conference, however, it also became crystal clear that even Europe has not completely abandoned the legacy of the Cold War. On the contrary, what is at the heart of the current crisis in Ukraine is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s determination to undo the geopolitical order that was built on the ashes of the Soviet Union.
As Mr. Putin lamented during a national address in 2005: “Above all, it should be recognized that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe in history. [20th] century.” He repeated almost exactly the same point in a major speech last year, where he described the end of the Cold War as “the collapse of historic Russia.”
In response, he gradually rebuilt his country’s military capabilities and, accordingly, reasserted Moscow’s spheres of influence from Central Asia and the Caucasus to Eastern Europe. In a highly publicized essay, titled “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Mr. Putin effectively described Ukraine as part of a greater Russia.
After watching helplessly as NATO relentlessly expanded from Poland (1999) to North Macedonia (2020), Mr. Putin drew the red line around Ukraine.
This feeling of resentment, this desire for historical justification, resonates with many in Asia. After all, the continent is home to a multitude of proud civilizations and former colonies determined to find their place in the sun.
Three things came out of the Munich Security Conference. First, there is Ukraine’s tireless determination to preserve its right to self-determination, including its constitutional goal of joining NATO and, by extension, the West in the future.
In his defiant speech in Munich, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned the West against “appeasement” and pledged to “protect our country with or without the support of our [western] partners.” It was the kind of talk that would sit well in many smaller East Asian countries that perceive, rightly or wrongly, a growing challenge from their neighboring superpower, China.
Second, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also surprised many when, instead of standing firmly with his allies in Moscow, he extended an olive branch to the West, calling for ” dialogue” and “communication” based on goodwill and mutual understanding. Above all, the Chinese diplomat stressed the need to maintain the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all nation states, and that “Ukraine is no exception”.
This partly explains why days later, when Mr Putin approved the deployment of Russian troops to rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine, China immediately reaffirmed the need for dialogue and diplomacy. . In short, China has signaled its ambivalence, if not dissatisfaction, with Russia’s evolving position in Europe.
But above all, what struck me was that Mr. Putin almost single-handedly put an end to the “end of history” in Europe, bringing NATO out of its strategic complacency. The speed and vigor with which the Western powers closed ranks in the face of an assertive Russia was astonishing. In keynote speeches in Munich, US Vice President Kamala Harris warned of a “swift” and “tough” response, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on NATO allies to ensure “the Russia should ultimately fail and be seen as failing” in a full scale invasion event of Ukraine. The usually taciturn German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, was also unusually assertive, calling on the West to “gather the capabilities” to avert another war in Europe. A few days later, he ordered the immediate suspension of the Nord Stream 2 project, a cornerstone of German-Russian energy cooperation.
For the first time in recent memory, the West is taking up arms, taking neither its peace nor its prosperity for granted. What the world saw in Munich could be described as nothing less than a reboot of history, a new clash over the grand ideals that have governed the geopolitical order in Europe and beyond. Far from being exceptional, Europe is becoming like Asia, where prosperity has been accompanied by conflict and uncertainty.
Posted: February 24, 2022, 2:00 PM