The New Observer Book Reviews,International affairs,Reviews The Lost Peace – How the West Failed to Prevent a Second Cold War. Richard Sakwa

The Lost Peace – How the West Failed to Prevent a Second Cold War. Richard Sakwa

Preface to the Review

This review covers the quite a lot of detail of the book. It can thus, to some extent, be used as a summary of the book, by those who don’t have time to read it. By extracting the main themes from the book I hope to facilitate discussion. In one sense this text goes further than that of a review. I have, at several points, discussed Richard Sakwa’s ideas in the context of John Mearsheimer’s theory of offensive realism. The two accounts, or analyses, complement each other. As the reader will see, I favour the theory of John Mearsheimer as, ultimately, having more explanatory power. But, Sakwa fills in a great deal of recent historical detail. In my view a full understanding of the present crisis between Russia and the West requires a reading of both authors. 


This book was published in 2023. It is a follow-on from Frontline Ukraine. Crisis in the Borderlands. which was published in 2015. [1] The earlier book was particularly about the Ukraine crisis. This new book takes a wider view. In this book Richard Sakwa considers the breakdown in relations between the West and Russia. He also takes in the rise of China and the West’s relations with China. This book was published after Russia attacked Ukraine in 2022.

This book is absolutely indispensable reading for anyone interested in understanding the present state of relations between Russia and the West. It also provides a useful primer on relations between China and the West. Sakwa’s strength is that he is objective and non-partisan. There are some really deep insights in this book, which can only come about, because he is deeply read and informed about the points of view of both sides. (I mean the West and Russia). He repeats the same approach, that of understanding both sides from their own point of view in his discussion of China, though there is somewhat less material here. 

At the outset I want to discuss Sakwa’s theoretical position, which I disagree with. Sakwa is an internationalist. He believes that global problems can be solved by rational actors, political leaders, meeting in the framework of international institutions and law, and finding solutions. He disagrees specifically with the offensive realism theory of Professor John Mearsheimer. John Mearsheimer’s theory, espoused in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics [2] is as follows. Inter-state relations take place in an international context in which there is no authority who can impose order. Unlike within a country where the state can enforce the law and mediate relations between individuals, on the international stage there is no body to enforce law. The situation is thus anarchic. In this anarchic situation each state relies only on itself. The safest position for any state to be in is to be the most powerful state; ideally, in the world, but, realistically, in one region of the world. Thus each states strives to be the most powerful. Furthermore they can never really know, or trust, the intentions of other states. States engage in various strategies in order to maintain or enhance their position, such as balancing (agreements with other states against a potential hegemon) or buck-passing (trying to get another state to confront a potential enemy to save you form having to do it). Since the safest position is to be the regional hegemon states may initiate wars in order to achieve this position since, if they succeed, they will guarantee their own safety. It is a tragedy because the structural logic of the state system leads to wars. It is not a question of evil or irrational individuals; wars are baked into the system. In this state of affairs an offensive realist will advise states to be cautious, not to fight unnecessary wars, to focus on the real potential enemy. But, given that this is the reality, offensive realism is also prescriptive. States not only do behave like this, they should. 

For Richard Sakwa offensive realism is too deterministic. He believes that individual political actors, state leaders, can (and therefore should), work out problems rationally, come to agreements and thus avoid war. They should do this within the context of international institutions, such as the UN. Mearsheimer does not dispute that individual political actors can lead to results which are not strictly determined by the rules of offensive realism; but he sees these as exceptions or anomalies which take place within the context of the overall structure of the system which, in the long-run, determines  state behaviour. In his book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics [2] Mearsheimer presents detailed historical case studies to support his theory, for example showing certain inter-state configurations (multipolarity and opposed to bipolarity) are more or less likely to lead to war. Specifically, Mearsheimer looks at European wars between 1792 and 1900. He looks at the frequency of wars in configurations of bipolarity, balanced multipolarity and unbalanced multipolarity. Unbalanced multipolarity appears to be the most deadly; because in this situation states are jostling for position at the top and are not restrained by a single powerful rival. Thus, Mearsheimer backs up his theory with historical case studies. In the present book Sakwa simply states that he finds offensive realism too deterministic. He does not engage with the detail of the argument which Mearsheimer uses to support his theory. As such we cannot say that Sakwa has countered the theory of offensive realism. Saying simply it is too deterministic is not an argument. I find Mearsheimer’s position convincing and my own taste in general in history is to look for structural explanations. Again; Mearsheimer does not dismiss the idea that individual actors can negotiate and reduce the risks; but for him this is not determining. The anarchic structure of inter-state relations and the ever-present fear of being attacked are. 

It does not follow from the above that I disagree with Sakwa’s presentation in this book as to how the “Peace was lost”. Nor does offensive realism assert that the present sorry state of affairs between Russia and the West was inevitable. Indeed, based on his own theory, Mearsheimer argues, in numerous conferences and interviews, that the US-Russia conflict is a strategic mistake by the US. He argues that the real Great Power challenge to the US is China and the US should not have provoked a war with Russia which is distracting it from its real challenger. Indeed by provoking this war with Russia the US has fostered an alliance between China and Russia when they should have, rather, aimed to try to keep Russia on their side, or at least neutral. Thus, it seems that Measheimer, while not sharing Sakwa’s optimistic belief that peace can be achieved by nations working together in international institutions would probably not disagree with the detailed threads which Sakwa draws showing, how the West (mostly) and Russia made mistakes and missed opportunities and so ended up in the current disastrous position.  

Sakwa’s main these is that following the end of the Cold War no alternative security arrangements were put in place. Each side, the US and Russia, understood the end of the USSR differently, and they went in separate directions. From his point of view the conflict could have been avoided had such a new security architecture been negotiated. 

Part 1 – From Cold to Hot War

The Great Substitution 

Sakwa believes that what he calls the “Charter International system” provided a means by which the gains of the end of the Cold War could have been secured. The opportunity was squandered. While he attributes blame to both the West and Russia, he places the greater part of the blame on the West. A central concept for Sakwa is what he calls the “Great Substitution”. The system of American liberalism is linked to the UN system, but it is not the same. The US liberal international system and the UN system both arose out of the end of World War 2. The UN system, as well as asserting principles such as human rights, (which are at least nominally part of the ideology of American liberalism), also supports the sovereignty of nations, regardless of whether they have a liberal political system or not. However; the US has essentially substituted its system, liberalism, for the UN system. When the West claims to be defending the “international rules-based order” they are not, in fact, defending the UN system. They are defending the system which they have substituted for that. “A sub-order designed to fight the Cold War now claimed to be the system itself.” In the Great Substitution, liberal internationalism displaced sovereign internationalism. The project of making the whole world adopt the liberal democratic political system pushed out the actual UN system, which envisaged a different kind of internationalism, based on sovereign nations. Russia, under Putin, is revisionist in that they are insisting on the actual terms of the UN Charter. In this view they should be free to “follow their own path to development”. (I have seen Lavrov in the Security Council arguing that the UN Charter also speaks about the self-determination of peoples, which it does, and applying this to Crimea). 

