Saturday, July 16, 2022

The Grand Realignment

Once upon a time, when Russia invaded Ukraine, savvy commentators flooded the media with stories about the great battle between Western democracy and Eastern autocracy. It glorified Ukrainian president Zelensky-- a man whose stature has been shrinking ever since-- and ran countless stories about how Vladimir Putin was sick or insane or stupid or all of the above.

And, said commentators thrilled to the brilliance of the Biden administration. After all, it united the West against Russia. Or, so it seemed at the time. Democracy was going to win.

Well, facts on the ground do not look quite so positive from the Ukrainian perspective. Aside from the fact that we in the West are willing to fight to the last Ukrainian, the lights are about to go out in Germany, with factories running the risk of being shut down. Lights are even being dimmed in the City of Lights, while the world is facing an impending famine. As for the alliance between Russia and China, it is still going strong.

Russia has reduced Eastern Ukraine to rubble and we are grumbling about sanctions. We keep talking about how we are going to punish people, as though we were dealing with obstreperous children.

Now, I am sure that everyone would rather avoid dealing with the pesky facts on the ground. For that reason, but not only for that reason, we turn to Gerald Seib, formerly with the Wall Street Journal, for a balanced big picture approach. According to Seib, Russia is working to produce a global geopolitical realignment, with the East and the South aligned against the West. He does not mention the fact that Eastern nations, having seen America weaponize the dollar, are hard at work finding an alternative to dollar-based international trade. 

One adds that the Western approach, sanctions and propaganda, is looking more and more ineffectual. Seib is more optimistic than I am, but surely the Biden team, chosen more for diversity than for competence, is in way over its head on these matters.

That does not mean that we need not be.

Anyway, Vladimir Putin, last declared to be chronically ill and on death’s door, is apparently feeling much better. He is feeling like his gambit is succeeding:

In a recent appearance before a Kremlin-friendly financial conference, Russian leader Vladimir Putin was typically direct and self-assured. Not only is his economy surviving Western sanctions, he declared, but the U.S. and its allies are missing a significant shift in the international alignment revealed by the world’s reaction to his invasion of Ukraine.

“They do not seem to notice that new powerful centers have formed on the planet,” the Russian leader said. “We are talking about revolutionary changes in the entire system of international relations. These changes are fundamental and pivotal.”

In many ways, that proclamation captures a giant global bet at the heart of Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. He’s well aware that he’s lost a lot of ground, probably permanently, in traditional East-West relations because of the brutal Ukraine invasion. But he is gambling that he can make up for that by building a new diplomatic, economic and security network along a North-South axis.

Of course, China has joined this enterprise. One remarks that, what with our tariffs and sanctions against Chinese businesses, to say nothing of our righteous denunciations of Chinese perfidy, we have precious little standing to influence the Middle Kingdom:

His key ally in this enterprise is, of course, China, which has been working along this same North-South axis for years, showering trade and investment on Asia, Latin America and Africa, often in nations long seen as diplomatic backwaters. These nations aren’t big economic or diplomatic players, but many of them are rapidly growing markets positioned on strategic trade routes, and a number possess the critical minerals needed in the transformation to clean-energy technologies.

How has Vladimir been doing? According to Seib, not so bad at all:

Mr. Putin has some reason to feel good about his plan so far. On the economic front, he is making significant oil sales to India and exploring potential natural-gas sales to Pakistan to start making up for lost Western markets. On the diplomatic front, 35 countries—representing almost 50% of the world population—abstained or voted no on a March United Nations resolution condemning the Ukraine invasion, while 58 nations, including Mexico, Egypt, Singapore, Indonesia and Qatar, abstained from a later vote to expel Russia from the UN’s Human Rights Council.

More recently, Mr. Putin received a warm reception from the presidents of China, India, Brazil and South Africa at a virtual summit meeting of the so-called Bric countries. That group, which includes four of the world’s 10 most populous nations, pointedly avoided any condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Just last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was shunned by Western nations at a meeting of top diplomats from the Group of 20 industrialized nations but found that his Brazilian, Indian and Argentine counterparts were willing to meet with him.

Of course, the Biden administration is ignoring reality, preferring to spin it all as a victory for its savvy diplomacy:

For their part, the Biden administration and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies have focused more on how well Western unity has held up in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Certainly that effort has been a significant success. NATO has been revitalized, while the European Union seems newly relevant and has invited Ukraine to join. Western resolve to punish Moscow economically and to help Ukraine militarily has been broad and robust. Similarly, U.S. efforts to draw in Japan, South Korea and Australia to counter both Russia and China have borne fruit.

And yet, many nations around the world have been doing business with China for years now. How much of the telecommunications infrastructure in Africa and South America has been installed by Chinese companies? And, of course, between them, Russia and Ukraine are responsible for feeding much of the world:

In a world economy already badly strained by the conflict in Ukraine, countries in Africa and Asia find that their appetite for energy from Russia has grown, not receded. And, amid a growing global food shortage, they badly need the grain that Russia both grows and now effectively steals from Ukraine.

