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What happens after the war?

Jan 02,2023 - Last updated at Jan 02,2023

PRINCETON  —  It is not too soon to think about what will follow Russia’s war on Ukraine. Figuring out the post-conflict future is essential not just for Russia’s Ukrainian victims, but also for Europe and the world. Yet, despite the urgent need to ensure that the first half of this century does not come to resemble the first half of the last one, discussions of the matter have been quite limited.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression eerily recalls the conflict that devastated Europe after 1914. World War I, the Great War, set the stage for subsequent catastrophes. It, too, began as a war in which an aggressor gambled on a quick victory; and it, too, evolved into a broader conflict in which each side tried to undermine the other’s fighting capacity and political stability.

By November 8, it was clear that Putin had miscalculated in assuming that the United States and the European Union would tire of the conflict and bully Ukraine into accepting a humiliating peace settlement. The critical moment came when the US midterm elections turned out not to be a shellacking for President Joe Biden and his Democratic Party. Immediately thereafter, Russia finally withdrew from Kherson city and pressed a new strategy of imposing as much misery and devastation as possible on Ukrainian civilians.

The Western coalition has held together remarkably well. But the next big test will come when the war ends. When embroiled in an existential struggle, everyone accepts that crisis measures are needed, and that skimping to satisfy some budget rules can lead to catastrophe. But eventually, the state of exception must end, and that is when the real choices come. If the return to a rules-based order is associated with economic misery, as happened in 1920, it will fail.

To be sure, there have already been some high-level international conferences (in Berlin and Lugano) to discuss the framework for handling Ukrainian reconstruction, and these debates have rightly focused on Ukraine’s needs: how much financing is required, what sorts of anti-corruption controls to establish, and how self-monitoring might be used to strengthen Ukrainian democracy. But one important element has been largely ignored. Just as the 1948 Marshall Plan was aimed at an American as well as a European audience, strengthening democracy and restoring a sense of political purpose is needed as much in Europe as it is in Ukraine.

Again, the differences between the post-WWI and post-WWII settlements offer relevant lessons. The Allies “lost the peace” after WWI because they failed to think globally about how to reconcile the reconstruction of Belgium and France, where the bulk of the physical destruction occurred, with the reintegration of a defeated Germany. On the face of it, it makes sense to argue that Russia, or at least the immensely wealthy oligarchs in Putin’s circle, should foot most of the bill for Ukraine’s reconstruction. But that outcome will be a non-starter as long as Putin remains in power, and if such immense financial penalties were imposed on a post-Putin Russia, we would risk repeating the post-WWI scenario.

The exponents of German democracy faced an impossible choice in 1919. They were required to sign a peace treaty in which they assumed the financial liabilities for a conflict unleashed by Kaiser Wilhelm II. As a result, the short-lived Weimar Republic faced constant criticism that it had sold out to the West.

The better path is the one forged by the Marshall Plan after WWII. Ukrainian reconstruction will succeed only if it is conceived in global terms. Rather than offering a solution to a specifically Ukrainian problem, the international community needs to make Ukrainian reconstruction part of a much broader effort. After all, post-conflict reconstruction is also needed in Syria, Iraq, Sudan and elsewhere.

Equally important, defeated powers must be encouraged to recognise for themselves that they were previously on the wrong path. That is what happened in Germany, Italy, and Japan after WWII. Once the machinery of totalitarianism had been dismantled, each benefitted from a flourishing of political and economic liberalism in the 1940s and 1950s.

One of Ukraine’s big problems today is that it has grown very slowly since the 1990s, falling further and further behind its next-door neighbour, Poland. Like Russia, it came to rely on a commodities-exporting economic model that has now reached its limits. This is true across post-Soviet states, which is why Kazakhstan has long been searching for a new post-hydrocarbon development path. Is it too much to hope that Russia might also seek to escape its natural-resource curse, which has sustained the politics and economics of Putinism? Such a Russia would probably become an inspiration to many other countries around the world.

As for Ukraine, its post-war dynamism will obviously depend on restoring the country’s housing stock, energy supplies, hospitals, schools and other infrastructure. But it also will depend on whether it can abandon the reliance on natural-resource extraction. Fortunately, many of the same strengths that have underpinned Ukraine’s stunning self-defence will also benefit its economic recovery. Because Kyiv was already a software-development hub before the war, Ukrainian coders were well equipped to eliminate Russian cyber threats. These are precisely the skills and capacities that will be needed to build a modern economy with digitalized basic services and a substantial electronics and artificial-intelligence component.

After the initial COVID-19 shock, many governments embraced the mantra “build back better”. After the war in Ukraine, we must build back better globally. The emergence of a new, more stable international order depends on it.


Harold James, professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University, is the author of “The War of Words: A Glossary of Globalisation” (Yale University Press, 2021). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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