Dear Partners in thought,
The war in Ukraine has been a catalyst for what many see as the start of a potential reshaping of the world order—an order we have known since WW2 and the end of the Cold War. The fall of the Soviet Union gave rise to three decades of relative world peace and strong growth (even if they were peppered by crises like in 2008), driven by an unprecedented globalisation. Both world peace and globalisation are under threat today as new and stronger party lines are being defined along two camps. It is worth calmly reviewing the situation and assessing whether this new world order forecast will materialise and endure. Or whether, more importantly, the West may lose its historical supremacy.
The two not-so-new camps are being largely defined on one side by the West—a strong unity between the US and Europe rooted in the transatlantic alliance via NATO (allied with, among other countries, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand). This is indeed reminiscent of the post-WW2 era, and has been strengthened as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As stated in a recent Book Note, the West—while its societies suffer from too much social media-focused individualism, vote-grabbing incompetent populism, and capitalism at times losing its soul—is still predominant worldwide. And that is despite an uncertain American leadership, weakened by many domestic challenges, and a Europe still going through existential changes and weakened by a specious Brexit.
The other camp, that is not yet defining itself easily, is led by President Xi’s resurgent ambitious-for-world-supremacy China, and an increasingly-lost Russia, that needs a strong partner even though it is relegated to a new and very junior role. While the US-Europe camp is based on democratic values, the China-Russia camp is reflecting an autocracy that has risen over the last ten years in their midst. There is more coherence and commonality of values and interests within the US-Europe camp than in the China-Russia one, even if the defining basis of the latter is primarily found in its opposition to (if not rejection of) America and its longstanding world leadership. While Europe and the EU may fight against America on trade subsidies and similar economic matters, they are one on issues of democracy and the international world order as we have known it. The China-Russia camp is more the expression of the “enemy of my enemy must be my friend” which may be tactically viable but not the strongest construct in its essence. Meanwhile the world is at a crossroads since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Major emerging world actors position themselves alongside one of the two camps depending on the policy or matter at hand. The US-Europe camp, even if going through many travails in recent years, is still much stronger than its “would-be” rival and its relatively weak and disparate club of (at times sizeable) followers—this in spite of many recent developments. If anything, the main achievement of the China-Russia club, however partly unwitting, was to provide the world with future years of likely slower economic growth, through the combination of two events stressed last week by the Head of the IMF, viz. Covid-19 and the Ukraine invasion. This is hardly a positive advertisement for any future aspiring world order.
A third camp-in-the-making, or actually sub-camp, is the Global South—comprising disparate members with, at times, little in common, each following one of the two main camps (depending on their tactical priorities of the moment). Of late, the Global South has seemed to look after its economic interests first, and Western concerns or the old-fashioned international world order and its values later—this being helped by the fact that a war in Europe is clearly not their concern. The Global South is increasingly taking neutral or tactical stances in the rising “great new rivalry” (if not yet conflict), when not actually taking sides with the China-led coalition-in-the-making. Not a surprising stance given rooted resentments for the traditional Western supremacy, if not ancestral or at times perceived actual colonialism. Africa has been a clear example of such positioning with many of its countries (notably including currently problem-ridden South Africa) wanting to deal with China and its Belt and Road Initiative, or clearly putting the West and the US in competition with China or indeed Russia as VP Kamala Harris noticed during her recent “marketing” trip there.
As for Latin America, a new world order-in-the-making may also be perceived as a potentially better redistribution of cards in relation to dealing with its closer (and also too powerful) Northern neighbour. Turkey in its election year plays a high wire act between being close to the West, a helpful and well-paid migrant manager for the EU and a key NATO member (even if still not willing to open the door of the latter to Sweden) while being an understanding mediator and at times a bit more with Moscow. Saudi Arabia, that now often oscillates between both factions, has clearly chosen a path disliked by the West at this particular juncture in reducing oil output with OPEC and triggering a price rise in early April. Modi’s India seems to go increasingly the autocratic way, looking at its crass treatment of the opposition while buying more Russian oil. Many Global South members naturally play a very opportunistic and inconsistent card of their own, without necessarily formally taking sides—all while periodically affecting the great new rivalry in the making.
