Salvo 03.15.2023 12 minutes

The New Great Game

Walk For The First Anniversary Of The Russian Invasion Of Ukraine

The U.S. and Europe are the new sick men of the world.

The Western response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is widely seen as a sign of a reinvigorated alliance of democracies against authoritarianism. Even historically anti-war publications like the Guardian speak volubly about the West’s heroic “defense of liberty.” Raising concerns about petty issues like a potential nuclear war over Ukraine leads one now to be dismissed as a Putinist stooge, both by those who habitually back wars, like neoconservatives and defense contractors, and those who almost always oppose them, or used to, anyway.

Amidst the relentless virtue signaling, there has been little consideration of how the Russo-Ukrainian War will change the world order, and not necessarily for the benefit of the West. Rather than join in a joint jihad for “democracy” aimed at destroying Vladimir Putin and his detestable authoritarian allies, notably China, there’s actually little support for sanctions, much less military aid, from the largest non-western democracies such as India, Indonesia, South Africa, and Brazil in their attitude to the war.

The ever more contentious war, particularly if it persists or expands, could presage the development of a multipolar world order that runs not on ideology but self-interest. Some of the big democracies, as well as struggling Middle Eastern democracies like Tunisia and Morocco, continue importing Russian energy, and all depend increasingly on Chinese trade and investment.

The Middle Kingdom, not the West, as Niall Ferguson has noted, has emerged as “the net beneficiary…of the war in Ukraine,” draining western arms supplies from Europe but especially the United States, which has provided roughly half of all military aid to Ukraine. This just as China expands its naval presence in the South China Sea, Taiwan, and beyond, while backing its Asian partner, missile-mad North Korea, which also is expanding its trade with Russia.

Strategic Non-Alignment

This refusal to back the Western morality play points to the principle of nonalignment defined by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as “the natural consequence of an independent nation functioning according to its own rights.” As in the “great game“ practiced by European colonialists in the nineteenth century, in the current one interests overcome principles.

India, for example, has capitalized on the low cost of fuel brought forth by the sanctions imposed on Russia by buying up to 33 times more Russian oil in 2022 than in the years prior to the war, and despite canceling a summit with Vladimir Putin over his disagreement with the war, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has not yet officially condemned the invasion of Ukraine.

Other key developing democracies, who also have had political and military ties to the former Soviet Union, have followed suit. For example, South Africa earlier this year refused to cancel its annual naval exercises with Russia, only a few months after South Africa’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Naledi Pandor professed “neutrality” in the conflict. Indeed, South Africa, a member of the BRICS trading block, which includes Russia, Brazil, India, and China, plans to eventually incorporate more autocratic countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. South Africa has also abstained on the UN resolution that condemns Russia for its annexation of Ukrainian territory, in violation of South Africa’s constitution and foreign policy.

Other key democracies like Indonesia have behaved similarly. Indeed, despite voting in favor of the non-binding UN resolution to condemn Russia, Indonesian Prime Minister Widodo paid a state visit to Russia in part to plead for peace but also to assure the restoration of the global food supply. Brazil worked for a diplomatic peace settlement in Ukraine at the last UN meeting, though President Lula has gone on to criticize the West’s billions in military aid to Ukraine while only reluctantly condemning Putin’s war.

The West Lacks a Developmental Model

The lack of solidarity can be seen as fecklessness or rank opportunism. But it also reflects the alienation of the developing world from the Western neoliberal world. In large part, this is driven by basic needs. Countries with growing populations face more immediate challenges than whether or not Greta Thunberg approves of them. Youth unemployment, a key marker of underdevelopment, according to the World Bank is 27% in Iran, 31.9% in India, 64.2% in South Africa, 31.9% in Brazil, and 16% in Indonesia.

Faced with social disorder and unreliable energy, countries simply ignore the edicts of Western-defined “world opinion.” These include emerging markets with sizable middle classes but with inadequate energy supply and large poverty populations. Their leaders know they are sitting on ticking time bombs that can lead easily to revolution in the face of economic devastation. Energy growth, fast and dirty, wins out. Pakistan has even initiated a program of massive development to quadruple its number of coal-fired plants while Iran is investing in massive new gas facilities.

