28 November 2023
Will the West lose all of its battles?
David Cameron just promised that the UK would support Ukraine for "however long it takes". For someone with an estimated political afterlife of approximately one year, this is a promise bordering on delusion. There is always an election or some other intruding event on the wrong side of our allies' time horizon.
The future in Ukraine and the Middle East holds many possibilities, A glorious victory is one. But so is total defeat. The west might lose its proxy wars in both Ukraine and Israel, and its economic war against China too. The meltdown scenario is not a prediction, but a plausible scenario.
How can this even be? The west is so much wealthier than China or Russia. It has superior militaries. The US is still the global tech leader, with a lot of high-tech gizmos in the development pipeline. We have stable political systems. Why does this not settle the debate?
There are several reasons. The West's social fabric has been disintegrating. The rise of Donald Trump and Brexit were not the singularities that liberal defenders of the status quo had predicted. Brasil had Jair Bolsonaro. Argentina just elected Javier Milei, the ultra-Libertarian who wants to abolish the central bank. Trump is once again a serious contender for the US presidency. I see the combination of financial crises, monetary bailouts, fiscal austerity, and overzealous globalisation as the deep reasons for the west's collective political instability.
Secondly, the west's share in global economic output has been steadily falling from 60 per cent of world output in 1980 to around 40 per cent today. It is projected to fall further. What has not deflated are our egos, and our sense that we still run the world.
Thirdly, our excessive use of economic coercion has created a backlash - by those against whom our sanctions are directed and by non-aligned countries as well. They are also not working. Western luxury goods remain widely available in the shops of Moscow and St Petersburg. They arrive in truckloads from third countries in central Asia and the Middle East. The western imposed price cap for Russian oil is not working either because Russia and its buyers have found ways to circumvent them. The original goal of the sanctions had been to prevent Vladimir Putin financing his war against Ukraine. Almost two years into the war, Russia has transitioned into a war economy that may soon be outproducing the west on military supplies to Ukraine. This is the exact opposite of what western experts had predicted.
The sanctions have proved to be an utter failure - the consequence of hubris and ignorance.
Fourth, we keep on underestimating our adversary's sophistication. China managed to respond to US sanctions on high-performance semiconductors by building its own. I well recall the shock expressed by US administration officials in late August when they found out that Huawei was able to use an advanced microchip in its latest smartphone. Chris Miller, the author of the book Chip Wars, poured ridicule on China over its failed attempt to build a semiconductor manufacturing facility. His narrative, too, underestimated China. When you take tens of thousands of dollars and pounds from Chinese students each year for their studies at prestigious universities in the UK and the US, do not be surprised that they learn something. There were 150,000 in the UK alone last year.
In electric vehicles China has already taken a lead. Within a few years, China has overtaken Germany and Japan as the world's largest car exporter. There is a pattern here, reflected in politics, business and in academia. Western leaders and intellectuals are underestimating the parts of the world they don't know.
Together, these failures add up. In Ukraine, the outcome of the war is totally open. Giorgia Meloni gave the game away when she admitted in a prankster's call that everybody in the west was tired, and that she had a plan to end the war.
Putin may have registered that comment with interest. I believe that his most rational course of action would be to keep on fighting for as long as possible. For starters, war mongers are safer in their jobs while the war lasts. Secondly, having rephrased the purpose of the war as a battle against the west, it would not make sense for him to settle for an acquisition of land, and accept the idea that the rest of Ukraine will become a member of Nato and the EU. In President Xi Jinping, Putin has found a new partner in the battle against the west - albeit a senior partner. And finally, why settle before the US elections? If Trump were to win, Putin would undoubtedly get a better deal. Especially now that the west is distracted by Israel, it would make sense for Putin to hold out.
In the meantime, the west has been losing allies in the non-aligned world. France's former African colonies are in revolt. The EU has lost the Middle East. The US has lost parts of Latin America. These used to be strategic partnerships. China has become the number one investor in Chile. China and Russia have been very active in Africa. They are not playing on our team any more.
I am reminded of Norma Desmond, the ageing film star in Sunset Boulevard and one of the most delusional characters ever created by Hollywood. "You used to be big," Joe Gillis said to her, "I am big," she responded. "It's the pictures that got small."
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