Optimistic belief in Charter Internationalism versus a tragic and realist view

I essentially agree with the above analysis of the Great Substitution presented by Sakwa. However; it seems to be somewhat naive. He describes both China and Russia as being revisionist, seeking to push back against US hegemony and the Great Substitution, and promoting the original Charter idea of sovereign internationalism. I agree with Mearsheimer; Russia and China support the UN system only because they are the underdogs. This adherence to the law reflects their relatively weak position and not some moral conviction. All powers follow the rules of offensive realism. If China becomes a regional hegemony we can expect it to pay no more regard to the UN and international law than the US does. Indeed; we already see an example of this. China ignores the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in relation to its claims in the South China Sea. [3] China has, as Mearsheimer’s theory predicts, decided that its security concerns outweigh the need to adhere to the ruling of this international body which it is a treaty member of. (In Chapter 6 Sakwa explains that the conflict in the South China Sea is the result of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam reclaiming land and China making the mistake of overreacting thus giving the West a propaganda point to use against China. Nonetheless one could argue that there was an opportunity for China here to demonstrate its commitment to International Law by adhering to the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration).

Another example of Sakwa’s naivety, which runs through this book, is his repeated suggestion that the Gorbachev’s ideas provided a recipe for a possible post-Cold War settlement. “If his vision of East–West reconciliation and the transformation of international politics had prevailed, then the world today would be a very different place.” [4] Gorbachev saw the end of the Cold War not as a victory for one side but as a victory for humanity. He believed that a new world order could be constructed based on the UN system. It seems that Sakwa can’t help himself being drawn to Gorbachev, because they share the same vision: “He [Gorbachev] believed that the common commitment to the Charter system would allow different countries and social systems not only to coexist but to thrive together.” [5] Gorbachev also believed in a vision of a European homeland which included Russia and Europe. Inevitably, the US was not prepared to allow a common European space with a shared security architecture to emerge. From Mearsheimer’s perspective this would have been the US facilitating the creation of a strong rival regional hegemon to balance against them. The contrast is between Mearshimer’s tragic (but, in my view, realistic) view and Richard Sakwa’s optimistic and somewhat naive vision. 

Having said that Sakwa displays a naive faith in the International System and the capacity of state actors to work within it, I do agree, entirely, with his analysis of the “‘Great Substitution”. This idea has its parallel in John Mearsheimer’s critique of the way that liberalism adopted a project in what he calls the unipolar moment, that is after the collapse of the USSR, to export its ideology of individual rights and liberalism around the world. In doing this the US adopted a highly interventionist foreign policy in which they sought to impose or build democracies around the world. They tried, in effect, to remake the world in their own image: “In effect, a state pursuing liberal hegemony aims to remake the international system in its own image.” [6] This, “remaking the international system in its own image”, is what Richard Sakwa means by the “Great Substitution”. Mearsheimer argues that this project was a strategic mistake. Liberalism works at home, but it cannot be exported and the attempt to do so will lead to unnecessary wars. One of the justifications for this project is that democracies do not go to war with other democracies, so making all countries democratic will end wars. But, Mearsheimer argues, these arguments are wrong. Thus, both Sakwa and Mearsheimer regret the way the West has usurped the International Order and sought to impose their ideology on its institutions and subvert it into providing cover for their liberal hegemonic project. For Mearsheimer this is a case of overreach; strategically unwise. “The core argument in chapter 6 is that a state pursuing liberal hegemony does not simply court failure, it suffers significant costs in doing so”. [6] For Sakwa this has been an avoidable tragedy, because people did not have enough vision to implement the more integrative and peaceful ideas of, for example, Gorbachev. 

To clarify; Sakwa believes that an International world order is possible: “A positive peace order in our case is one in which the actors cooperate within the framework of the broader international system guided by the principles of sovereign internationalism and international law.” From the perspective of offensive realism, which is a structural analysis, the scope of actors to alter the course of events is limited; there may be occasions when actors can break out of the logic of offensive realism, but, in general, the logic prevails. Nonetheless, despite radically different theoretical positions. both Richard Sakwa and Professor John Mearsheimer, would agree that the primary responsibility for the rupture in Russia-US relations has been the “usurpation” of the UN system by the US project to export progressive liberalism. And both, from different perspectives, would say that this was not inevitable. 

Chapter 1. The Promise of Peace

In this chapter Sakwa discusses the neo-liberal surge in the 1980s, which saw a push to “disembed” markets from social democratic control. This is useful context to the project of US led liberal internationalism. Another piece of useful context provided by Sakwa is his discussion of the growth of the US military-industrial complex; “This represented a structural transformation of the American state, in which military contractors, the armed services and their civilian acolytes play an outsize role, to the detriment of diplomacy and traditional statecraft”.

In this chapter Sakwa also discusses the Helsinki Final Act signed by 33 European States, including the USSR and the US and Canada in 1975 in Finland. This Act contained provisions both about respecting sovereign nations and also support for universal values (“human rights”), which transcend national boundaries. The inclusion of text about human rights subsequently gave external powers some leverage over Moscow.

This chapter also contains a concise review of Gorbachev’s reforms. Despite his domestic economic reforms being confused his overall aim was to protect the USSR by reforming it. In the international sphere he sought to rejuvenate the international (UN) system and locate the USSR in that system. Within Russia a view developed by the mid 1990s that Gorbachev had been too trustful of assurances from the West and that his goodwill had been taken advantage of. 

Chapter 2. Time of Great Hopes 

At the end of the Cold War, Russia saw a chance to establish a system within the context of the United Nations Charter, with an emphasis on sovereign internationalism. The West saw themselves as victors, (as perhaps they were), and saw an opportunity to apply liberalism internationally. The present clash is the result of this.

Sakwa contrasts Gorbachev’s bungled reforms with the successful reforms carried out by the Communist Party in China, which saw some marketisation under the firm control of the state. China eschewed the humanistic reforms of Gorbachev and their society remained closed to spontaneous participation by citizens. The relationship between state and society did not change, as it had in the USSR. 

An intellectual struggle took place between Gorbachev and George Bush. At the heart of the problem was Gorbachev’s wish to build a common Europe that would have included Russia, while admitting a plurality of political systems, and US fears of losing Europe to Russia. One can understand US fears in terms of realist politics. The US needs Western Europe to perform offshore balancing against a potential regional hegemon in Europe. Gorbachev appears to have been naive. 

Sakwa describes US plans to take advantage of the end of the Cold War to develop liberal democracy in Eastern Europe. These developments also had a security dimension. The theme of this book is not that these developments and contrasting perceptions were wrong, but that the ideological and security conflict should have been handled more adroitly. Cold War I had been relatively stable. When it fell apart a chance was missed to discuss and build a new “security architecture in Europe” acceptable to all. Each side pursued its separate and divergent path towards the inevitable final collision. Taking this together with the analysis by John Mearsheimer of how the US exploited the “unipolar” moment, (the moment after the end of Cold War I when it was the sole world power), to relentlessly export its model of liberalism, we can say that the wiser course of action would have been to put some brakes on this process and at least try to take into account Russian concerns. The process started by George Bush, including setting Ukraine and Georgia on the path to NATO membership in 2008 was the path of a victor. It was an attitude of “winner takes all”. 