One recalls that under the Obama administration, Russia annexed Crimes. The Obama administration said nothing. But, that is not all:

Angela Stent, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and author of a book on Mr. Putin’s diplomatic strategies. After Russian forces took Crimea away from Ukraine and moved into eastern Ukraine in 2014, she notes, Mr. Putin became more deeply involved in Syria, joined OPEC+ (a loose alignment with the global oil cartel), convened the first Russia-Africa Summit in 2019 and launched a new gas pipeline to China. “Putin methodically thought this through,” says Ms. Stent.

As for the investments in Africa and Latin America, China has been deeply involved:

Beijing has been working steadily in Africa and Latin America for the last two decades, largely out of the limelight. Its biggest effort has been the Belt and Road Initiative, launched in 2013, in which China is investing in trade infrastructure tying together 71 countries across Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Together, those countries represent more than a third of the world’s economic output and two-thirds of its population.

How extensive is it?

Beyond that, more than 10,000 Chinese-owned companies now are operating in Africa, a study by the Foreign Policy Research Institute shows. Between 2001 and 2018, China lent approximately $126 billion to African countries and invested directly some $41 billion. Greater investment has brought greater geopolitical cooperation. The FPRI study found “economic engagement with China yields greater political alignment between China and African countries,” as measured by votes at the UN. China has also built its first-ever overseas military base in Djibouti, in Africa.

Similarly, Chinese trade with Latin America has exploded since 2000. It now totals $450 billion annually and could exceed $700 billion by 2035. China is now South America’s top trading partner and the second-largest partner for Latin America overall, after the U.S. China also has become a leading Latin American lender and is now actually a voting member of the inter-American Development Bank and the Caribbean Development Bank.

The current ties are more based on economic self-interest and less based on friendship. And yet, how much does it take for the first to morph into the second?

In many cases, nations receptive to overtures from Beijing and Moscow are acting out of immediate self-interest more than any particular love for China and Russia. Both nations have proven better at buying cooperation than they are at winning real friends.

Seib has asked Robert Gates and Robert Zoellick what we can do to stem the tide of this great realignment. Their advice feels flabby, a dollar short and a day too late:

So what does the U.S. do to counter Russian and Chinese efforts along this North-South axis? “I think these are correctable problems, but only in the long term,” says Mr. Gates. “There’s no short-term fix at all.”

Mr. Zoellick suggests that the U.S. do more to recognize the needs and frustrations of the “abstainers,” and work with international institutions to address them. Washington could find ways to build goodwill through help with vaccines and other health initiatives and to return to building better trade ties.

Some have also suggested that we try to break up the alliance between Russia and China. Today, as China becomes a major supplier of arms to the Red Army, that seems wistful. Besides, we all hate China, we all disparage and demean China, we all want to continue to sanction China. The dream of a new triangulation seems like an illusion:

More than that, he encourages the U.S. to find ways to persuade China to differentiate itself from Russia, and for the U.S. to recognize areas where Washington and Beijing have mutual interests. “In sum, we need to avoid the instinct to treat Russia and China like a fusion from the 1950s,” he says. “We should differentiate and perhaps someday even again triangulate.”

As I said, a day late and a dollar short, especially since Chinese infrastructure projects have been installed throughout the South:

The Group of Seven industrialized nations just announced plans to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure projects in developing countries, an obvious attempt to counter China’s parallel efforts. Mr. Biden also embarked on a visit to Saudi Arabia to persuade the kingdom’s leaders, who have been reluctant to criticize the Ukraine invasion, to ramp up oil production to offset Western cutbacks in purchases from Russia.

Seib notwithstanding, this is more than a diplomatic game. But it does involve strategizing and some considerable exercise of intelligence. You may think that the Biden administration is up to the task. I do not.

Seib concludes:

As this suggests, a new diplomatic game has begun—one that figures to play on even after hostilities in Ukraine fade away. “President Biden said Russia will be an international pariah after this war,” says Ms. Stent. “Well, it won’t be a pariah. We see that now.”


Anonymous said...

You are inflating three different things. Putin had no "right" to invade Ukraine. For some strange reason many pundits want to justify his actions.

The Ukraine has a right to defend itself and they should no matter what the costs. Again some pundits seem to think that Ukraine should just give up.

The U.S. should support Ukraine's right to defend itself. It should give "some" military aid to Ukraine. But the U.S. and NATO should not actively get involved in Ukraine.

Anonymous said...

There's a difference between "justify his actions" and "understand his position and understand the situation on the ground".

Ukraine certainly has the right to defend itself. A rabbit also has the right to defend itself from the bobcat. Doesn't matter. Ukraine will be no more successful than the rabbit. What they should do is stop getting their young men killed. They can't win, so all those lives are just thrown away.


Anonymous said...

There is no reason for the USA to hate Russia. Current-day Russia is not the Soviet Union.
We should have disbanded NATO shortly after the USSR collapsed.