This morning, as world leaders prepared to address the United Nations General Assembly, in Afghanistan the Taleban stormed the city of Kunduz. If the Islamic State’s capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul last year wasn’t evidence enough of a failure of American foreign and military policy, the loss of Kunduz surely is.
Speaking to the UN, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin made it clear that he believes that the Americans have only themselves to blame. The strength of the United Nations, Putin said, comes from taking different points of view into consideration. Unfortunately, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, those ‘at the top of the pyramid’ (i.e. the USA and its allies) felt that they knew best and did not need to bother with what others thought or with the UN. As a result, they weakened the rule of international law. Putin implied that the chaos engulfing much of the Middle East and Central Asia was entirely the Americans’ fault (he carefully avoided mentioning the United States by name, but it was clear whom he was talking about).
Putin complained that the West has decided that its values and systems are universally valid. This isn’t true, he said. Rather, ‘We are all different, and one should respect that. No one has to conform to a single development model’. Western states have promoted revolution in countries such as Syria, Libya, and Ukraine. The consequences have been catastrophic. According to Putin:
The export of revolution … continues. … How did it actually turn out? … brazen destruction of national institutions … violence, poverty, and social disaster. … I cannot help asking those who caused this situation, ‘Do you realize what you have done?’
The West, Putin argued, has created ‘anarchy areas’, which immediately filled up with militants and terrorists. Worse, Western states have actively supported some of these militants. The Islamic State ‘did not just come from nowhere’. The United States imagines that it is manipulating the terrorist organizations which it sponsors in countries such as Syria to advance its own goals, and that it can jettison those organizations once they have served their purpose. But the terrorists are clever people, and ‘you never know who is manipulating whom’. Arming them, as the USA has done in Syria, is ‘hazardous’ and will only lead to even more terrorism.
‘We can no longer tolerate what is happening in the world,’ Putin continued, calling for the creation of ‘a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism’. Russia will therefore use its upcoming presidency of the UN Security Council to try to broker a resolution to coordinate the efforts of all nations fighting terrorism in the Middle East, he declared. But Putin added a catch – such a coalition has to rest upon the UN Charter. In other words, it must respect the sovereignty of states. That means supporting Assad, and refusing to support the revolutionary groups which seek regime change by force. More generally, it means abandoning the export of revolution, whether it be in the Middle East or elsewhere, such as in Ukraine, where, Putin said, American had sponsored a ‘military coup’, the inevitable consequence of which was ‘civil war’.
In a section of his speech dealing with international trade, Putin complained that, ‘The rules of the game have been changed in favour of a narrow group with special privileges.’ This pretty much sums up his view of what it is wrong with the current international order. Putin challenges the existing ‘rules of the game’, but only because he believes that since the end of the Cold War somebody else has rewritten them without consulting the rest of the world. He wants to take them back to what they were originally supposed to be when the United Nations was founded in 1945, and to create a truly multilateral world order, based upon respect for difference and recognition of all states as independent and equal. This is at heart quite a conservative vision.
As the Taleban flag flies over Kunduz tonight, the West should ponder Putin’s question, ‘Do you realize what you have done?’ Putin’s conservative statism is far from perfect, but compared with American ‘permanent revolution’ it is looking quite good as a basis for international order.