What Is China Learning From Russia’s War in Ukraine?
America and Taiwan Need to Grasp—and Influence—Chinese Views of the Conflict
The Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point in history. It brings to a close the chapter that began at the end of the Cold War, when Western countries tried to integrate Russia into an international rules-based order. Russia under President Vladimir Putin has become a pariah state. Much as it did when facing down the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the United States has taken the lead in countering Putin‘s blatant attack on civilization.
Many countries support the U.S.-led response to Putin’s war, but some do so grudgingly. Too many governments see the conflict as a return to the days of the Cold War, when they were forced to choose sides. They imagine that what is at stake is the collision of two geopolitical rivals, not a fundamental question of principle. This is deeply unfortunate. Russia’s aggression should not be seen as ushering in a new Cold War but simply as what it is: the worst act of aggression in Europe since the end of World War II and a brutal violation of international law.
History will not turn in a positive direction on its own. The United States, which has at times undermined international law in its foreign policy choices, should commit to the upholding of the norms and laws that define the international rules-based order. The burden of addressing violations of international law has to be divided more evenly. Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has described this moment as a Zeitenwende, a historical turning point. Along with other European countries, Germany needs to step up to the plate and significantly increase its defense spending, improve its readiness to help maintain stability in and around Europe, and take on a leadership role in resolving international conflicts.
This effort requires a global alliance. The partnership among countries that commit to international law and its foundational texts, the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, should comprise countries from all continents. The international community should not be a euphemism for the West. The perception that there continues to be a conflict between “the West” and “the East” allows too many countries to sit on the fence. The fault line really lies between those who seek to reaffirm a principled, global moral and legal order, and those who do not. A new global alliance should stand tall in its uncompromising efforts to protect international law, international humanitarian law, and human rights law.
In December 2018, when I was serving as Germany’s ambassador to the UN, I and nearly all of my fellow representatives received a note from Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN. The message said that if we voted in favor of a resolution in the General Assembly that condemned the United States’ plan to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, she would report us to U.S. President Donald Trump. I was stunned. I asked to see Haley, with whom I was friendly. She received me, and I explained to her my incredulous reaction to her note.
I was born in 1955, ten years after the Holocaust and World War II. I grew up in a divided Germany. Only because of the generosity and wisdom of the allied forces did Germany, after the horrendous crimes it had committed, receive a second chance. Thanks to allied persuasion, West Germany agreed to be better behaved, never again violate international law, and solve its conflicts with others peacefully. The German constitution was carefully drafted in 1949 and received the approval of the allies; it upheld respect for the law and abjured the unilateral use of force to resolve problems. The European Union was founded in 1957 on the same principle that differences could be managed through institutions and legal procedures—through the rule of law, not the law of the strongest. This premise afforded the center of Europe its longest period of peace in history.
I explained all this to Haley. And I asked her if she understood why I was surprised by the fact that she had demanded we ignore international law. Now it was her turn to be stunned. She asked her adviser what he thought. He stuttered and admitted that I was correct: UN Security Council Resolution 478 had asked all countries not to place their embassies in Jerusalem. He knew that UN Security Council resolutions were legally binding. The conversation quickly turned to another issue.
Adherence to international law has afforded the center of Europe its longest period of peace in history.
During Germany’s tenure on the Security Council between 2019 and 2020, the United States repeatedly violated UN Security Council resolutions, including by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA); recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights; and recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. The United States also withdrew from the World Health Organization, the Paris climate change agreement, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the UN cultural body. Trump advanced a narrow-minded “America first” policy instead of a global view of the common good.
But I was surprised by the successor Trump appointed to replace Haley in 2019: Kelly Craft. Although the Trump administration officially considered climate change a hoax, Craft understood that the climate crisis was a serious issue. She came out strongly in support of UN Secretary-General António Guterres and the United Nations. In 2020, she and I joined forces in upholding human rights by rallying dozens of countries to condemn China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority. As a result of that vote in the UN, the director general in charge of minority issues in the Chinese foreign ministry was reportedly fired. Craft and I had helped create an alliance that stretched from Albania to New Zealand and that was ready to stand up for the rule of law and for human rights.
Craft and I also joined forces to challenge China and Russia on another dismal human rights situation: Syria. I chaired the Security Council in July 2020, when it considered the renewal of the resolution that legalized UN border crossing points through which aid reached northwestern Syria. The UN program was a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of refugees and for local people in parts of Syria cut off from aid. Russia, supported by China, wanted to terminate the UN presence, insisting on the sovereignty of the Bashar al-Assad regime over the whole Syrian territory. It came to a showdown in the Security Council. Russia and China did veto the resolution, but thanks to internal and external pressure, both countries ultimately agreed to a solution that allowed for a minimum of help to be delivered to the people who desperately needed it.
