The shock of war and the global agenda – by Colin Bradford

In the last two years, the main preoccupation in geopolitics has been the toxic bilateral relationship between the United States and China and its spillover effects on the rest of the world.  Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, the focus has shifted to Russia.  From concerns about technological competition, security risks in Asia, and the possibility of China taking over Taiwan, the world is now riveted on a 20th-century style conventional war on Ukraine in which Russia is unleashing lethal force not only on the military of Ukraine but on its civilian population.  This has shifted attention from 21st-century geopolitical risks to 20th-century violations of the Geneva Conventions, and from emerging Asia back to Europe.

The relationship now between these two vastly different sets of tensions is centrally important.  How the Ukraine war plays out is being carefully watched by Beijing and will affect whether and how Mainland China’s claim on Taiwan will evolve.  Whereas China and Russia issued a far-reaching joint statement on February 4th at the opening of the Olympics in Beijing causing observers were foreseeing a new convergence between China and Russia.  China abstained from both the Security Council resolution on February 25th   and the UN General Assembly’s resolution against the Russian invasion of Ukraine on March 2nd.

The world now faces a great challenge of how to address these two very different types of crises. This must be done in ways that do not let the immediate urgent preoccupations with war crowd out the focus on the longer-term systemic challenges.  At the same time, focusing on systemic crises cannot be undertaken naively as if the dynamics of the entire international community and geopolitics have not been changed by the new war in Europe.  The war and Russia’s significant violation of agreed upon conventions and protocols of military conduct themselves damaged the post-war global order that is based on the rule of law and international agreements.

My main concern is to clarify how the world can continue to deal collectively with systemic challenges by using the global system of international institutions and forums for international political dialogue, discussion and decision, such as the G20, now, in the midst of a new 20th-century war in Europe..  As a result, we must first turn briefly to the Russian war on Ukraine before returning to the issues of global governance which remain urgent and immediate even the context of the current calamity of war and the collapse of the rule of law.

1. The Russian war on Ukraine and the Rule of Law

The International Red Cross “Code of Conduct for Combatants” based on international conventions, including the Geneva Conventions, and protocols negotiated over many years, is summarized as follows:

  1. “Fight only combatants.
  2. Attack only military targets.
  3. Spare civilian persons and objects.
  4. Limit destruction to what your mission requires.”

(Geneva: ICRC 1, “Code of Conduct for Combatants”, 2011.)

“The rules of war, or international humanitarian law (IHL), set out what can and cannot be done during armed conflict.  The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols are at the core of this law”. (Geneva: ICRC 2)  The Russian Federation signed the Geneva Conventions on December 12, 1949, and ratified them on October 10, 1954.  Russia has signed and ratified many other international treaties and protocols on these issues.   (Geneva: ICRC 3)

It is now clear that Russia has violated each and every one of the four elements of the Code of Conduct for Combatants.  This breach of internationally agreed norms, protocols and conventions fundamentally challenges the post-world war II global order and undermines more recent efforts in the 21st century to create a single international community of nations by building an extensive network of platforms and forums for discussion, debate, and decision.

How the international community deals with Russia’s egregious violations of accepted norms designed to protect citizens, homes, private businesses, hospitals, pharmacies, and shelter is as daunting as it is crucial.   Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, spoke out on just these points on February 24th, the day Russia invaded Ukraine.  On March 2 the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced that it had opened an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Ukraine.  Also, on March 2nd, in the first emergency session of the UN General Assembly in forty years, a resolution calling on Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine passed with 141 votes in favor, 5 against with 35 abstentions.  As Putin faces much greater internal resistance by Ukraine than he anticipated, and massive opposition abroad, most observers predict he will “double down” and disregard the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, the UN General Assembly resolution, the Codes of Conduct for Combatants, and the rule of law.

As a consequence, the spillover effects of Russia’s attack on Ukraine and its existence on the global order and on global governance are significant.

Because a single head of state of a “systemically significant country” is violating international law, vetoing a UN Security Council Resolution, refusing to comply with a UN General Assembly resolution, and failing to follow codes of conduct for war, the global system itself is weakened.  This raises serious questions about how to enforce agreements, how to effectuate decisions, how to maintain a rules-based system of global governance.