Besides sheer geography, the new world order, as it might be redefined, clearly pins a recently-weakened democracy against a stronger autocracy, the latter of all flavours. It is yet not clear that democracy as we know it, a still young historical construct, will survive if it is not ready to stand firm and eventually fight through its many means. It would, however, be too early to believe that the West is in a losing position as the world evolves, even if democracy may be actually much harder to manage in a fast-paced 21st century than a simpler autocracy—especially for leaderships and populations more historically at ease with this concept and way of life. When looking at this potential new world order—or indeed disorder—reshaping, it is best to look at the various components and dynamics at play.
While remaining the undisputed leader of the (so-called for some) Free World, America today is dealing with domestic challenges not experienced in recent history. Moderate America seems to have been replaced by a rise of the extremes in both of its main parties. The unforeseen Trump presidential ascendency in 2016 gave rise to a hardening of positions taken by the Republican party, and more voice to extreme conservative (if not reactionary) types not much heard previously. At the same time, the Woke movement on the left took extreme positions in many walks of American life: both extreme wings also being driven by a strong financial incentive to many of their leaders and promoters, themselves helped by ever-present social media and traditional media squabbling over a declining audience.
Moderates in America, historically driven by public common sense, have become a minority—as shown by the legislative inability to enact sensible gun control to avoid daily mass shootings in schools and malls across the country. The recent Trump indictment, whatever its rationale, be it political or not, is another example of what many would describe as another proof of the American decline—while some would also rightly argue it shows that no one is above the law, even in our troubled times. A new Trump presidency in 2024, however unlikely, would be a major blow for the West—especially Europe—all the more as only 25% of US GDP is linked to international trade. This makes isolationism or “America First” an easier way of government than would be the case in any other major country, China included. (It is clear that Trump’s indictment increases his chances of winning the GOP primary, which many Democrats like Biden or another Democratic candidate would rightly prefer him as a more easily-beatable candidate in November 2024).
American extremism is also shown in the handling of its foreign policy with unnecessary trips to Taiwan by the House majority Leader, or quasi-provocations rooted in domestic politics. Both fuel a Chinese leadership’s anger that needs little provocation in the new assertive Xi era. The best American way to protect Taiwan is simply to be found in supporting Ukraine and ensuring its victory—a stance that some leading GOP members like Ron DeSantis may unwisely (and it turned out at their own costs) disagree with. The US approach to TikTok, whatever its merits, is also another expression of a shift to a Cold War mentality even if, by the same token, spy balloons should never be welcome. Moderation and common sense are what may be missing most in the US domestic and international political discourse, but these key features seem to still prevail at the right time. Not least because they are also based on the fact that America’ strengths have not disappeared in terms of actual leadership: world GDP, innovation, culture, military clout and overall message to other nations. America is still the leader of the West, and the latter is more united than ever due to the Ukraine war, even if the word “free” attached to the old appellation of “Free World” is harder at times to recall or notice for some.
While China is still searching for ways to capitalise on its global ascension, it seems to be hesitating between being a peacemaker (as seen with its concocting the Saudi-Iran rapprochement) and belonging to an anti-Western front, through an unclear Kremlin visit and military exercises together with an imperial—if not imperious—Russia and an outcast self-searching Iranian follower. It is clear that Xi’s style is more focused than ten years ago on making China a world leader and on the rivalry with the American nemesis. This new approach also takes place as China’s economy and demographics are no longer what they were, forcing the Chinese leadership to be more practical, for example by not heavily controlling the local tech sector (see the potential return of Jack Ma at least in the news) and its foreign investors as it did in recent years. China is far more pragmatic than some of Xi’s official statements may suggest, also remembering that its rather obedient middle class is more vocal than their parents, and its formerly docile behaviour was also linked to enjoying the benefits of a peaceful globalised world—notably through outbound tourism and buying Western goods.