This is the kind of cooperation a global alliance needs to pursue: a shared policy that upholds international law, humanitarian priorities, and human rights. Yes, it can be a painful process coordinating with partners to find a common solution, but it’s the only way forward for this alliance to continue to hold the upper hand in the conflict with autocracies such as Russia and China, which consciously violate international law in suppressing their own people and in bullying their neighbors.
China and Russia want to rewrite the international rule book by insisting on national sovereignty being the most important legal principle, one that trumps international law, humanitarian law, and human rights law. Against this backdrop, countries committed to upholding international legal regimes have to join forces. They have to do it on the basis of real partnership. In this respect, the Biden administration’s reaction to Russia’s aggression was exemplary: since late December 2021, President Joe Biden and his team have gone out of their way to coordinate the response to Putin with an alliance that reaches beyond NATO and the EU. Out of 193 countries, only Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria supported Russia in the March vote at the General Assembly that condemned Putin’s invasion.
The new German government demonstrated some reluctance to fully join in possible sanctions, but Washington reacted with patience and allowed the Germans to iron out differences internally and eventually join the consensus in favor of sanctions. Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy, has to strengthen its international role. It began to do so under former Chancellor Angela Merkel. Germany is the second-largest financial contributor to the UN system, a major source of support for the organization that underpins the international rules-based order and is the only entity that can deal with global challenges. Together with France, Germany helped negotiate the Minsk agreement with Russia and Ukraine that stopped Russia’s 2014-15 invasion. Together with the UN secretary-general, Germany organized the 2020 Berlin Conference on Libya, the outcome of which served as basis for the end of fighting there and opened a track toward a political resolution of the conflict. Germany is part of the group of countries that under EU leadership negotiated the Iran nuclear deal. Merkel was the driving force behind the G-20’s Compact with Africa, which directed international attention toward the continent by inviting selected African countries to the G–20 summit in Hamburg in 2017.
But countries clearly expect more of Germany. When I worked as a diplomatic adviser to Merkel and as Germany’s ambassador to the UN, I was impressed by the many requests from representatives of other countries who asked for more German leadership in areas as disparate as the western Balkans, eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Sahel, Central Asia, and even Latin America. Of course, they appreciated Merkel and her steady hand, but they also respected Germany’s commitment to a foreign policy that was neither paternalistic nor neocolonialist. Countries recognize that Germany delivers much of its financial aid directly to UN agencies; it seeks to support development and peacekeeping goals without extracting anything immediate in return.
Scholz’s government has pledged that Germany will assume more responsibility on the international stage. Germany can promote stability in the Balkans, eastern Europe, Central Asia, the wider Middle East, and Northern and sub-Saharan Africa through energetic diplomacy, holding conferences, hosting key players, and engaging others with all the peaceful instruments at its disposal. Scholz has also promised to strengthen Germany’s commitment to the European Union. Germany as a country can do much to support and help stabilize Europe’s wider neighborhood, but only a stronger European Union can make a difference globally.
The United States remains the most powerful global democratic actor, but it also presents a major challenge. In 2019, I complained to a member of the Trump administration about the disrespect it showed to the Security Council resolutions adopted during the time of the Obama administration. The official replied that his administration considered as null and void those international obligations entered into by its predecessor. Again, I was stunned. I had bumped into a particularly stubborn brand of American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States exists above the rest of the world—and above the rules of the rest of the world. To be sure, the United States throughout the twentieth century promoted democracy and the rule of international law. But it still has difficulties accepting that it, too, is subject to that law, as evidenced by its actions in the Vietnam War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as well as by its abuses in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
The rules-based international order will prevail only if the United States commits to it. The United States in the twenty-first century is no longer the one superpower that can control developments worldwide, that has the capability and the domestic backing to intervene globally. Without real coordination with its allies, the Biden administration rushed out of Afghanistan in 2021, implementing the awkward deal set in motion by the Trump administration and leaving the Afghan population in the hands of the Taliban, who don’t respect basic human rights, in particular those of women. Many of my American friends didn’t see any problems with the chaotic and unilateral nature of the withdrawal. They didn’t take issue with how the Afghan republican government found itself in an impossible (and doomed) situation, nor with how the withdrawal caught U.S. allies off guard. The feeling of my friends was that a swift withdrawal was necessary to concentrate on the many challenges the country faced at home: education, health, infrastructure, income disparity, and so on. The U.S. departure from Afghanistan was a clear demonstration of its gradual withdrawal from international crisis management and a call to action for others: a wider global alliance, including Germany, must fill the gap.
The rules-based international order will prevail only if the United States commits to it.