Could UN members overrule a permanent member of the US Security Council when it engages in acts of war without respecting conventions and protocols which the member has signed and ratified?  Do nuclear weapons in the West create any leverage on Russia’s unholy war, other than to deter the use of weapons by Russia itself?  Will international pressure be enough to keep the lid on the use of nuclear weapons as a weapon of war?

Will the increasing isolation of Russia, the resistance to its incursions into the Ukraine, the economic impact of sanctions and economic boycotts, and the cumulative outrage at Russian violations of basic tenets of what it means to belong to the international community,  be enough to bring about a ceasefire, to negotiate agreements between Russia and Ukraine and NATO, and to halt the descent of the world into a state of horror and helplessness in the face of such uncivilized, unprincipled behaviors?

In its irresponsible attack on the Chernobyl nuclear site, Russia flagrantly defied compliance with nuclear safety standards on nuclear plants.   Those standards have been agreed to by all countries with nuclear plants, all of whom are members of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), and to which Russia belongs as a full member, with a WANO regional office located in Moscow. WANO has no enforcement powers and has yet to issue a statement on threats to nuclear safety posed by the Russian takeover of the plant.  But the standards are there. Russia has agreed to them.  The Russian attack on Chernobyl is another serious example of Russia flaunting international agreements, and regrettably another example of violations weakening the capacity of the international system to regulate itself.

An international community without rules and standards is not in fact a community.  Russia constitutes an existential threat to the international community as a whole.

2. Geopolitical implications of the Russian war on Ukraine

The major shifts that have happened since February 24th when Russia went to war on Ukraine are significant. Europe is more united today than at any time since the second world war.  Transatlantic relations are revived and in lockstep in communications and common measures.  China is reassessing its positioning in Europe and especially in relation to Russia, increasing its distance and its independent stance.  The rest of the world, fervently avoiding decisions that would force choices between China and the United States, are clearly supporting Ukraine and pushing back against Russia.  The Ukrainian people, their military, and government have ignited support and solidarity which is now a major new factor in the war and in geopolitics.

The highly visible conflicting narratives between the West and China, driven in part by the value-driven foreign policies of the United States and the G7, created frictions within the G20.  The presence in the G20 of four significant authoritarian governments—China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—and seven independently-minded developing countries —- means that the conflict with Russia takes on a different dynamic in the G20.

The US-China ideological tensions pivoted around the framing of relations with China as a struggle between “democracy and autocracy” which went down badly in Beijing, especially in relation to the “Summit for Democracy” organized by the US in December of 2021.  However dissident these rhetorical debates on China became in the last year, there is now an absolutely resolute clarity about the struggle by democracies against the autocracy of Russia in Europe.

Russia’s monstrous behavior in Ukraine has not only galvanized Europe but transformed the “democracy versus autocracy” debate from an ideologically driven conflict of narratives to moral outrage and deep concern for the future of humanity as a whole.  This transformation owes its origins to the inspirational behavior of the Ukrainian people and the concern regarding Russian defiance of international rules and norms.

3. Implications of the emerging geopolitical context for global governance

This new geopolitical context is a distraction from the focus of global governance on systemic risks, to say the least, but it may possibly bode well overtime for a reconfiguration of dynamics that favor stronger convergence toward ambition to manage global challenges.

The key to the future of global governance is the relationship between the West and China, which itself depends on the United States’ ability to shift its behavior toward China to enable the strengthening of global governance rather than weaken it as has been the case since 2016.  As former California governor, Jerry Brown, concludes: “It would be foolish to minimize the military dangers that China poses…..The better path –in fact, the only path that avoids the horror of war—is to accept that China’s system is different from ours, get our own house in order, and seek a decent modus vivendi.”

The new pressures on China, as a result of the fact that the Russian war on Ukraine is not working out the way that either Russia or China thought it would, could work in the direction of making China more willing to work constructively with the West, more eager to exercise global leadership for the good of the whole international community and avoid becoming a pariah.