Not being the China of Mao or Deng, its desire to be respected as a global power is natural. The West should encourage its willingness to be more active in the context of a peaceful, if competitive, relationship with the US. China is first and foremost a pragmatic country that has little to gain from military confrontation—assuming it could indeed manage a conflict. This might be unlikely, given the rigid Chinese command structure which mirrors the Party one. Perhaps as with Russia, this is a common feature of autocracies. It is unlikely that China would invade Taiwan, even if military exercises close to its shores are often seen as retributions, like for the recent meeting in California between the Taiwanese President and US House Leader McCarthy. China is unlikely to back Russia militarily in Ukraine, given the clearly-stated red line, or to get closer to Moscow than what we see today. As long as it is perceived as a true leading country worthy of world supremacy aspirations, Beijing will play a tactical supportive game with Moscow, provided it can continue to play its chips well in international trade, and salvage the remaining needed globalisation. The Belt and Road Initiative, which so far has been an economic burden, if not failure for China, is more likely to continue being one of its main tools of foreign policy, as long as no provocations arise from Washington. Xi’s desired legacy is not to be remembered for his wars, but through an assertive will to build a stronger China by other strategic means. While China is clearly building a leading world role, its natural ascension is not imperialistic in a return of old history like Russia under Putin, for which other peaceful ways to exist meaningfully are closed off today.
Russia is going through its most existentially-challenging period in its modern history. From a major power during the Cold War, and still a key country post-Soviet era having adjusted gradually to a globalised world, its leadership felt it had lost its deserved historical status and reverted to old imperialistic ways, unseen in Europe on that scale since WW2, to reassert itself. Far from regaining its perceived lost status, Russia showed unforeseen military weakness and poor leadership, giving it today no choice but to resort to being a China-follower in what would be a new autocratic world order. It is unlikely that China would support a more aggressive Russia elsewhere in Europe (beyond Ukraine, the mercenary Wagner Group is now rumoured to be looking at the Western Balkans) or in Africa (where the Wagner Group helps Russia make a comeback though with a military focus, like in Mali and Burkina Faso). However, the Russian economy, which the West expected to collapse nine months ago, has shown strong signs of resiliency and indeed reorientation—helped by both China and India buying its oil and gas. It remains to be seen whether Russia and its leadership can go on as if there had been no invasion of Ukraine, given the situation after 14 months, and the unlikely short-term ending or positive outcome for the Kremlin. Russian leadership traditionally falls on badly-managed wars, as clearly seen in 1917.
Russian society, while well under control today with no information outside the realm of state media, and an increased security apparatus in action, is questioning the war more and more — all the more within its elite that feels deprived of what the post-Soviet world had offered them (as shown in recent phone call leaks reflecting the general mood). Rage and despair are noticeable among technocrats and bureaucrats, military officials and even security service “siloviki” who now have joined the unhappiness of the oligarchs who have lost their yachts and ways of life. The recent trend of unhappiness may strengthen the Kremlin’s hard societal management, though not without avoiding the fate of previous Russian leaderships when the wider population and its elite (those who stayed) are gradually confronted with reality that time does not help. With the likes of the mercenary Wagner Group’s criticism of the Kremlin management of the “special operation” it is not clear that a coup or a leadership demise would naturally result in a more liberal and Western-like Russia in the short term. While an Ides of March’s Julius Caesar scenario is not unthinkable, most astute observers are wary of its aftermath with, at best, the rise of a less warmongering, but still hyper-nationalist post-Serbia-like Milosevic Russia that would evolve in a flawed democracy, while remaining at odds with the West.
