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12 May 2023

The other war

There are two wars fought in and around Ukraine - the war on the ground, and a bigger war between the East versus the West. There is a scenario that Ukraine and its western allies win the land war against Russia, and that China wins the bigger war: the creation of a militarily powerful, technically sophisticated and economically prosperous alliance of countries, led by China, that define themselves through opposition to western values. President Xi Jinping said at the end of his recent visit to Moscow: “There are changes that haven’t happened in 100 years. When we are together, we drive these changes.” That’s the other war.

I keep an open mind about the military outcome in Ukraine. I myself am not a military expert, but I know the military experts have been consistently wrong. Many did not believe that Vladimir Putin would invade. They then overestimated the Russians in the early stages of the war, and then underestimated them afterwards. What we do know is that Ukraine’s success chance depend on continued western military supplies and financial aid. I don’t know how many tanks and anti-aircraft systems it will take for Ukraine to succeed. It is possible, but not certain, that this threshold will be reached.

Let’s assume for now that Ukraine wins - on some definition. Then what?

A victorious Ukraine will want to become a member of the EU and Nato. Germany and France are resisting full EU membership, and are probably not alone. They are sticking to their current position to link further EU expansion to internal reforms, like an extension of majority voting in foreign policy. Not everyone will agree. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, almost surely won’t. Poland and Italy, too, have populist-led governments. Sunday’s resignation of Slovakia’s pro-western prime minister, Eduard Heger, has prompted an election later this year that could see the return of Robert Fico, another pro-Russia EU leader. When Ukraine knocks on the door, the divisions between the pro-Europeans liberals and nationalist conservatives will come out into the open like nothing ever before.

The EU has been the biggest multilateral experiment in history. What distinguishes the EU from other multilateral organisations is the presence of its own independent political layer and legal system. Brexit was a defeat not only for pro-Europeans in the UK, but for liberal multilateralists everywhere in the world. I often find that those who are still fuming the loudest about Brexit, are some of my friends in the US.

Liberal multilateralism was the success story of the 1990s right until the global financial crisis, with an afterglow that lasted into the early Obama years. One of the big political questions of our time is why has the liberal world order run in so much trouble in so many countries in such a short time? There are several reasons, but, for me, two stand out. The first is a tendency to apply short-term fixes to long-term problems. We knew that quantitative easing and large fiscal stimulus together would eventually produce inflation. We did it anyway, and here we are. Inflation drives inequality. Rising economic and social inequality benefits extremist parties, and did so throughout the ages.

The second reason is the increasing use of economic, financial and political sanctions against autocratic political leaders. An example are the EU’s so-called rule-of-law sanctions against Hungary. The problem is the EU is still dependent on Orbán for decisions that require unanimity resisting like EU sanctions against Russia, which he has been resisting.

But it is the sanctions imposed by the west against China that are now driving a wedge through our globalised world. The most extreme version are US sanctions on third countries that do not comply with US policy. The Netherlands was recently forced to ban the export to China of lithography machines for chip production in compliance with the US high-performance semiconductor ban. The European Commission is also about to toughen its export regime to China. Lead by the China hawks in the Biden administration, the western world is stumbling into a commercial cold war with China.

The business community in the US or Europe is absolutely not on board for this existential fight. It takes years to build production lines, supply chains and distribution networks. Much of western industry is heavily invested in China. Ola Källenius, the chief executive of Mercedes, only reminded us last week that 37% of his company’s sales are in China. You can’t just switch this off without massive economic consequences.

Herein lies the internal contradiction of the liberal globalist perspective. In our eagerness to defend liberal multilateralism, we ignore the sticky interdependencies our system has created. One person who personified that conflict was Angela Merkel. She was the quintessential globalist, once celebrated as the leader of the western world. It was only towards the end of her reign that her fanboys outside Germany realised that her country had made itself dependent on Russia and China. To be able to prosper inside the system, liberals like Merkel needed to coddle dictators. When Olaf Scholz, her successor, sided with the US over Ukraine, Germany lost a business model in the process. There is a price for everything. I am not sure that the German electorate is willing to pay that ultimate price.

The west still has formidable strengths - money, technology, defence. This may well help Ukraine in its battle against Putin. Even that is not certain. But we are not doing nearly so well in the much bigger, and much more existential battle - the one against Xi’s 100-year project.

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