The most propitious meeting ground for China and the West to recalibrate their relationship with the most potential for yielding results in terms of better outcomes for humanity is the G20.  (Bradford 2022A)  The focus should be on the G20 processes occurring throughout the year in the run-up to G20 annual summits, rather than on the summits themselves.  In almost every week in the run-up to annual G20 summits, there are meetings of ministers, working groups, task forces, and sherpas on a wide range of economic and systemic challenges and issues.  The West needs to renew their commitments to ambition in the G20, show up in force with officials who are “the best and the brightest” who have been charged with making the G20 work.   Decisions by the West to focus effort on G20 processes would take advantage of a relatively neutral platform to engage China and could professionalize relations with China to replace the polemics of the recent past.  It is highly likely that China respond positively and reciprocally.  Over time this effort could be a game-changer in relations with China, that would pay huge dividends for the West and the world, but for the moment would go unnoticed and unscrutinized as the world focuses on Europe, the Ukraine, and Russia.  Germany, as the chair of the G7 this year, has a great opportunity to make this happen.

The G20 host government for 2022 is Indonesia, and for 2023 is India, followed by Brazil in 2024 and South Africa in 2025.  This shift of the G20 sites to Asia and to the Global South is a major change in the G20 summitry.  In the fourteen years since G20 summits began in 2008, only one G20 summit (Argentina in 2018) has been held south of the equator.  The advanced countries need to make sure that their presence and priority for G20 official activities does not wane during these coming years.  There needs to be credible evidence of the importance that G7 countries, Australia, and the European Union attach to G20 activities throughout the year during the next four years to keep this key forum whole in the eyes of the rest of the world.  It is especially important that the shift to Asia during the next two years be used to good advantage to demonstrate professionalism, respect, involvement, and priority on results, both to deliver outcomes commensurate with the challenges being addressed but also to strengthen the process of convergence and the spirit of multilateralism which have been weakened by nationalism, ideological conflicts, and social alienation.

The Russian war in the Ukraine is a shock to the moral fiber of humanity and a jolt to the global order.  Adroit diplomacy and shifts in behavior by the West could use the pain in Europe to shift the political dynamics in relations with China to ease the tensions that have dominated geopolitics until now.

March 9, 2022

Colin Bradford, GSI Fellow


Colin Bradford is a non-resident senior fellow specializing in global governance at the Brookings Institution, a fellow of the Berlin Global Solutions Initiative and lead-co-chair of the China-West Dialogue, a plurilateral process of engaging thought leaders from key countries in Europe, North America, and Asia, including China, to pluralize the US-China bilateral relationship into  China -West relations.


Website for the China-West Dialogue:   https://globalsummitryproject.com/research-projects/china-west-dialogue/ 



International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC 1), “Code of Conduct for Combatants”, Geneva: 2011. https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/assets/files/publications/icrc-0526-002.pdf

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC 2), “The Laws of War in a Nutshell”,  Geneva: 2016.

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC 3: “Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries: Russian Federation,Geneva: https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl.nsf/vwTreatiesByCountrySelected.xsp?xp_countrySelected=RU

Alan A. Alexandroff (2022),  “Multilateralism with a dynamic of disruption in the global order”, China – West Dialogue discussion paper.

Jerry Brown (2022), “Washington’s Crackpot Realism” (Cover: “Groupthink on China”), The New York Review of Books, March 24, 2022, pp.12-14.

Stephen Breyer2015), The Court and the World: American Law and the New Global Realities, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

The Hague Institute for Global Justice and the Foreign Policy program, the Brookings Institution (2016), “The U.S. Interest in Intenational Law”, The Justice Stephen Breyer Lecture Series in International Law 2014-2016.

Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy (2013), Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, Washington: Brookings Institution Press.

Djisman Simandjuntak (2021), “Current Challenges” talk at the RIS Virtual Brainstorming session on “T20 Reform for Upcoming G20 Developing Country Presidencies”, New Delhi: (RIS) Research and Information System for Developing Countries”, November 24, 2021.

Colin Bradford (2022A), “The Imperative of Working with China: How to Get There”, China-West Dialogue discussion paper, February 2022.

Colin Bradford (2022B), “Now is the Moment for a “New Politics” for Transformational Change”, Berlin: Global Solutions Initiative,  G20 Insights, March, 2022.

Colin I Bradford (2021A), “From ‘Democracy versus Autocracy’ to ‘Effective Governance’: Foundations for New Dynamics for Geopolitical Relations with China”, China-West Dialogue discussion paper.  September, 2021.

Colin Bradford (2021B), “Next Steps in China-US Relations in the Aftermath of the Biden-Xi Conversation”, China-West Dialogue discussion paper.  December, 2021.

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