In their struggle to develop, these countries increasingly see China, not the West, as the key development model. China’s economic model, based largely on targeted industrial and technological growth, has lifted over 400 million people out of poverty in four decades and has already began exporting its economic success story to the rest of the world, without caring much about democracy or climate. Rather than cut ties with Russia over the invasion, China has boosted its trade with Russia and recently played a critical role in helping re-establish diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both leading oil exporters.  

China has plenty to trade for raw materials, with a growing market share in manufactured exports roughly equal to the U.S., Germany, and Japan combined. It already provides Russia with much needed semiconductor chips and drones, with likely more to come. Equally concerning, the Asian autocrats are launching a new payment system to bypass Western sanctions that can potentially undermine the dollar as the world’s reserve currency and threaten the existence of Monetary Pax Americana.

In contrast, the West, despite occasional bravado, is rapidly deindustrializing, nowhere more obviously than in the birthplace of industry, Great Britain, while working to stifle both energy and food production across the West. America’s working class is in decline, and life expectancy has gone down for the first time in peace time as upward mobility has stalled, which presents a less than inspiring model. The fact that the shift to renewables is “normalizing” blackouts across the West so that even energy rich places like Alberta now experience power outages can’t be too impressive to developing nations.

Westerners may talk much about values and the sanctity of market forces, but developing countries, battered by both Covid and then inflation, see that China’s Belt and Road Initiative includes building massive power and water systems that the West is often constrained to support. They can also see how the West, particularly America, can’t even build projects remotely on time themselves. Many also depend on Russia as their largest energy supplier and a key source of minerals as well as foodstuffs. Russia’s conquest of parts of the Ukraine, and its ability to shut off its prodigious food exports, have only strengthened its leverage.

The Wages of Progressive Virtue

The White House, the Davos crowd, the EU bureaucracy, and their media enablers all talk incessantly about democracy but have adopted an agenda that can only be imposed in an autocratic manner. By squelching all future growth, the current drive to “net zero,” as Deutsche Bank’s Eric Heymann has noted, will have catastrophic effects on middle class living standards. The low-growth program can only succeed by imposing “a certain degree of eco-dictatorship.”

The Western elite’s policies on energy have led to a loss of energy consumption in Europe and the start of a painful deindustrialization in Germany, including threats to its natural-gas dependent, world leading chemical industry. It’s doubtful that addled suggestions for “climate reparations”—essentially a reinvention of Medieval alms for the poor—for minorities as well as less developed countries would be an easy sell among the West’s already beleaguered lower and middle class, who would have to pay for them. This alms-giving approach may appeal to the UN, whose head calls fossil fuel investing “delusional.” Yet developing countries, notes Bjorn Lomborg, get less than 5% of their energy from solar and wind. When World Bank and the IMF block coal, gas, and nuclear plants they are essentially guaranteeing that the poorest countries remain that way.

The much ballyhooed “green” apocalyptic drive to wipe out fossil fuels plays into China’s existing strengths while weakening Western economies. China dominates both the emerging solar and battery markets, and, through alliances with African countries and Asian nations like Indonesia, maintains a strong grip on the world’s supplies of rare-earth elements, critical for wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicles.

As Western financial institutions and non-profits push against most energy development, China invests in sectors that can generate wealth even in the poorest countries. It has already built a metal park and modern coal power station in autocratic Zimbabwe and hydroelectric dams in quasi democratic Lesotho, with other large infrastructure plants underway in the rest of Africa. At the same time, the Russian state affiliate Rosatom is exporting its nuclear-powered technology for plants in Turkey, Iran, and Egypt, whose El Dabaa Nuclear Power Plant will provide power to almost half of its citizens.

Why would developing countries watch the U.S., the UK, and Germany struggling to keep their own factories and homes warm conclude that the West offers a good economic plan for their own development? At the World Economic Forum (WEF) confab in Davos, Switzerland in January, the head of the International Energy Agency insisted that renewables are “the energy of peace. The long-lasting solutions of our energy security go through renewables.” Maybe so, though most developing countries have launched a rush of new coal and natural gas plants in the developing world, while countries like the United Arab Emirates are placing their bets on nuclear power, which is anathema to many Western greens, while also making profits helping Russia evade sanctions.