One analogy could perhaps be how the excessive victor behaviour of the Allies after WWI is widely accepted to have precipitated the push-back from Germany which led to WWII. Sakwa makes use of this analogy in the next chapter. 

This is how Sakwa expresses it:

The ‘new world order’ proposed by Bush ‘meant simply that the old Western one would be extended worldwide’. The USSR, and later Russia (and indeed Europe), were consigned a subordinate role in this system.

And this, in essence, is the problem. 

Sakwa discusses the well-known question of whether or not NATO promised Russia that it would not expand further East after a reunified Germany had joined. In some tellings of this story Gorbachev was promised that NATO would not expand further. Other people claim that no such promise was made. In Sakwa’s seemingly careful and researched account, verbal promises were made to this effect but no formal agreement was given. All of this was duplicitous and while it may have seemed like clever negotiating at the time led to problems down the line. It meant that no security agreement could be reached. As to allocating blame for the current crisis Sakwa writes;

Putin bears responsibility for pulling the trigger on 24 February 2022 when Russian forces invaded Ukraine, but the gun was primed by the European security impasse of the preceding three decades.

The two competing visions of how the post Cold War world might look are neatly summarised by Sakwa:

While the US and its allies stressed the ‘democratic’ character of a post-Cold War world, emphasising the rule of law, competitive markets and globalisation, Russia looked to the sovereignty side of the equation and the autonomy that it had recently gained through the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Chapter 3. How the Peace was lost

Despite having different theoretical foundations both Sakwa and Mearsheimer share the view that the main cause of the current war was the excessive exporting of liberal internationalism by the US following what they perceived to be their victory in the Cold War. Both analysts agree that driving this was an alliance of neo-conservatives and liberalism exporters. This is Sakwa:

Instead, the more ambitious factions of the political West (neoconservatives and liberal interventionists) combined to assert a one-sided victory discourse…

The liberal anti-pluralism of the expansive political West was associated with political freedom, competitive markets and the rule of law, but it was also a geopolitical power system focused on the US. This provoked the resistance of sovereign internationalists and charter liberals. An epochal confrontation was in the making.

Despite arguing that Gorbachev was not naïve or at least no more naïve than the original creators of the UN Charter System Sakwa does seem to think that Gorbachev might have been somewhat naive. He allowed himself to be out negotiated in relation to NATO expansion and naively assumed that because Russia had given up their “sub-order within the Charter system” the US would too. 

This chapter contains a rather biting analysis of how Russia developed internally after the collapse of the USSR. There was continuity in the security services, people close to the government of the collapsing USSR enriched themselves and became a new oligarch class, the rule of law gave way to instrumental use of the law to protect the state (one could further argue that this process has reached an apogee in the present use of the law to stifle all criticism of the special military operation). Together with the brutality of the Chechen wars post Soviet Russia undermined its own claims to be operating with the framework of Charter principles. The growth of authoritarianism at home increased mistrust abroad. (We might add that the West contributes to that authoritarianism by fanning the embers of any kind of even vaguely liberal dissent in Russia whenever they appear; which necessitates a security response from the Kremlin, naturally fearful of another the possibility of a CIA-led ‘Colour’ regime change operation). 

In this book Richard Sakwa is significantly more critical of Russia than he is in his earlier book, Crisis in the Borderlands. [1]  For example, in this book he openly discusses how Russia might have been made other choices and how the decision to intervene in Ukraine might come to be seen as a massive strategic mistake. The alternative presented here is, of course, the one that Western liberals dream of daily in connection with Russia:

Stephen Kotkin argues that geopolitics will predominate until ‘Russian rulers make the strategic choice to abandon the impossible quest to become a great-power equal of the West and choose instead to live alongside it and focus on Russia’s internal development’

I would add that the obvious counter-view from the Kremlin might be something like; “we wanted to live alongside the West but were only offered vassalship”, and that is the problem. Still; it can be asserted that had Russia been willing to accept, as Sakwa puts it, the “reduced status of a legacy Great Power” then integration and acceptance would have been straightforward. Sakwa in this book argues that Russia, under Putin, did not insist on full equality; they were willing to settle for a compromise which would have seen their core demands met but leaving them short of ‘equal status’l. From this perspective there was a failure of the West to meet them half-way. 

The expansion of NATO was met with dismay in Moscow. Programmes such as the NATO Partnership for Peace programme which built bilateral relations between NATO and Eastern European countries and Russia, did not go far enough to make Moscow feel included. Voices in the US who recommended substantive NATO-Russia partnerships were not heeded. For example:

As far as Burns was concerned, he considered NATO enlargement ‘premature at best, and needlessly provocative at worst’. [William Burns, US diplomat]

There is a kind of irrationality to this. One quote which rings true for the reviewer is:

‘There is no organic reason why Russia should be our enemy.’  [William J. Perry, who later became Secretary of State for Defence]

Chapter 4. The Road to War

Sakwa cites multiple warnings by Western political and senior academic figures against NATO expansion, including US Diplomat George Kennan. Kennan later called it  “tragic mistake”:

‘Don’t people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.’ (George Kennan IN 1998)

Sakwa quotes Gorbachev in 2021:

‘we had 10 years after the Cold War to build a new world order and yet we squandered them’ because ‘the United States cannot tolerate anyone acting independently’.

This is clearly a view which Sakwa shares, and he makes this clear:

As he [Gorbachev] put it in 2011, NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders while presenting itself as a ‘pan-European or even a global policeman . . . usurped the functions of the United Nations and thus weakened it’  This is an eloquent restatement of the grand substitution argument outlined in this book.

NATO assumed the role of a world-policeman imposing Tony Blair’s and Bill Clinton’s “humanitarian interventions” on, for example Serbia. Russia naturally looked at these developments with alarm. In relation to Kosovo Sakwa quotes William Burns as saying that recognition of Kosovo created conflict:

Putin also warned that the recognition of Kosovan independence ‘encourages conflict’ and set a precedent for other multi-ethnic states.

Putin later, of course, cited the Kosovo precedent as a justification for the reunification of Crimea with Russia. 

In relation to Ukraine at this time, 2008, Putin said:

‘Doesn’t your government know that Ukraine is unstable and immature politically, and NATO is a very divisive issue there? Don’t you know that Ukraine is not even a real country? Part of it is really East European, and part of it is really Russian.’ [quoted from William Burns, Back Channel]

At the 2008 NATO summit it was agreed that Ukraine and Georgia would become NATO members. 

The resolution spoke of the national desire to join NATO, but this was misleading since no more than 20 per cent of Ukrainians at the time were in favour. [Sakwa is citing a survey by Eurasia Ponars, but this essential reality is borne out by many surveys over the years. Even in 2021 support for joining NATO was only just over 50%, based on another survey cited by Sakwa].

