“We’re approaching the most dangerous point in human history… We are now facing the prospect of the destruction of organised human life on Earth.” Noam Chomsky, quoted in the New Statesman on 6 April.
The end of the liberal hegemony
I have written recently about why I think the West rules, for now. The economic and military power of the US is still preeminent, and the US – and to a lesser extent Europe – will remain dominant while they have control of the globe’s reserve and trade currencies (the dollar and euro) and associated international payments processing capability. It is for these reasons that the US, UK and EU have been able to impose such sweeping sanctions against Russia in retaliation for its invasion of Ukraine. President Biden’s administration is a firm believer in the use of sanctions as its main weapon in international relations – rather than the projection of military force – and aims to exclude Russia from the international financial and trade system, in so far as it can without becoming embroiled in a European war.
It remains to be seen whether the sanctions against Russia will cause other countries – concerned by similar reprisals from the US in the future – to migrate away from a dependency on the US dollar over time. Crypto may play a part, as some coins become a more frequent means of international exchange, and more companies and even governments accept digital assets on their balance sheets; however, we are not there yet, and USD will be hard to replace as the global ‘hard’ currency of international borrowing, financing and trade any time soon.
Despite the advantage of owning the world’s hard currencies, the leadership of the liberal capitalist world is increasingly confined: the West has lost much of its political, cultural and ideological hegemony in the face of growing populations and economies elsewhere, as I discuss in my new Scriber piece: “Afghanistan, Ukraine and the nuclear option”.
In 2014, Russia was suspended from the G8 (which became the G7) after its annexation of Crimea: it was relatively politically and economically inconsequential for a group of liberal democracies comprising the US, the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan to expel Russia as a member of their club. In contrast, the G20, which includes China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey and South Africa (none of which have unequivocally denounced Russia’s actions in Ukraine), did not expel Russia. Many of the largest developing countries have profound economic and political ties to Moscow and receive more of its grain, energy, weapons and, in some cases, military advice. Russia has invested decades in becoming a leading exporter to emerging markets.
The US may be very unhappy that President Putin has indicated that he will attend the next G20 meeting due to be held in Indonesia in October, but Putin knows that a decent portion of the crowd is not overtly hostile to him, and an increasingly large portion of the world's economic power.
Russia now belongs to other clubs as well: it is a founder member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), created in 2001 and which includes China, and since 2017, India. It was only on 4 February of this year that Presidents Putin and Xi signed a partnership agreement declaring a “New World Order” and a long-term partnership “without limits”. It is clear now that President Putin never expected Russia to join the liberal West, and knew he would have to make friends elsewhere if the economy of Russia is to compete and survive.
The US may be outraged, but if it boycotts the G20 it will create yet another large fissure in the edifice of liberal, global institutions. Globalisation has ended, and with it much of the power of the post-Second World War geopolitical structures. What has also shattered is the implied linkage between social liberality and democracy.
The West’s foreign policy mistakes
In the new tripolar world, the liberal democracies of the West risk driving their opponents – and sometimes allies – into the arms of Russia or China. The West had a tendency to believe that exporting democracy was the same as creating a liberal capitalism in its own image. This misunderstanding of the new wave of “democracies”, which include post-Soviet Russia, has led to a series of strategic mistakes by the West. These are six of the recent examples of messily handled foreign policy issues that I would argue have contributed to conflict in Europe on a scale not seen since 1945.
1. A failure of decisiveness in Syria
US forces were deployed in Syria, ostensibly the objective being the hastening the collapse of the Al Assad regime. However, burned by the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, successive US administrations (those of Obama and Trump) failed to have a clear strategic plan. In October 2019, Turkey and Russia signed a joint memorandum agreeing to actions to stabilise the security situation in Northern Syria, and allow Russian forces to operate from Turkish territory. President Erdogan of Turkey went on to claim – with some veracity – that it was he and President Putin who defeated ISIS in northern Syria and brought stability to the region, not the US and their allies. Turkey is a member of NATO, but ultimately worked more successfully with Russia to neutralise ISIS over a few months than the coalition of the US, the UK, France, Jordan and several Gulf States had over a number of years; albeit by Russian forces entirely destroying towns, including Aleppo.
2. Ambiguous relations with Turkey
Turkey originally applied for EEC membership (the European Economic Community, the precursor organisation that ultimately became the EU) in 1959, and it still waiting to be admitted. Turkey’s relationship with the West has remained ambiguous ever since; it has customs and cooperation agreements with the EU, it absorbed refugees on behalf of the EU and its airbases were used by the Coalition in the invasion of Iraq. However, after unsuccessfully urging the US to put more effort into stabilising northern Syria, it allied itself with the Russians. The US supported Kurdish groups in northern Iraq in the fight against ISIS, which Turkey regarded as separatist terrorist groups, and created further outrage in Ankara.
3. Cutting off relations with Iran
The permanent members of the UN Security Council – the US, the UK, France, China and Russia – plus Germany agreed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran in 2015, with the objective of curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The Trump Administration unilaterally abandoned the so-called Iranian Nuclear Deal in 2018, and reimposed more sanctions on Iran and its economy. Several attempts to revive the deal, involving Iran proving it is not developing a nuclear weapons capability, have not succeeded so far. What sanctions have accomplished is China agreeing to buy more Iranian oil; in 2021 China and Iran agreed a 25-year cooperation agreement, which included cooperation on nuclear technology and oil purchases.