Needed: A New Focus on Economic Development, not Moralizing

The West’s response to Ukraine has been justified but also solipsistic. Politicians in Washington, Brussels, Berlin, and London may feel better about themselves even as they thoughtlessly drive an ever deeper wedge from the parts of the world that represent the demographic future of humanity. In the next 50 years, according to the United Nations, the world will see less growth, at 2.7 billion, compared to the previous half century’s 4.1 billion. But all of that growth will be in the less developed world, generally in areas with low literacy, high fertility, and sadly no electricity. Between 2022 and 2050, United Nations projections indicate most of the world population growth will occur in sub-Saharan Africa, where fertility rates are still relatively high even as populations plummet elsewhere.

As the West looks to cap growth and opportunity to embrace the purest green agenda, Africa and other poor regions are seeing their “reserve armies of the unemployed” (to paraphrase Karl Marx) swelling to destabilizing levels. These countries do not have the luxury of slow growth, in large part because their workers need somewhere to go or to find work domestically that would allow them to improve their lives.

As the size of labor forces declines in high income countries, the developing world’s “youth bulge” is expected to peak in this decade. For these younger workers, the logical place to go is where populations are crashing, largely in high income economies. Many Westerners prefer that these potential migrants stay home, but that only works if places like sub-Saharan Africa get what they need—new energy sources, growing export markets, and capital. This will not be easy to procure from stagnant economies concerned largely with satisfying their pensioners. To make matters worse, the EU is already considering carbon taxes on imports in ways that could cut developing nations off from what remains of wealthy markets.

Big surprise then that the BRICs are re-allying, and mostly away from the West. There’s no appetite outside the Western apparat for a return to the messianic democratic politics of George W. Bush. Instead the West faces, as the Guardian’s Simon Tisdall suggests, “a world split in many ways between not always united democracies.”

The West’s penchant for moralizing makes a future world economy centered around China appear increasingly appealing. In Latin America and Africa, China is emerging as the largest investor. The Chinese make deals without lectures on the environment, autocracy, or gender radicalism. Environment may be the biggest sticking point, but the Western mindset increasingly demands compliance with gender fluidity and the rest of the woke ideological agenda. Yet developing countries in Africa and South Asia also tend to be religious and socially conservative. In this they are closer to the orientation of China and Russia than the European Union and the West in general.

How to Counter the Autocratic Threat

As Walter Russell Mead wrote recently, the developing world is simply not buying the West’s Ukrainian narrative. Brazil’s President Lula da Silva, for example, regards NATO’s policies in Ukraine as reinforcing “decades of wariness in the Global South about the Wilsonian agenda.” Mead suggests that many in the developing world regard most multilateral institutions formed in the past 70 years as “instruments of Western domination that should be feared and resisted.”

In the long run, the developing world’s ability to resist autocracy depends more on economic growth than incessant moralizing. The failures of the West to boost the economies of developing countries may be one cause for the global waning of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism. A report from Freedom House in 2021 found democracy to be at a generational low ebb even in Europe, while most Eurasian countries along the Russian and Chinese borders for the most part are “hybrid regimes,” combining some democratic forms such as elections with authoritarian controls on media and severe restrictions on public demonstrations or any open opposition to the regime.

Instead of the inevitable global progress toward liberal democracy and market capitalism, the surviving democracies now struggle to find allies against autocratic regimes in China, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. These autocratic countries often see themselves as the proud inheritors of past imperial regimes, whether Tsarist, Ottoman, Chinese, Arab, or Persian. China today is no more likely to become a constitutional democracy than it was under the Mongols or their fourteenth century Ming successors. It has evolved into a highly nationalistic autocracy, fortified by a system of semi-permanent caste privilege and technology-enhanced social control.

Rather than simply a struggle against “good and evil”—as it in part surely is—the great struggle over Ukraine fulfills Samuel Huntington’s perceptive prediction a quarter century ago that we are entering an era where resentment over past mistreatment by Western powers, with their pretensions of structuring “the world community,” would prompt other major states to flex their muscles and try to recapture lost status.

As Westerners harp on their current war for democracy, China continues to see, with good reason, its society as representing the wave of the future. Until Western democracies develop practical ways to build sustainable economies unhampered by draconian approaches to the often exaggerated climate apocalypse, the Russo-Ukraine War could end up accelerating the appeal of autocracy in much of the world. Nations do not live solely on ideals, press conferences, and non-profit moralizing. They must first feed their people and provide them with at least a whisper of hope. Until the West wakes up from its self-referential slumbers, the tide of history may be turn out less friendly to Ukraine’s loyal friends than to those who either abet aggression or maintain a steady indifference.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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