William Burns was another one who presciently warned where all this was leading:

Burns later noted that Russia ‘fears unpredictable and uncontrolled consequences’ because of the ‘strong divisions in Ukraine over NATO membership, with much of the ethnic-Russian community against membership’. He warned that this could lead to a major split resulting in violence or even civil war, in which case, ‘Russia would have to decide whether to intervene; a decision Russia does not want to have to face.’ [This is attributed to the WikiLeaks cables]

William Burns is/was an experienced US diplomat. The warnings could not have been clearer. We can note that in this warning Burns specifically said that “Russia did not want to have to face a decision about whether to ‘intervene'”. Note the ‘intervene’; that is, carry out a military operation. Burns is currently Director of the CIA; one wonders how he squares his own former analysis with being tasked to present Russia’s 2022 ‘intervention’ as a “war of choice” and an “unprovoked invasion”.

As NATO expanded Eastwards and Russian disquiet grew there were attempts to placate them with a non-veto voice in NATO through various programmes and initiatives such as the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997, but this was not enough. 

In many ways this was a classic case of worst case scenario planning creating just that worst case. NATO signed up new members in Eastern Europe as a hedge against Russian resurgence. The new members joined to protect themselves against a possibly resurgent Russia. All this made Russia feel threatened; and the crisis ensued.

Sakwa identified four driving factors for the breakdown in trust. Firstly; the classic security dilemma as outlined in the previous paragraph. This could only have been solved by both sides, Russia and NATO being part of an overriding organisation. That didn’t happen. Secondly; some of the former Soviet block countries overenthusiastically promoted their liberal block against Russia. Thirdly, the rise of democratic interventionism, as an ideology which excluded and put pressure on Russia. Fourthly, (which seems to me to be a restating of three), Russia was represented as the obstacle to liberal democracy. 

In short; following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR an opportunity was missed to establish a security architecture for Europe which included Russia. (Sakwa moots that the OSCE could have fulfilled this role and there is evidence that the Russians thought as much). Instead NATO expanded eastwards and at the same time a liberal-internationalist interventionism came to dominate Western foreign policy. This lead to illegal or excessive interventions in Kosovo, Iraq and Libya. Russia felt threatened. The final straw being when this, to them, hostile power started to move into Ukraine; a step which multiple US diplomats and academics had warned would be likely to trigger a conflict.

Part 2 – Great Power Conflict 

In this section Sakwa discusses relations between the US, Russia and China under the Trump (2016-2020) and Biden Presidencies. He discusses the rise of China and the US response to that. China – Russia relations are discussed. He discusses the development of EU Foreign Policy since its inception. Despite there being some attempts to establish the EU as an independent pole in world affairs this never happened. Security policy continued to be outsourced to NATO and with that the EU does not exist as a truly independent global actor. 

Chapter 5. America between Leadership and Primacy

In this Chapter Sakwa discusses US foreign policy. He points out that US foreign policy has not always been expansionist. There are, he maintains, three components of US power; its leadership in international institutions in particular the UN, the Atlantic power system (NATO), and the globalised economic order. There is a tension between these different components. Of course; when it acts out of ‘primacy’ the US still likes to maintain the fiction that it is acting within the International system. 

The thesis in this chapter parallels the analysis of Professor John Mearsheimer, for example in The Great Delusion Liberal Dreams and International Realities. [6] The US has become overly concerned with maintaining the global primacy of its value system. Mearsheimer criticises the way the US has sought to export its model of ‘democracy’ and has become over-interventionist as a result. Sakwa is very close to this view when he says that, “As liberal order became liberal hegemony, the prerogatives of the international system were usurped”. Sakwa further says: “The defence of primacy prevented Russia developing a regional hegemony, and later sought to restrain the exercise of Chinese power.” However, Sakwa and Mearsheimer differ somewhat. From Sakwa’s point of view, Russia had every right within the Charter system to develop and the US unwisely sought to restrain it, that is they focused too much on their power-primacy and not sufficiently on the leadership they gained by working through international organisations. Mearsheimer criticises the US for its trying to export liberal democracy but he still ‘supports’ the aim of the US to maintain its hegemony. Mearshsimer’s more tragic or pessimistic model (that Great Powers are doomed to come into conflict because of the anarchic nature of the international system), would argue that the US would logically be concerned to block the emergence of a strong regional hegemony in Europe or Central Asia. Such regional hegemons can ally with small states in the region of the distant hegemon to cause threats to the distant hegemon. However, if I understand correctly, Mearsheimer’s view is that the US over-reacted to Russia’s neo-revisionism and should not have provoked them as Russia prevents a much less significant threat to the US than China. While these positions are somewhat different at a theoretical level, both Mearsheimer and Sakwa agree that the US pushed their own primacy too far in relation to Russia and unnecessarily provoked Russia.

In my view Sakwa brilliantly analyses the displacement of the International Order by US liberal internationalism. He notes that this was massaged in by a linguistic shift. Liberal internationalists do not talk about ‘International Law’ so much as the ‘rules-based order’. They offer other countries a choice between subordination to the US-led liberal order, or being cast as antagonists and subject to a whole armoury of coercion. They can do this because they pretend that the liberal-internatonalist order is the same as the UN Charter system. (The Great Substitution). In the US neo-conservatives seek US primacy as an end in itself and liberal internationalists seek US primacy as a means for spreading liberal values and ‘democracy’ worldwide. US liberal values are spread around the world by a combination of soft power and military muscle. Agencies such as NED (National Endowment for Democracy) actively seek to ‘convert’ countries to the US way. 

Sakwa cites a former Obama official to say something which I have seen Mearsheimer say. One of the drivers of US primacy is a large foreign policy “blob” centred around Washington who are heavily invested in maintaining US primacy. 

Sakwa discusses the Trump Presidency, 2016-2020. Trump expressed a view of international relations that was “crude and transactional”, and, at the same time harked back to the politics of ‘Great Power Politics’. Trump argued that he would negotiate with Russia and China from a position of strength. Gone, though, was the intention to impose US democracy on Russia. Nonetheless, in a security policy document issued in 2017 Russia was designated as “rogue state” and linked to Iran, something which did not go down well in Moscow. The election of Biden in 2020 saw a return to the US telling Russia how to run its affairs. Sakwa quotes Biden: “‘to impose real costs on Russia for its violation of international norms and stand with Russian civil society, which has bravely stood time and again against President Vladimir Putin’s kleptocratic authoritarian system”. This is unpalatable for the Russians. Biden’s rhetoric focussed heavily on rebuilding relationships with partners, which had been damaged by Trump. But China and Russia were firmly outside, and despite some nods to working together on certain issues, this was a restatement of US liberal hegemony. 

Sakwa briefly discusses US relations with China under Biden. We have already commented that in our view Sakwa is naive to take statements from Chinese officials that they wish to operate in line with international law at face value. Mearsheimer argues that Russia and China tie they foreign policy to international law because the weaker side always seeks the support of the law, but that, they are, ultimately, going to follow the logic of ‘offensive realism’ and not the dictates of international law. Mearsherimer comments that the way that US rhetoric justifies its actions in terms of international law, while pressing their own, narrower interests is mirrored by China. We think that Mearsheimer is correct and Sakwa is naive. He lacks a structural theoretical model of state behaviour. Thus he lends himself to being accused of being a ‘Russia’ or ‘China’ sympathiser by those forces who wish to continue US hegemony.