Hopes of a Western-like liberal democratic Russia ended on a Moscow night and bridge in 2015 when Boris Nemtsov was assassinated. Today Russia, with its oil and gas that it sells less to Europe, is more and more looking like an isolated Saudi Arabia with nukes. The state of Russia today is not a sign that the new world order shows a very strong replacement for the West, again given that autocracies are not the best at such grand designs, being focused on domestic control first and foremost. It is clear that the West, while supporting Ukraine and ensuring Russia does not win there, should also make sure the natural divide of the opportunistic weak partnership between Moscow and Beijing is further affected, thus the need for the avoidance of noble but ill-thought-through provocations against the latter. Having said this, an alliance of nationalists is always an odd concept, even if there is never any guarantee that a Sino-Soviet-like split would always occur, however likely. The last thing the world needs is a collapse of Russia leading to a period of domestic chaos with ultra-nationalists eventually taking over a now hard-line Soviet-styled but still predictable Putin regime.
Europe is known today through the EU as the world-leading trading bloc. But it is also a Western sub-club of, at times, 27 very different member-states across the ancient Cold War divide: from an old France, with a very deep history, to a new Croatia. The EU today comprises very pragmatic Germany and foreign policy-ambivalent Hungary. Not to mention the ceaselessly Brussels-sensitive (but Ukraine-highly supportive) Poland. As previously stated, one clear lesson to be drawn for all European nations, including those that made past world history, is that “the power of the bloc”, such as with the EU and the critical need for it to go beyond its main trade focus, is now essential. While Europe is broadly the EU and its former UK partner, the concept and reality of the bloc matters more today. A probable Labour government in two years will likely continue, more strongly than any moderate and clear-thinking Tory one today, to bring the UK closer to the EU, while likely not re-joining it for some years. The Ukraine invasion transformed the EU through unexpected and rapid changes in its energy, economic and security policies—not to mention the rejection of any future Merkel-inspired plans to integrate Russia more closely into Europe, at least for the foreseeable future. In a stark contrast with decades of quasi-pacifism, Germany notably abandoned a historically-rooted and virtuous but not economically unhelpful refusal to focus on defence and military matters—even if actual transition takes time.
Key EU member states like France are adopting a less antagonistic stance towards China— the EU largest trading partner—than the US, serving both parties’ interests as China also needs Europe on trade. All while EU Commission President von der Leyen (incidentally a former German defence minister) clearly stated to Xi that China’s active Ukraine mediation would be a determining factor in EU-China relations. Taiwan is not much mentioned in European capitals, even if they support its “independence” and Prague is closed to Taipei, having cancelled a twin city partnership with Beijing in 2019. Macron’s visit to Beijing last week clearly showed a more moderate approach, not only aimed at bolstering trade and cultural relations with China, but also attempting at making Beijing more neutral in its stance towards Moscow with the challenging aim of finding “a shared responsibility for peace” or an equivalent to the Saudi-Iranian settlement the latter engineered, even if for its own diplomatic rationale. While the EU will get stronger at many levels, including on defence as wanted by Macron for some time, it will distance itself from Russia with relationship rebuilding taking at least a generation. At the same time the EU will redefine its position towards China in focusing more on “security and control” away from “an era of reform and opening” without weakening economic relations, or forgetting mutual work on the environment and nuclear proliferation, so as to keep working together on common issues. If anything, Europe, through the EU and its likely gradually closer British partner and eventually member anew, may unexpectedly emerge following the ill-fated Russian move in Ukraine as the inherently strongest member of the West, even if the latter will still be led by a soul-searching America.
At a time when the Middle East, known for having been the centre of world upheaval since 2001, following the disastrous Iraq war and subsequent Arab Spring, is going through another set of unsettling developments, largely due to the rise of an extremist Israeli government, the world order has not yet changed in spite of the unprecedented since 1945 full-scale invasion of a European country. It is important for the West, democracy—and by extension the world—that Ukraine wins (or does not lose) a war that is far more than territorial in nature. At this point, the world order is still the one we know, and is unlikely to change soon. But it requires some serious attention and care from the West and especially its leader, still the “indispensable country” of my youth, also at home.
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