“The only sure bulwark of continuing liberty is a government strong enough to protect the interests of the people, and a people strong enough and well enough informed to maintain its sovereign control over the government.”

Franklin D Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States

Cicero denounces Cataline
Democracy in action: Cicero denounces Cataline, fresco by Cesare Maccari

The End of the Liberal Hegemony

I have written recently why I think the West rules, for now https://the-perspective-pool.scriber.to/article/the-tri-polar-world-and-why-the-west-rules-for-now. Having control of the globe’s reserve and trade currencies and international payments gives a significant advantage to the US and to a lesser extent Europe. It remains to be seen whether the sweeping sanctions against Russia will cause other countries - concerned by similar reprisals - to migrate away from a dependency on the US Dollar. It is hard to see that happening any time soon. 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 the USD will be hard to replace as the global “hard” currency of international borrowing, financing and trade.

Despite this advantage, the leadership of the liberal capitalist world is increasingly confined to the economic: the West has lost much of its political, cultural and ideological hegemony in the face of growing populations and economies elsewhere. In 2014 Russia was suspended from the G8 (which became the G7) after its annexation of Crimea: it was relatively politically easy for a gang of liberal democracies comprising the US, 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. The US may be very unhappy that President Putin has indicated that he will attend the next G20 meeting due in October, but Putin knows that a decent portion of the crowd is not overtly hostile to him.

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. Globalization 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 - in to 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. These are a few of the recent examples of messily handled foreign policy issues that have contributed to conflict in Europe on a scale not seen since 1945.

  • A failure of decisiveness in Syria. US forces were deployed in Syria, ostensibly the objective of hastening the collapse of the Al Assad regime. However, burned by the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, successive US Administrations (Obama and Trump) failed to have a clear strategic plan. In October 2019, Turkey and Russia signed a joint memorandum agreeing to actions to stabilize 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 neutralize ISIS over a few months than the coalition of the US, UK, France, Jordan and several Gulf States had over a number of years; albeit by Russian forces entirely destroying towns, including Aleppo.

  • Ambiguous relations with Turkey. Turkey originally applied for EEC membership (the European Economic Community, the precursor organization that ultimately became the European Union) 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 in to stabilizing 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.

  • Cutting off relations with Iran. The permanent members of the UN Security Council - the US, UK, France, China and Russia - plus Germany agreed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran in 2015, 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.

  • Failed relations with Pakistan. Pakistan is a diverse country of 200 million people, with an admittedly complex and troubled political history; its first Prime Minister was assassinated, as was its first female Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, and there have been multiple political murders and attempts on others (General Musharraf survived multiple attempts on his life). Pakistan has been a frustration to the US for a long time; it assisted the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980’s but proved to be a haven for Osama bin Laden in the 2000’s. Before his unceremonious removal in a vote of no confidence, Pakistan’s most recent PM, 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.

  • The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. China has a land border with Pakistan - the far north east 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. 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 a way 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 dishonorable decision.

  • 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 in to building a functional consensus between the US and China. Given China’s track record I would have to assume that it 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.

EU to the Right: Hungary and France

Brexit and Trump were not aberrations of the Anglo-Saxon world, but signs of larger forces of nationalism that are rising again. Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party retained power with a landslide electoral win in Hungary on 4 April, and immediately branded President Zelensky of Ukraine an “opponent”. At least Orban is consistent; he has always been critical of Ukraine, the EU - of which Hungary has been a member since 2004 - immigration, and LGBTQ rights.

As France’s Presidential election first round of voting showed recently, as was the case in 2017 Macron’s only challenge will be from Marine Le Pen of the National Front. Le Pen, daughter of the founder of the National Front, has policies that include dramatically cutting immigration, limiting immigrant’s rights to access social services and the outlawing of Muslim headscarves. France’s politics has fragmented in to more extremes, to the detriment of the formerly dominant Socialists and Republicans: 57% of the first round votes we cast for candidates that could be regarded as “extreme”, left or right.

The EU is catching up with electoral patterns seen in the US (Trump), Brazil (Bolsonaro), Mexico (AMLO) and several African countries. In India, the world’s largest democracy, the ruling BJP party made further gains in state elections in March, giving Hindu-nationalist President Modi - no fan of the West - an even stronger position. There are now a significant number of democracies around the world that now have decidedly illiberal political inclinations.

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 and Crimea. Even Biden’s slip in which he implied that Putin needed to be removed from power cuts away some diplomatic routes to an exit. The longer this goes on the more likely the risk of a serious miscalculation.

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 modernization 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 - that makes escalation a real risk from here.

Yours

Duncan

Further Reading