In his earlier book, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, Sakwa takes, as here, a balanced view. However, in that earlier book he seems to attribute the greater part of the blame for the Ukraine crisis, (the book was published before the full-scale war which started in 2022), on the West. On Russian annexation of Crimea he maintained a position of ‘strategic ambiguity’, neither criticising it outright, nor supporting it. In this present work he openly canvases the idea as to whether Russia should not simply have rolled over, accepted vassal status and enjoyed the benefits that would have gone with joining the US global economic order in an untrammelled way;

Moscow refused to join the political West as a subordinate, although history may well judge this to have been a mistake of historic proportions. Alliance with a dynamic and innovative system would have allowed the country to focus on domestic development.

Some arch-critics of Moscow, such as the former US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul argue that Putin made the choice he made, not to accept vassal status, (though one assumes that McFaul would not put it that way), because he was motivated by questions of prestige and status. (Sakwa reports this. [7]). While the desire of the Russia political and security elite to be treated as Great Power players does seem to be determinative, I doubt that that this reason alone explains everything. Putin, and others around him, when they launched the special military operation no doubt felt that they were acting in the interests of the security of the Russian state.

In the following chapter Sakwa contrasts China’s autonomous model of civilization with Russia’s “renegade version of European modernity”:

Soviet ideology, after all, was ultimately a renegade version of European modernity, hence would always be susceptible to liberal democratic values, just as Russia was in the 1990s and will probably be once again.

This may well be true. My personal view is that eventually Russia will rejoin Europe. 

Chapter 6. Global China 

Sakwa charts the economic rise of China. He notes that China is more integrated into the world economy than the USSR was. He argues that the stewardship of the Chinese Communist Party leadership is more adroit than that of the leadership of the USSR. He notes that rising economic prowess has been accompanied by a greater determination to play a role on the world stage. 

Sakwa quotes another scholar:

Economy [8]  argues that Beijing seeks a radical change in international politics whereby the US is essentially pushed out of the Pacific and becomes merely an Atlantic power.

This aligns with John Mearsheimer’s analysis. China is seeking to become a regional hegemon, which, necessarily, means pushing the US out of the Pacific. The US will seek to prevent this happening, because a regional hegemon (Great Power dominant in one region) cannot risk allowing another Great Power to dominate in another region, for fear that that Great Power will ally with small powers in the region of the first Great Power to work against it.

Sakwa argues that China will develop its own successful model of development, (unlike the Soviet Union). At this point he seems to converge more with Mearsheimer, and acknowledge that China is not likely to be a saint of the International Order (Charter system):

This China-centred order will subtly but corrosively subvert the norms and principles of the Charter international system, although not formally repudiating it.

However; it is not entirely clear to me if Sakwa believes the above, or if he is representing thew views of certain China scholars. Sakwa’s field of expertise is primarily Russia and in this chapter on China he leans more heavily on other scholars than he does in his exposition of Russia. 

Sakwa also notes that based on its traditions China has a “tributary” system of power. (If I understand correctly, this is the system which is highly criticised by liberals, whereby China’s foreign investment is linked to political power, at times, the charge goes targeted countries are led into an investment debt trap and can only escape by giving up some sovereignty to China). From this perspective, interestingly, Russia’s ‘unlimited partnership’ with China is in fact a relationship of tribute state and overlord. 

Sakwa, (see above), does in fact appear to believe that China is “a staunch defender of post-1945 sovereign internationalism,”. In the context of Sakwa’s overall model, “The Great Substitution”, (of the UN system by liberal internationalism), China is challenging this, the Great Substitution, and is a revisionist power, seeking to restore actual UN principles. Overall, it does seem that Sakwa essentially believes that China is ready to operate within the constraints of the Charter system, but with some pushing at the boundaries though; “Neo-revisionism by definition has the potential to spill over into full-scale revisionism”. In the following chapter Sakwa writes: “They [Russia and China] challenged not the international system but the practices of liberal hegemony – or so they claimed.” So; we see that Sakwa does not naively assume that China and Russia really mean it when they claim to be defending the international order. Like the US, they too may be guided by their own strategic aims, regardless of UN principles.

In taking part in its own regional free-trade agreement, RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), whose members include Australia, Japan and Indonesia, China sets up an alternative to the US model of globalisation. 

For Sakwa the essence of the conflict is that China is a neo-revisionist state willing, (more or less), to act within terms of the UN Charter system but the US is running its own system. While pretending to be obeying the UN system they are in fact operating according to the rules of the liberal-international system; an expansionist system which seeks to impose the model of liberal-democracy all over the world. If the US would only return to the true path of the UN Charter system, and restrain liberal-internationalism, (return it to its rightful position as a sub-order within the UN international system), all would be well. For Mearsheimer, the UN Charter system doesn’t really matter. While all countries like to say they act within its terms of references, all Great Powers, China no less than the US, follow their own security interests. These security interests drive each Great Power to try to be a hegemon. Each Great Power seeks to be regional hegemon and prevent any other Great Power being a regional hegemon in its region. Thus even if all that China wants is to be regional hegemon in the Pacific the US cannot accept this and the stage is set for conflict. Sakwa seems, though he oscillates somewhat, to believe that China, more or less, is willing to act within the terms of the UN Charter. On this he differs from Mearsheimer whose theory predicts that China will seek to break out of the fetters of constraint impose by the UN system if/when their security interests dictate it. However, Sakwa fully recognizes Mearsheimer’s realist position and in fact summarises it in this chapter: “The purpose of American foreign policy is to maximise its security and prosperity, and the best way to achieve that is to remain a regional hegemon, defined as dominating its area of the world, and to prevent the emergence of another regional hegemon that could act as peer competitor.”

The US has recognized China as a strategic competitor. According to Sakwa there were those who hoped that as China developed it would turn more towards adopting a model of liberal-democracy. Sakwa emphasises that China has a civilizational history of thousands of years and is confident to go its own path. There was to be no ‘coming of age’ into European liberalism! Trump initiated bans on semiconductors. This policy was expanded by the Biden administration. The aim is to hold back Chinese economic growth and thus reduce its power. (In Mearsheiemer’s model power is a function of wealth and population). 

The US has, with surprisingly little debate, entered into a phase of intense confrontation with China. In this chapter, as we have mentioned, Sakwa is producing more of a summary of scholars he has read and less of his own views, compared to how he treats US-Russia relations. Nonetheless it would be consistent with his overall view that he be believes that more judicious handling and greater willingness to seek rational comprise is both possible and desirable.

Chapter 7. The Russia question

Sakwa notes that even before the current open confrontation with the West there was a school of thought in Western foreign policy circles which sought to contain Russia and pressurise the regime, to the point of collapse. As always there seems to be an assumption that some kind of liberal democracy would emerge out of the collapse. This view has always seen Russia as imperialist and expansionist. (The alternative view is that since the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia has been defensive and cautious gets less air-time in Western media and political circles).