4. Failed relations with Pakistan
Pakistan has been a frustration to the US for a long time; it assisted the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s but proved to be a haven for Osama bin Laden in the 2000s. Before his unceremonious removal in a vote of no confidence, Pakistan’s most recent prime minister, Imran Khan, had visited Moscow and met with Putin on 25 February, the day Russia launched its assault on Ukraine. Chinese money developed the Gwadar deep-water port west of Karachi, as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC); a port large enough to act as a hub for trade, of course, but also support the operations of an ocean-going navy.
5. The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan
China has a land border with Afghanistan – the far northeastern corner, where a pan-handle of Afghanistan touches the far west of the People’s Republic. Pakistan, the new friend of China, wraps around the west and south of Afghanistan in the shape of a J, ultimately meeting Iran on the shores of the Persian Gulf. To the north of Afghanistan, over the Oxus River, are Central Asian republics with close economic and cultural ties to Russia; notably Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and, further north, Kazakhstan, all of whom are also members of the SCO. It was Kazakhstan that called on Russian troops (technically, the CSTO, Russia’s NATO equivalent) to help quell riots and demonstrations in January of this year. The tragedy of Afghanistan is that it’s never been about Afghanistan; it’s always been about global power-politics.
Personally, I found the chaotic and humiliating withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan by far and away the worst event of 2021: not just the wasted years, not just the wasted blood and treasure, not just the political cowardice and bureaucratic incompetence, but the knowledge that the only people who were genuinely delighted by that outcome were Presidents Xi and Putin. Afghanistan is a place I know and still haunts my dreams. I have to ask myself if Putin’s thoughts on Ukraine were fundamentally emboldened by witnessing that dreadful and dishonourable decision.
6. Failing to build consensus with China
The G7 threw out Russia, and still believe they run the G20. Over a number of years, insufficient effort has been put into building a functional consensus between the US and China. Russia and China have historically not had good relations, but Putin has made a significant effort to build a new relationship. China will continue to do significant business with Russia, untroubled by liberal political sentiment. It may be shy of doing so publicly in the political heat of the immediate situation, but Russia will need new markets for its oil, gas and minerals, and, as the Chinese economy gets going again, it will be able to switch its sales effort from West to East.
The most dangerous moment: Ukraine escalation
The great thinker and writer Noam Chomsky recently said that we are fast approaching the most dangerous moment in human history, as we confront environmental destruction and the “grim cloud of fascism”. Chomsky said it reminded him of his first, youthful, publication in February 1939, as he observed the fall of Austria, Czechoslovakia and Barcelona to fascist forces.
The constant news on Ukraine, and the shocking nature of warfare projected through mainstream and social media may cause us all to believe the war will be over soon; that it is an intense and bloody conflict that neither side can afford to keep waging. Regrettably, this may be wishful thinking. Western arms and finance will keep Ukraine in the fight but not give it command of its own skies, and Russia cannot afford to give up its attempts to take the Donbas, Crimea and the littoral of the Sea of Azov that connects them.
This week’s words from US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin that the US and its allies will “move heaven and earth” to weaken Russia to a point that it cannot repeat an attack of the kind made on Ukraine – and similar points made by Antony Blinken – removes diplomatic off-ramps. Yesterday, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said that “Ukraine’s victory is a strategic imperative for all of us”; an interesting choice of words, implying the objective is Russia’s “defeat”. On the same day that Lloyd Austin made his comments, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov said that the west was “engaged in a war through a proxy” against Russia.
The longer this goes on, the greater the risk of a serious miscalculation: escalation is already occurring, not just in rhetoric. This week, Russia said it will cut off its gas supply to Poland and Bulgaria as a result of their refusal to pay in Rubles, and there is a likelihood of Finland and, potentially, Sweden joining NATO before the end of this year; ironically, the very event Moscow was trying to avoid. The conflict in Ukraine could go on not just for months but for years and, with it, wider instability in international relations and economics.
The greatest mistake
The greatest error made by the West – eclipsing the examples above – is to have assumed that the end of the Cold War or the modernisation of the Chinese economy would cause Russia, China (or India for that matter) to adopt Western political, cultural and economic norms.
It is particularly true of the political classes in the US and UK that they do not understand the perspectives of anyone from outside their own political village, and assume any ‘democracy’ is fully equipped with all the same complex trappings of longstanding political culture that the US or UK has. As one exasperated Belgian colleague said to me after the 2015 Brexit vote, “You guys don’t get it: we are all trying to run the liberal capitalist democratic model you gave to everyone after the [Second World] War; you know how it works and have the experience and yet you don’t help anyone else understand how to do it”. I conveyed this to one of my connected political friends in the UK, who’s response was “nonsense!”. It is that level of misunderstanding – the unawareness of the loss of the West’s political leadership and the growing confidence of developing countries to choose their own paths and compete for market share outside the G7 – that makes escalation a real risk from here.