A reluctance to act has cost the United States in the past. To many U.S. allies, the Obama administration’s decision not to intervene militarily in Syria in 2012—even after the Assad regime crossed Washington’s red line by employing chemical weapons against its own people—was a turning point. Obama hesitated, remembering the U.S. experiences in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, all countries where military interventions didn’t yield the desired results but led instead to drawn-out operations, enormous human and financial costs, and continued turmoil. The United States’ major rivals, China and Russia, took notice—and took advantage of Obama’s passivity. Since then, they have aggressively enlarged their sphere of influence and ruthlessly violated international law—Russia in Ukraine, Libya, and Syria, and China in Hong Kong, the South China Sea, and in its policy toward minority groups, including the Uyghurs. The volatility of the Trump administration did nothing to curb the expansionist ambitions of Beijing and Moscow.
To be sure, U.S. leadership on the world stage is not just about projecting military power. Committed diplomacy underpins the rules-based order. Take, for example, the Iran nuclear deal. Years of intensive and very complicated negotiations led to the signing of the JCPOA in 2015. Iran adhered to the agreement, scaled down its nuclear activities, and allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect its nuclear facilities. The immediate danger of Iran obtaining a nuclear bomb was defused. UN Security Council Resolution 2231 endorsed the JCPOA and gave it the legitimacy of international law. The deal was a masterpiece of diplomacy: no other major international agreement in recent years has brought together so many major powers: China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union. It prevented a possible war in the region. Of course, the deal was not perfect. The brutal authoritarian regime in Tehran remained in place, and there was no guarantee that it would give up any of its destructive regional policies.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration decided to trash the deal, violating international law and further diminishing trust in the United States. The conflicts in the region worsened; the situation in Yemen deteriorated, the Iranians increased their support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and for the Assad regime in Syria, and they continued to undermine the Iraqi government. Instead of working with the United States, the European partners scrambled to convince the Iranian regime not to abandon the deal. It was a diplomatic nightmare for the Europeans, who effectively had to work with Iran against the United States.
Biden declared before taking office that he was ready to return to the JCPOA. But instead of immediately lifting sanctions on Iran, as the United States had committed to when signing the deal, the Biden administration started a negotiating process to get the Iranians to scale back their activities which were in violation of the JCPOA. This tactic—again, not coordinated with allies—was easier formulated than implemented. The Iranians felt they had already been cheated and that the United States needed to make concessions first. The prospects for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear challenge are dwindling. Any new deal reached will be worse than the original JCPOA. The current predicament is a reminder to U.S. officials that they should take international law more seriously and they should abide by it.
The war in Ukraine presents another crossroads for the international rules-based order—and for the U.S. role in global affairs. It was without a doubt positive that the Biden administration took the lead in countering Putin’s violent aggression. The vote in the General Assembly in March condemning the invasion was a demonstration of international unity. But that solidarity is not as strong as it seems. In many countries, including major democracies such as Brazil, India, and South Africa, the conflict is seen as a return to a Cold War dynamic that pits the United States and “the West” against Russia. Many people around the world perceive double standards in the U.S. response: by invading Iraq, for instance, the United States was also culpable of violating international law and the sovereignty of another country. The global economy is taking a downturn, energy prices are soaring, food is becoming scarcer and more expensive. Many of those affected see this as a consequence of U.S.-led “Western” sanctions on Russia.
That is why a better response to Putin’s war and similar violations of the UN Charter in the future would be a collective one, orchestrated by partners from all over the world that adhere to and seek to protect the fundaments of international law. Beyond the United States, this would require more from like-minded countries, including the G-7 countries and those governments from all continents that commit to the rule-based order on the basis of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The larger objective should be to finally implement the promise of being “partners in leadership” that U.S. President George H.W. Bush offered to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1989. The cooperation between the EU and the United States in imposing sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine in 2014-15 was an example of such a partnership, as the sanctions were coordinated and synchronized. The JCPOA was another example—that is, until the United States unilaterally bowed out. Other crises in addition to the Russian aggression against Ukraine demand collective attention and joint action, including in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel. So, too, does the future of Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the United States has largely tried to extract itself from both hotspots, which is a mistake. It would be a welcome gesture by the Biden administration, for instance, to revitalize the Middle East peace process by breathing fresh life into the Middle East Quartet, the grouping of Russia, the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations that was founded in 2002 to push for a two-state solution and a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Only more multilateral engagement—not Trump’s unilateralism nor Obama’s disengagement—will work to ensure the whole region does not become more volatile.
Biden can help nurture a global alliance of countries that commit to the respect of international law. This will demand from the United States a change in its mindset; it must coordinate with its partners more systematically and treat the preservation of international law as the basis for all its actions. For Germany in particular and Europe more broadly, it is time to shoulder more responsibility, to provide for sufficient military and civilian instruments of crisis management, to take the lead in the resolution of international crises, and to reach out to partners outside their immediate neighborhood. The fault lines today are not those between the West and the communist East, as they were during the Cold War. They are between those who adhere to a rules-based international order and those who adhere to no law at all but the law of the strongest.
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