Sakwa references San Francisco State University scholar Andrei Tsygankov. Andrei Tsygankov argues that there are three schools of foreign policy orientation in Russia. Westerners accept that the offer of the West for membership of their system is not a generous one but that it is still the best offer available and the West does not (did not) represent a security threat to Russia. The second model is statism. This was Putins’ model whereby he sought to integrate with the West, not as an junior partner, but as an equal. This path was closed off by the West. The third school is the civilizational model. The most vocal of the civilisational faction consider that Russia is a unique multi-ethnic state. This view originated in the 19th century and was nurtured by émigrés from the USSR in the 1920s. 

Sakwa quotes the leading exponent of the civilizational model, Alexander Dugin:

In this epoch of cyborgs, hybrids, mutants, chimeras and virtual reality, mankind will only be saved by tradition . . . all modernism – the idea of progress, development, the so-called scientific view of the world, democracy and liberalism [is] a Satanic idea that spells a death sentence for humanity . . . the only defence is asserting God, the church, the empire, the congregation of the faithful, the state, and the people’s traditions. (Comments made on a TV show)

At the present time it is clear that the discourse of the civilizational model has gone mainstream. Putin, while perhaps remaining a statist himself has embraced much of the civilizational model discourse. As Sakwa points out, this takes Russia further from the “pluralism” of the 1993 Constitution. It does not allow for good relations with the West.

Even in 2015 formal policy was to seek integration with the EU and to work with the UN system. This was enshrined in a document The National Security Strategy. The key was that NATO and NATO encroachment was seen as a threat. Later speeches continued to reflect Russia’s “neo revisionist” stance; seeking a readjustment of current arrangements in international relations, but still within context of the post-war settlement. 

Nonetheless Russia has continued to draw closer to China. This process started in the 1990s and has continued. There has been an economic synergy. Russia has increased energy and agricultural exports to China. Chinese technology company Huawei has participated in several projects, for example with Sberbank and the Russian Shipbuilding Corporation. Initially Russia exported a significant amount of arms to China though that has been reduced as China has developed its own arms building industry. Both agree on the model of the sovereignty of states and non-interference, at least formally. The current war in Ukraine places this relationship under stress.

Russia decided to “take on the West” despite having a much smaller economic base. The result of a militarisation of the economy may be stagnation. Sakwa reminds us that orientating the economy too much to the military budget did not end well for the USSR. On evaluating the “justness” of the war, Sakwa suggests that there was a case for a limited intervention in the Donbas, possibly citing Article 51, but seems to believe that the wider war and the “laying siege to cities” cannot be seen as a “just war”. Sakwa points out that the problems which current Russian policy is a solution for will not change even with Putin’s demise. The implication is that the West needs to address Russia’s legitimate concerns. 

Chapter 8. Europe Redivided 

One of the key themes of this chapter is that the EU has not managed to become an independent security actor. Despite a multitude of political initiatives and practical attempts, through various institutions and formats, to develop a common security force the EU remains beholden to NATO.  The “invasion” of Ukraine by Russia in 2022 ensured that the already not deeply rooted tendency in German politics to seek friendly relations with Russia was marginalised. Germany detached itself from Russian energy supplies and firmly orientated itself to US policy. “The supreme act of Europe as a power was to fold itself into another power.”

Throughout this book there is a constant theme which mentions views held by politicians in both Russia and Europe which envisaged “a common European home”. In practice this would have meant a security architecture which included Moscow. But, such an architecture would have excluded the US. In the end Europe could not break free of the US.

Part 3 – War and International Politics 

In this part Sakwa discusses the ‘state of the world’. He reviews the complete breakdown in relations between Russia and the US and NATO which preceded the “full scale invasion” in February 2022. He discusses the weakening of international institutions, especially under Trump. He then discusses how the world is now multipolar. China is forging ahead with an alternative model. The ‘South’ is non-aligned. Various institutions such as BRICS and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) have sprung up which operate outside of the US-led system. 

Chapter 9. The World on Fire

This chapter details the development of US-Russia strategic arms control agreements and the subsequent falling away from them. The US abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001. The Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty collapsed in 2019 amidst US claims of Russian non-compliance. In February 2023 Putin “suspended” Russian participation in the last major nuclear weapons limitation treaty, New Start. 

Continuing the theme of ‘the world on fire’, Sakwa notes the perils of increasingly global warming and notes that all parties to the conflict in Ukraine have deprioritised remedial measures. War has taken first place. For example in Europe coal burning power stations have been brought back online.

Sakwa also notes other negative developments such as contestation of space and regular air missions to test the other side’s defences. 

The conclusion is: “The difference between a cold war and a world war should not be blurred, but the foothills of World War III certainly beckon.”

Chapter 10. War in Europe

There is a telling phrase in this section: “Spheres of influence were rejected as an archaic remnant of a bygone age, but in practice this meant the expansion of a single sphere of interest – the Western one.”. And this is the problem. Just before the “full-scale invasion” in February 2022 the NATO Secretary-General stood at podium and declared “the age of sphere’s of influence is over”. The idea was that NATO could not accept the terms of Russia’s ultimatum to avoid war. Sakwa points to the reality which Jens Stoltenberg (and others) somehow managed to eclipse from their minds. What Jens Stoltenberg meant (though he probably would not like to admit it) is that the era of spheres of influence, for others, is over. But not for NATO and the West. This mental contortion can happen because these people think that their world is the world. This is, in effect, the Great Substitution referred to by Sakwa.

One of Sakwa’s strengths is that while critical of Western policy, he is not “pro-Russia”. For example, he points out that one reason why Russia struggled to find its place in the post Cold War world was that they could not offer a model which was attractive in the way that the Western-liberal model was attractive. 

Sakwa adduces a great deal of evidence which shows how Ukraine was a ‘split’ country, though he is at pains to say that this split was not simply geographical. Just before the Maidan coup/revolution the country was pretty evenly split between support for the EU’s Association Agreement (42%) and joining a Customs Union with Russia (37%). In March 2014 34% favoured joining NATO, a figure which increased to 54% in November 2021, though even at this time 21% till supported joining a Customs Union with Russia. (Survey data from International Republican Institute).

On the specifics of how the “invasion” started, Sakwa points to a build-up of Ukrainian forces arraigned against the territory of the break-away republics in the East, and an increase in shelling from 16 February 2022 to 19 February. He asserts again that the primary cause of the war was the failure to agree a pan-European security architecture, including Russia, after the end of Cold War. For the West the principle that Ukraine had the “right” to join NATO was sacrosanct and non-negotiable. (It is ironic that this desire to join NATO was not a widespread popular desire. The freely elected Yanokovich had rejected the idea; it was Poreshenko, who came to power, after what Russia sees as a coup, who committed Ukraine to the path of NATO membership). The Kremlin perceived this as a strategy to “contain” Russia. The US probably did not realise, (until the last minute), that when Russia said “red-line” they meant that they would launch a military action. Sakwa, intelligently, makes the point that Putin’s early nuclear threats were an attempt to localise the conflict and prevent the US becoming involved. This failed and the US flooded Ukraine with weapons. The “special operation” has become a war.

