Global caution, not sanctions, will check Russia and other unilateral actors.
Vladimir Putin is no Joseph Stalin and today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union. No single national leader, however powerful, is in a position to unilaterally alter global power balances. Every unilateral move can be met with a counter move. In the end, it is the word of caution delivered by a large majority of important nations rather than economic sanctions that will temper other major powers. No 20th century analogy, based on a bipolar or a unipolar power system, is relevant to understanding the emerging multipolar balance of the power system of the 21st century.
As I have argued earlier, Putin has been acting for some time now to signal the return of Russia (‘The Return of Russia’, IE, September 26, 2013) to the global high table after the two-decade post-Cold War interregnum. But Russia, like any mature power, ought to know the limits to such unilateral action in today’s world. The same considerations that are holding the United States back in the Middle East and restraining China in the South China Sea would eventually hold Russia back.
Equally, while the US and the European Union may seek to discipline other major powers, like a China or a Russia, when they step out of line, the ability of “the West” to impose its will on “the Rest” is increasingly circumscribed by shifting global power balances and changing alliances.
True, the West has overwhelming military superiority over the Rest. Moreover, if the West constructs new plurilateral trading regimes, like the Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnerships (TPP and TTIP), it could hurt many of the economies of the Rest. However, in today’s interdependent world, no one country, however big, can hurt another without imposing collateral damage on many others, which may eventually make the unilateral action counter-productive.
Of all the weapons in the West’s armour, the increasingly ineffective one is economic sanctions. Thanks to globalisation, the new interdependencies between the economies of the West and the Rest, and the integration of the “emerging economies” through South-South trade and investment networks, economic sanctions, always a blunt instrument of diplomacy, have become less effective in altering the behaviour of big countries.
The limits to the efficacy of economic sanctions against Russia, imposed in the wake of its “reclaiming” Crimea, were highlighted by a news report in The Guardian (UK) last week, which said that the British government had been cautioned by its own officials against taking measures continued…