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The West versus the 'Rest' over Ukraine
Putin has lots of 'friends', and that's a problem. But the West has more unity
History of the Present (fortnight ending 9 September 2023)
The West versus the 'Rest' over Ukraine
So last week's G20 meeting in India couldn't even agree to speak in their concluding communiqué of 'Russian aggression' against Ukraine, as they did last year. This despite eighteen months of, precisely, Russian aggression against Ukraine. Instead, they just talked about the global consequences of 'the war in Ukraine'. 'We highlighted the human suffering and negative added impacts of the war in Ukraine with regard to global food and energy security, supply chains, macro-financial stability, inflation and growth,' the joint statement said. 'There were different views and assessments of the situation.' True, the communiqué called for a 'just and durable peace in Ukraine,' but without any reference to the country's territorial integrity.
At the BRICS meeting in South Africa a fortnight earlier, there was a telling photo of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov grinning all over his mug as they did that friendship-simulating clutching-hands thing with presidents Xi Jinping of China, Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa and Lulu of Brazil, and G20 host prime minister Narendra Modi of India. Goodfellows all.
The other day I heard an American TV news anchor blithely say that Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator with whom Vladimir Putin has just met –apparently to talk giving each other weapons tech and ammunition – is one of the 'few friends' the Russian dictator has left. If only it were true. Of course these are all 'friends' only in the sense that two heads of rival Mafia families embracing each other warmly are friends. But that doesn't matter to Putin, so long as India buys the oil the West has sanctioned and China helps his economy to keep going, while Iran, North Korea and others supply some of the weapons and ammunition he needs to keep prosecuting his war of terror in Ukraine.
A recent presentation I heard at Stanford by Joseph Torigian, a leading expert on the subject, substantiated in detail what many others have observed – that Xi Jinping has genuine admiration for Putin and Russia. After one of their meetings earlier this year, Xi was caught on microphone taking leave of Putin with the words 'Right now, there are changes the like of which we have not seen for 100 years,' – a formula he uses often at home. But this time he added: 'and we are the ones driving these changes together'.
In aggregate, it's a formidable array of states. At the urging of China, the only superpower in the BRICS, the group agreed to invite six other countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, to join them. The FT noted that together they would represent 47% of the world's population and 37% of the world's GDP, when calculated on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis. Against that, said FT, the G7 only represented about 10% of the world's population of 30% of world GDP, at PPP. However, the FT's calculation excluded the rest of the EU. If you add that in, then it's still only 13% of world population, but exactly the same figure, 37%, of world GDP, at PPP.
So, two roughly equal blocs, the West and the Rest? Not a bit of it. One is a longstanding alliance, the other a diverse group of countries, united only by resentment of Western – and especially US – supremacy and the past horrors (and make no mistake: horrors they were) of European colonialism, as well as a convergence of interests on some issues. But India and China, for example, are rivals, not allies. The rest of the group is about as mixed a bunch as you can get.
West, Rest - the seductions of euphony should be resisted. As in my headline, it's actually West, but 'Rest'.
Alternatively, people talk about the Global South. Indeed, Modi's G20 summit was conducted in the name of the Global South. But as my Oxford colleague Faisal Devji has pointed out, even those major powers like India that speak in the name of the Global South don't really think of themselves as part of it. They think of themselves as what they are: India, China, Turkey, Brazil or Russia. Big countries. Former empires. Once and future great powers.
Nonetheless, that group of 'friends' is a considerable asset for Russia. In order to overcome it, enabling Ukraine to win a victory in 2024 or (perish the thought) 2025 – a victory that is vital for the future of Europe and international order – the West needs cohesion and resolve. The biggest threat to that cohesion would be a victory for Donald Trump in the US presidential election next November. (I will write about this next month, after a trip to the East Coast, but I'm afraid the probability of that ghastly outcome is not small.) There are problems with the politics of some European countries – Hungary obviously, Slovakia (where there's a crucial election on September 30), Greece, Bulgaria – but none of these has the capacity to destroy the basic cohesion of the geopolitical West, meaning above all NATO and EU.
The US does, which is why Putin is probably waiting and hoping for a Trump victory.
Resolve? Much more problematic. After a year and a half of war, 'Ukraine fatigue' is clearly visible. European countries are turning back to their own domestic and other concerns. If you follow the German media, the country's economic problems predominate. But here too, the biggest concern is Ukraine's biggest supporter, the US. Even if it's not Trump, support in American public opinion for another long expensive foreign war is dwindling, and will not be easy to argue for in an election year.
I discussed this with Condoleeza Rice and Michael McFaul at an event (also featuring the novelist and memoir writer Tobias Wolff and political scientist and European specialist Anna Grzymala-Busse) to launch the US edition of Homelands at Stanford at the end of August. Readers of this newsletter are probably tired of hearing about Homelands, but it's worth listening to the last ten minutes of that event, when we discussed that issue.
I was struck by Condi's clinching argument: that you would not want to be the US president when Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin did a joint victory lap after a Russian victory in Ukraine. In other words, this was as much about China as about Russia. Mike, while sharing Condi's basic optimism about American attitudes, stressed that the case has to be made, and made again, to the American people.
Half my friends were in Kyiv this week for the annual YES conference, and I wish I had been with them – but, having been in Kyiv three times in the last nine months, I'm just packing up after six weeks at Stanford before doing an East Coast tour (see below) over the next fortnight. I console myself with the thought that talking about Ukraine to North American audiences matters too.
As I say, you're probably sick of hearing me talk about Homelands, but this conversation with Francis Fukuyama is interesting because it's with Fukuyama – and he has some striking things to say, not least about the baleful persistence of the issue of race in American politics.
Join me in Washington, Toronto, Vancouver, Ferrara, Lviv – or online for most of them…
Washington, Friday, September 14 at Brookings Institution, with Fiona Hill and Susan Glasser, on Ukraine, the West and the world.
Toronto, Monday September 18 at Munk School: From Post-War Europe to Post-Wall Europe - and Back
Vancouver, Wednesday, September 20 at UBC: From Post-War Europe to Post-Wall Europe - and Back
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