Sakwa is clear about assignment of responsibility. He expresses the same idea in several forms. For example: “To use the analogy suggested earlier, the pistol was loaded but Putin was responsible for pulling the trigger”. He seems, perhaps, to suggest that the US had wrongly assumed that they could “load the pistol” and because deterrence had worked in the past, it would work now and Russia would not react. 

Chapter 11. Crisis of the International System

Sakwa’s critique of Mearsheimer’s offensive realism

Sakwa critiques Mearhseimer’s view that conflict between the US and China is likely. (In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics Mearsheimer writes that his theory predicts that there will be conflict between the US and China though he hopes not). Sakwa claims that Mearsheimer’s view dates from work produced in 1919 by Halford Mackinder and does not take account of “airpower, rockets and satellites”. Sakwa also says that Mearsheimer’s theory (offensive realism) does not take account of “choice and agency”. Sakwa is demonstrably wrong on both counts. In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics Mearsheimer takes nuclear weapons (“rockets”?) fully into account in formulating and developing his theory. He also considers airpower in detail. Ultimately, Mearshimer argues that airpower is not decisive in war. He may be wrong or right. (I am not a military specialist). But he certainly takes account of it. He considers air power, sea power, nuclear power and land power and concludes: “First, land power is the dominant form of military power in the modern world.” [9]  As for “choice”; Mearsheimer does acknowledge that individual choice can play a role in shaping global events. But, for Mearsheimer; this can only explain temporary or one-off deviations from what his structural theory predicts. As concerns that structural theory, simply saying as Sakwa does that it is “deterministic” does not defeat it. Mearsheimer would agree it is deterministic. Great Powers are victims of a tragedy. 

Mearsheimer’s theory is that Great Powers are competing in a dangerous and ungoverned world. There is no “world policeman” to control the situation, as a state can control disorder within the state. In this dangerous world, the safest place for a state to be is at the top. States will strive to achieve hegemony. Other states will perceive this as a threat, (who can tell if the intentions of the other state are truly benign?), and strive to block them. Conflict is inevitable. Not every conflict; caution and judicious handling can mean that some conflicts can be avoided. (Mearsheimer believes that the Ukraine crisis was avoidable). This theory has predictive power, as Mearsheimer shows by historical examples. The theory certainly seems to explain the current conflict between the US and China. China is “rising” and the US is openly trying to contain it. 

Possibly it is just a preference for any theory at all, or specifically for structural explanations, but I find Mearshsimer’s theory more convincing that Sakwa’s apparent belief that all nations can simply work out their differences, on the basis of ‘rational agency’, through international institutions. Sakwa argues that the decisive factor is not structural but “fears”. The implication seems to be that these fears can be reduced through dialogue and “trust-building”. In one sense Mearsheimer might agree; there is certainly scope to reduce the potential for conflict. But, I think, Mearsheimer would argue that one state can never really trust the intentions of the other and they know that the other sees them as a threat, and so no amount of dialogue can make the fear go away. Indeed the current conflict in Ukraine might be taken as a case in point. NATO insists, and some in NATO may believe, that NATO is a defensive organisation and has no bad intentions towards Russia. But, from the Russian point of view, (and Sakwa himself quotes Putin to this effect), the impression is that the US and NATO are acting against Russia: “Its [the US] main goal is to contain Russia’s development. This is the whole point. In this sense, Ukraine is simply a tool to reach this goal”. Given that there was a potential military dimension to that; the US was heavily arming Ukraine after 2018, one can precisely see why the Kremlin might have thought, without knowing exactly what could happen, that the situation was developing in a way that could pose a danger for Russia and they should act now, before anything happened. The US attacked Iraq in 2003 also based on a surmise about Iraqi intentions. States fear the intentions of others and act preemptively. Reality seems to be explained much better by Mearshimer than by Sakwa. 

Sakwa’s critique of offensive realism in general is weak. Consider this: 

Realists recognise no problem [in multilateral governance], since for them the competitive pursuit of national interests is the natural state of affairs. Nevertheless, multilateral institutions are critical in managing global challenges.

In fact, Mearsheimer explains that nation states will collaborate in international institutions when they see an advantage to doing so, especially in fields outside of the security arena. His case ‘against’ international institutions is focussed on how they cannot resolve security dilemmas. Sakwa fails to fully consider this distinction.

In discussing what defines an adversarial relationship as a ‘Cold War’, Sakwa makes the key point that in a Cold War each side understands the problem not to lie in interactions between their country and the adversary, but in terms of the essence of the enemy. This leads inevitably to a belief that the solution is regime change. We have retrenched to this belief. Certainly, it is clear that many in the US leadership do not hesitate to express the view that the problem is the nature of the Russian ‘regime’. Russia for its part has, recently, adopted ‘civilisational’ language which describes the West as lost, beyond salvation.  

This book is full of deep insights. Here Sakwa, raises the question about whether Russia, and China, do not, in fact, represent a “revolt against modernity”:

..Russia and China opposed to the practices of substitution; and in domestic matters, the two countries insist on creating their own models of modernity – although critics with some justification argue that both represent a revolt against modernity, if the latter is defined as a critical, open-ended and reflexive approach to problems of development and political inclusion.

This question in itself would require at least an essay, if not a book, to answer. The context of the question is that of the two world visions; democratic internationalism, which seeks to expand the liberal-democratic system all over the world, and sovereign internationalism which asserts, correctly, that the UN Charter is agnostic as to the ‘correct’ domestic political system in any one country. Democratic internationalists, naturally, like to point to weaknesses in Russia’s upholding of generally accepted Human Rights principles such as the right to “freedom of expression”. [10] Russia, for its part, has pointed to US violations of the very “right to life” in their regime change operations. However; Sakwa seems to come down on the side of the sovereign internationalists, while being sympathetic to some extent to the values and aims of democratic internationalists. Even if Russia, (and China), are “in revolt against modernity” that does not provide a reason in terms of the UN Charter to provoke them.

Just two pages later, Sakwa, puts his finger on, and clearly articulates, the flawed thinking of the West in how they (liberal internationalists) see international relations:

Struggles over the legitimacy of the liberal order’s claim to universality underlie the great-power conflicts of our time. This takes the specific form of questioning ‘universalism’ – the belief that the normative claims underlying liberal order are of universal validity and hence it was incumbent upon the power system in which these values were embedded to advance and defend these claims – the predicate for democratic internationalism and transdemocracy.

This is precisely the problem identified and critiqued by John Mearsheimer in his book: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. [6] Sakwa ends this chapter by arguing that multilateralism is possible but it depends on political inclusivity. He sees a role for diplomacy in building this political process. Unfortunately, there was no political process to create a workable security architecture for the European continent after the fall of the USSR, which included Russia. 

Chapter 12. Rise of the Political East

After the brief period of US unipolarity the world once again began to change. Open conflict broke out between the West and Russia in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and in 2018 Donald Trump launched a trade war against China. Sakwa states his basic position:

The disruption generated by the changed correlation of forces, power transition and multipolarity does not necessarily entail conflict and war – but for this wise statecraft is required.

