By Keiko Sakai, professor, Chiba University
International politics had been in a kind of lull during the COVID-19 pandemic, until it absorbed two major shocks over the past year: the resurgence of the Taliban before the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, and Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
The former flipped everything that had been achieved in the 20 years since 9.11, or rather the 30 years since the end of the Cold War. But put the two developments together, and you can see a historical link between them. The resurgence of the Taliban undid the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan 20 years ago that overthrew the Taliban and established a pro-U.S. government. In the process, the U.S. effectively pulled out of the Middle East, and Russia moved to fill the vacuum. The invasion of Ukraine is part of this trend.
In the background of these two events, we can see a commonality in the attempts of major powers to change the status quo by military intervention. Though the U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq ultimately ended in failure, Russia is now also attempting to change the status quo through military force. The starting and ending points of military intervention by these major powers are concurrent.
The similarities between the actions of the U.S. and Russia over the course of the past 20 years reveal several contradictions. Above all, one cannot overlook the criticism mainly from the non-Western world against the "double standards" in the West's reactions to the two great powers' military interventions.
A prime example is the difference in the response to refugees. Japan, for example, announced its willingness to accept Ukrainian refugees, forcibly opening the doors that had previously been tightly closed. On the other hand, Afghans who served with the previous U.S.-backed regime and are trying to escape Taliban rule have not received much help. Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis, and other people who have become refugees due to foreign interventions and have been waiting for decades to be accepted are kept on the back burner, with priority given to Ukrainian refugees. In the receiving countries, blatantly racist whispers of "Ukrainians are better educated and have whiter skin" abound.
Furthermore, we also see a double standard in the evaluation of military intervention. Russia's invasion is considered as an "absolute evil," but the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan 20 years ago was considered by the international community to be a "good intervention." The war in Iraq two years later was tacitly approved even though it was called into question at the United Nations. If we include military interventions not by major powers, some examples have been overlooked for more than half a century, such as Israeli occupation of Palestine, and there are a daunting number of "foreign aggressions" that do not make the news.
In addition, what cannot be overlooked in the cases of Ukraine and Afghanistan is the question of what is meant by the "status quo" when it comes to "changing the status quo by force." For the West, the "status quo" is the international order after the collapse of the Soviet Union, while for Russia, the "status quo" means maintaining the sphere of Russian civilization from the imperial period to the Soviet era.
At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on the Ukraine crisis in February, the Kenyan representative drew plaudits when he said that although many former colonies in Africa and elsewhere were not satisfied with the borders set at the time of their founding, their dissatisfaction should not be resolved by military force. However, potential sources of conflict are ubiquitous, where people want to regain lost lands by force if needed, and consider that the "status quo" can only be restored by recapturing that territory.
One example is the Islamic State (IS) militant group, which considered the abolition of the caliphate with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I to be unreasonable, and sought its reestablishment. Another is Iraq under Saddam Hussein, which invaded Kuwait in 1990 by claiming that Kuwait was within the administrative borders of Basra (currently Iraq) under the Ottoman Empire, prior to British rule.
It is the former colonial suzerain states and the victors of the war who reject these claims and decide what is the "status quo to be maintained." Under such circumstances, the logic of power proliferates; the thinking that if the victors' rules prevent one from recovering lost lands, one has no choice but to become the victor.
The distrust mainly by non-Western nations of the current international order, which has left some parts of the world in terrible conditions, is amplified by the deceptive application of current international norms.
It is interesting to note that the logic of Russia's justification for military intervention bears a grotesque resemblance to that of the United States in its wars in the Middle East. The desperate resistance of the Ukrainians is seen by Russia as inhumane coercion by the Kyiv government, using its people as "human shields." Similarly, the U.S. military ignored Iraqi victims of U.S. bombardment during the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991, saying they were being used as "human shields." When Russia invaded, the Kremlin thought the Ukrainians would "greet them with flowers," and the same was said by the U.S. military at the start of the Iraq War in 2003.
After the tremendous expenditures of blood and treasure poured into two decades of fighting the "war on terror," the U.S. concluded that intervention was not worth it, and withdrew from Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the logic of intervention used by the U.S. so often has been mirrored in Russia.
In response to the worsening war situation, Russia has announced plans to bring in fighters from Syria and other countries. Procuring volunteer soldiers through allied countries can be traced back to the U.S. encouraging Muslims to join the resistance against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. It is still fresh in our minds that some of these volunteer fighters later became al-Qaeda, an international terrorist organization. Furthermore, the large amount of arms supplied to Ukraine from the West reminds us of precedents in Iraq and Syria, where foreign weapons were distributed widely to citizens, leading to killings among compatriots in the respective countries.
Providing weapons and volunteer troops to allied forces, and using humanitarianism and justice as justification for such actions are methods of military intervention that have become common in the U.S.-led "war on terror," and they have been inherited by Russia from the United States.
The implications of this are extremely serious. This is because international norms have been so thoroughly distorted and arbitrarily used by the major powers that they have lost credibility as norms. International norms are now impotent because they have been trivialized as naught but pretexts to justify major powers' pursuit of profit by force.
Reflections on the invasion of Ukraine and the "war on terror" call us to the need for efforts to correct international norms and make them more versatile.
Profile: Keiko Sakai
A graduate of the University of Tokyo, Sakai earned her Ph.D. in area studies from Kyoto University. After working as a researcher at the Institute of Developing Economies and as a researcher attache at the Embassy of Japan in Iraq, she then taught at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies as a professor, and assumed her current position in 2012. A specialist in Middle Eastern politics and Iraq affairs, she is the recipient of the Asia Pacific Prize Grand Prize in 2003, and was the chairperson of the Japan Association of International Relations from 2012 to 2014.