After the Cold War, Europe gained praise as a zone of peace and stability. The ceremonial declaration of the region as a “common home” was accompanied by a massive reduction in the size of the army, defense budget and weapons stockpile. European states have launched multiple venues for dialogue, confidence-building measures and arms control agreements. Such initiatives as the Vienna Document, the Treaty on Open Skies or the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program heralded an unprecedented transparency of national security institutions. The leaders discussed the parameters for new relations and shared spaces.
This sense of peace in Europe was deceptive. The end of the Cold War did not solve the structural problems of regional architecture. International institutions exacerbated divisions instead of resolving them. Growing cooperation remained fragile because it did not address key security concerns. As a result, Europe experienced increasing tensions, culminating in a direct conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine in 2022. The facade of regional order gave way to the most intense conventional conflict since World War II, with the threat of nuclear confrontation.
As the famous saying goes: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Recent events, however painful and tragic, provide valuable lessons not only for Europe but also for other regions, especially Asia. The latter has a host of ambitious powers and is experiencing growing tensions. Meanwhile, the collapse of Europe’s security architecture exposes the flaws in the scholastic dogmas that even politicians skeptical of academic theorizing uncritically recite. The following sections will outline three lessons from the Russian-Western confrontation that contradict what experts have so far believed:
Bipolarity is not a recipe for stability
The second half of the 20thth century witnessed a sharp rivalry between the former Soviet Union and the United States (USA), which did not lead to a major war. Eventually, these superpowers reached a modus vivendi, gaining a sense of stability in the confrontation. In subsequent decades, this balance even fueled sentimental references to the Cold War as a period of relative predictability. A prominent theoretical discussion by Kenneth Waltz praised the bipolar structure for reducing miscalculations, recklessness, and freewheeling. In fact, he positioned bipolarity as an antidote to major wars.
The end of the Cold War marked the end of bipolarity at the global level, but it did not bring about the same structural change in Europe. The regional architecture remained bipolar with Russia and the West as the dominant players. Moreover, preserving NATO inevitably alienated Moscow. This meant that Western designs only offered Russia access to the entrance hall, while the latter required a seat at the table. This collision placed an irreparable flaw in the very foundations of the European order.
Meanwhile, bipolarity in the real world does not ensure the firm incorporation of each state into antagonistic blocs, contrary to abstract theorizing schemes. Instead, this structure contains unstable elements that invite destabilizing struggles. Rose-tinted depictions of the Cold War tend to omit examples such as West Berlin, Korea, Vietnam or Afghanistan. At 21st century, these weak points caused the decline of the regional security architecture in Europe. As Russian-Western relations became tenuous, the ‘countries in between’ became the primary arena for competition.
In comparison, Asia has been more successful than Europe in overcoming the legacy of the Cold War. ASEAN’s historic decision to include former Soviet allies marked a step away from earlier conflicts. However, regional dynamics have changed in recent years as competing dialogue formats and initiatives have formed, presenting themselves as precursors to potential blocs. Although the urge to cooperate with like-minded partners is natural, it exaggerates differences with the excluded, cementing divisions. Henceforth, Asia faces the risk of falling into the same trap of bipolar animosity that plagued Europe.
Institutions are what states make of them
Another mantra of international relations experts is that international institutions encourage information sharing and mutual trust, leading to greater predictability and cooperation. This premise also dates back to the Cold War era, when relations within the West relied heavily on a network of political, security and economic regimes. The praise of international institutions strongly infiltrated the rhetoric of politicians and diplomats because such places gave them a sense of action through regular meetings and agreed documents.
After the Cold War, Europe experienced an explosive growth of institutions. The Council of Europe, the European Union (EU) and NATO expanded to the east. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe was renamed as an organization, although it did not receive full legal accreditation. Subregional organizations have mushroomed. All these bodies did not prevent the fall between Moscow and the West. Illustratively, the Russia-NATO Council, authorized to hold a security dialogue, has been suspended in the midst of crises. Institutions have also contributed to tensions by providing a forum for blame-shifting and extensive regulations as fuel for disputes.
Asia has witnessed a similar rise in international institutions over recent decades. They differed from their European counterparts due to less emphasis on promoting binding regulations. This flexibility helped avoid some of the same controversies. However, it would be naive to expect such an institution to provide solutions to close potential conflicts. No exchange of information would be sufficient in cases of substantial differences between states. Moreover, multilateral forums in Asia have already invited stormy meetings in recent years. Thus, they serve confrontation as much as cooperation.
Political fears outweigh the economic rationale
Finally, the last dogma that was overturned by the Russian-Western conflict is the pacifying role of economic interdependence. The argument that trade makes war stupid predates World War I, but has gained additional resonance with the rise of global supply chains, international finance, and information flows. Increased economic interdependence combined with transnational interpersonal contacts have increased the costs of confrontation for states, encouraging expectations that they will be forced to resolve their differences through political tools.
Both Russia-Ukraine relations and Russia-EU ties rest on solid economic foundations. During the post-Cold War years, Moscow and the West faithfully believed that the promotion of trade and investment would bring them closer together politically. The Nord Stream pipelines have become the epitome of these beliefs. As tensions began to rise, the parties reached similar conclusions, which, however, ran counter to prevailing expectations. Each assumed that potential losses would force the other side to relent, and so each doubled its claims. Economic interdependence encouraged displacement rather than compromise.
The economic ties that connect Asian countries are in certain aspects deeper and more complex than those that connected Russia and the West. However, they are no less confusing for political calculations. Because interdependence is mutual, it encourages reckless behavior as much as risk aversion. Given that decision-makers tend to overestimate their commitment to their adversaries, especially in security matters, their view of economic ties raises concerns.
Is Asia different?
It can be argued that the conclusions drawn from the Russian-Western confrontation risk overgeneralization. The fact that bipolarity, international institutions or economic interdependence have produced bad results in this case does not mean that they are always dangerous. After all, Asia is very different from Europe in terms of geography, history and strategic cultures. However, even if there are reasons to believe that international relations in one region do not necessarily follow failures in another, nothing prevents decision makers from learning from the latter and creatively applying these lessons.
The bottom line is that many of the established dogmas can be wrong. They require critical evaluation even if they are supported by respectable academic justifications (usually from Western theoretical literature). The European record played a significant role in reinforcing dominant strategic myths. Now, that’s key in breaking them down.