Again; this is in contrast to the view of offensive realism which sees conflict between China and the US as almost inevitable because of structural dynamics which cannot be resolved simply by “wise statecraft” though, of course, Mearsheimer would agree that “wise statecraft” can reduce the risks

In this chapter Sakwa discusses how the US has turned to sanctions as a first-resort, as a substitute for war, and, in his view, as a substitute for diplomacy. He points out that once in place it is hard to lift sanctions and thus they become part of “forever wars”. 

Various models for conceptualising the multipolar world are discussed. Some scholars talk about a chaotic world; “no one’s world”. The US itself tends to see a US led Western order and a non-Western periphery. Others believe in a “true global order”. Sakwa seems to see a world characterised by tension between the West and China-Russia, balanced by a non-aligned South. Sakwa writes that based on the failure to peaceably resolve international problems so far he believes that the tendency is likely to be increasing hostility between major powers and a remilitarised Europe. Some hold out the hope that the new multipolar world will be one of cooperation on problems such as climate change, nuclear proliferation and regional conflict. But Sakwa does not share this optimism. 

A new world is emerging which is not subordinated to Western hegemony. Sakwa points to several “post-Western” institutions; Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) – a body focussed on security cooperation whose members include China, Russia and Kazakhstan as well as, more recently, India, Pakistan and Iran, BRICS including the BRICS Development Bank, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), and AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank). He also points to the fact that China has its own payment system. India too is developing, its economy overtaking that of the UK in 2022. India also subscribes to the idea of ‘sovereign internationalism’.


Sakwa’s main thesis, as given by the tile of the book, is that following the collapse of the USSR an opportunity was missed to establish a more peaceful world order. He does not claim that this would have been a final end to all war and conflict. But, he argues that we could have avoided the present calamity.

Sakwa paints a picture of multiple camps failing to ‘rise to the moment’, For example;

Former dissidents in Eastern Europe very quickly turned into partisans of NATO enlargement and thereby lost the moral edge they had gained in their struggle against communist authoritarianism and their critiques of consumerist modernity and militarism.

He repeats his view that Russia has failed to find its own vision of modernity. Given the rupture with the West Russia’s future for now lies in the global post-Western camp. 

A key argument in this book is that a failure to develop a European security architecture which included Russia is the root cause of the present crisis. The crisis is so deep that even the UN system itself is called into question. Will the US, for example, formally abandon it and set up a camp of “democracies”, opposing the “authoritarian states” of Russia and China? 

As I have indicated several times in my commentary above Richard Sakwa is balanced in his apportioning of blame. This summarises his assessment: “The brinkmanship of the political West and Russia’s immoderate ambitions have returned the scourge of war to Europe.”

Sakwa cites Gorbachev in his conclusion. It is clear that he believes that Gorbahchev had a meaningful vision for a post Cold War I world, a vision which has not been realised. My own view is that Gorbachev vision was naive in thinking that countries would come together on the basis of goodwill or even “common sense”. Sakwa quotes Gorbachev:

Civilization has approached a dividing line, not so much between different systems and ideologies, but between common sense and mankind’s feelings of self-preservation, on the one hand, and irresponsibility, national selfishness, prejudice – to put it briefly, old thinking – on the other.

This in fact seems to be the kind of thinking which Sakwa himself very clearly dismisses; the idea that the end of the Cold War heralded some new era of humanity where problems of war and conflict would be no more. 

While I have highlighted in this review the significant theoretical difference between Sakwa and John Mearsheimer they both agree on where the new conflict lies:

The long-term trend is for power to shift to the Asia-Pacific region accompanied by the re-emergence of China as a major power, and therefore resistance to hegemony and dominion will intensify.

Sakwa discusses possible pathways to peace. He argues that the US seeks to suppress normal balance of power politics by imposing a global peace-order, with itself at the helm. But, this attempt to impose its world order on the world, overlaying the UN system of sovereign internationalism, has closed down the field for diplomacy. 

Sakwa’s pathway to peace is for a renewed commitment to principles of sovereign internationalism embodied in the UN Charter; that is an end to the attempt to export liberal-democracy to other countries. In his terms this means an end to the “Great Substitution”.

Summary (by the reviewer) 

In allocating the blame for the Ukraine crisis, and the wider rupture between Russia and the West, Sakwa aligns, despite his different theoretical basis, closely with John Mearsheimer. The blame lies chiefly with the West. Sakwa has a concept of the “Great Substitution”. By this he means that US liberal internationalism, which was a sub-order within the UN Charter System, ‘took over’ and displaced the sovereign internationalism of the Charter system. US liberal internationalism has a place to play in US foreign policy but it should be subordinated to commitment to UN Charter principles. The problem has been that the US has sought to impose this, its own, system of liberal internationalism, a sub-order system in the UN system, on the whole world, treating it as the legitimate system, overriding the UN system of sovereign internationalism. He calls this process the Great Substitution. In John Mearsheimer’s book, The Great Delusion, Liberal Dreams and International Realities Mearsheimer takes aim at liberal hegemony – the goal of exporting liberalism all over the world. While Mearsheimer believes in liberalism on the domestic level, he sees it as a source of trouble, when attempts are made to impose it on other countries. On the essential Foreign Policy point there is convergence between John Mearsheimer and Richard Sakwa. 

As well as the Great Substitution, the other main theme of Richard Sakwa’s book is how the current crisis has occurred because, following the collapse of the USSR, no European Security Architecture policy was agreed. During the Cold War I, there was confrontation but it was managed. The situation now is less stable and the level of antagonism greater. The international agreements during Cold War I between the West and the Soviet Union balanced two themes; sovereignty on the one hand, but also the “indivisibility of security” on the other. The latter is the idea that no one country should enhance its security in such a way as to pose risks for another. This is the element which Russia feels has been neglected when the US/NATO push their borders right up to Russia. In essence, the US saw the collapse of the USSR as a victory, not a triumph for the international world order. They moved to consolidate that victory. But Russia has not seen (or has not wanted to see) the end of the USSR as a loss. They expected to be treated as a partner – perhaps to some extent they were unreasonable in their expectations. But faced with the forced choice between prosperous vassalship in the US-led global system or a confrontation with the West, they chose confrontation. Quite possibly the US had not even anticipated that Russia would respond to the attempt to humiliate them with military action. These factors led to the present crisis.

Sakwa’s book is absolutely teaming with insights. There is much that I have not covered here. It is highly recommended. 

Buy on Amazon: Sakwa, Richard. The Lost Peace: How the West Failed to Prevent a Second Cold War. Yale University Press. Kindle Edition. 2023


1.  Sakwa, Richard. Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands. Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition. 2015.

2. Mearsheimer, John J.. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (Updated Edition) (p. 442). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition. 


 4. Ibid. 1. p381

5. Ibid. 1. p74

6. Mearsheimer, John J.. The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (The Henry L. Stimson Lectures Series). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition. 

7.  Ibid. 1. p127

8. Elizabeth C. Economy, The World According to China (Cambridge, Polity, 2021).

9. Ibid. 2. p119

10.  Freedom of expression is enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, accepted in 1948. However; at that time not all countries were members of the UN. The USSR abstained from the resolution which accepted the document.