The west is failing to quarantine Russia
This article is an on-site version of our Swamp Notes newsletter. Sign Up here to get the newsletter straight to your inbox every Monday and Friday
One of the most frustrating aspects of the US debate on Ukraine is the degree of self-deception about global unity. The assumption is incorrect.
Vladimir Putin is hated and feared by most of the west, just as Volodymyr Zelenskyy is exalted. But most of the rest have not joined the West. When Indonesia hosts the G20 summit in November, Putin will be there, despite Washington’s demand to expel Russia. Only four of the 55 African leaders attended Zelenskyy’s virtual speech to the African Union, who eventually agreed to speak to them after 10 weeks of questions. Not every summit is a western film festival, where Zelenskyy has become a staple. And not everyone shares the view of US foreign policy that Putin is waging an existential war against democracy. I don’t need to be convinced of the murky consequences of Putin’s belated imperial agenda, nor of the need for him to fail. But I am not an Indian diplomat, an African consumer or a Latin American energy importer. The west is not the world, and the world is not the west. It’s amazing that such a platitude has to be emphasized.
Here’s line number one of my unwritten introduction to global diplomacy: avoid navel-gazing. Good diplomacy sees things from different points of view and takes them into account. I fear that the US and the west in general are missing a major underlying reality in the global response to Putin’s barbarity: the war in Ukraine is fueling the demand for a multipolar world, which is very different from what we’ve been telling ourselves.
Most non-Western crave strategic autonomy. They may be upset by the images from Bucha and Mariupol, just as we are bothered by images of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar or bombed cities in Syria. That doesn’t mean they will suspend their interests to prevent it from happening, any more than we do when others cry out for help. For much of the world, Ukraine is just another humanitarian tragedy. That the West sees it as existential is an irritation. Africans and Arabs and Latin Americans know that when there is a clash between American ideals and interests, the latter usually win. We must be wary of judging those who make similar trade-offs.
The world is feeling the war in Ukraine mainly in two ways: higher food and energy prices. After a pandemic in which emerging market growth collapsed and their debt-to-GDP ratios rose, inflation in basic goods is the last thing they need. Add to that rising US interest rates and we have the ingredients for the next emerging-market payment crisis and increasing political instability. We cannot blame countries like India and Brazil for buying discounted Russian oil. It should also come as no surprise to us that there are enough buyers for Russian grain. The fact that Putin is both blocking Ukrainian grain exports and stealing whatever he can get his hands on is a brutal reflection on Moscow’s ethics. But it doesn’t change the calculation of others. Hard economics trumps gauzy moralism. After all, Joe Biden is about to travel to Saudi Arabia to get more oil production there. This tears apart two supposedly core tenets of the Biden administration: cutting back on fossil fuels and avoiding pariah autocracies.
The rapid decoupling of the West from Russia is hitting geopolitical boundaries. Countries such as China and India are helping to create alternative payment systems and transport routes for Russian commodities. They also block Western attempts to drive Russia out of the multilateral system. The West’s best response to this would be to offer the kind of generosity to emerging markets that China has long led the way. Washington should lead efforts to increase global food security, manage emerging market debt restructuring, and license (or better yet, suspend patents) production of Covid vaccines around the world. If we want the rest to follow us against Russia, we have to watch what they want. Repeatedly telling ourselves that we are in a war of light against darkness in which there is no middle ground is not a diplomatic strategy. Rana, do you share my frustration with western navelitis? If so, what is your remedy?
Still, this week I took an ethical stance in my column on whether Donald Trump will be prosecuted (which I think he should). The January 6 hearings may not have revolutionized American public opinion, but they have given US Attorney General Merrick Garland much more ammunition. ‘From believing in the stolen election myth it is only a small step to swallow even darker ones,’ I write. “If people can deny what happened 18 months ago, how easy would it be to convince them that slavery, for example, was a lie?” Some Swampians may have missed my Lunch with the FT with Hillary Clinton, which caused a stir. You’ll have to read it to find out why.
Biden still can’t take a break — and the chatter about whether he will or can run again in 2024 is getting louder. This piece from New York Magazine by Gabriel Debenedetti — “There has to be a backup plan. There is a backup plan, right?” – is a comprehensive look at all loaded scenarios.
Finally, our colleague, Martin Wolf, vigorously defended globalization and fundamental economic logic in his last column – “The Great Mistakes of the Anti-Globalists”. My only complaint is that he didn’t address global warming in this big tour d’horizon.
Rana Foroohar responds
Ed, I tend to disagree with you. I don’t think US policymakers are naive about the fact that we are moving towards a multipolar world. Indeed, it is the working assumption of almost everyone I speak to. The kind of rhetoric you’re referring to, about light and dark, good and evil, is what I consider political PR – the stuff of speeches to the masses.
Behind the scenes, the US Trade Representative is working on a multipolar global trade policy (as I have written here). Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen acknowledges that Bretton Woods institutions are outdated for a multipolar world. Financial policymakers are grappling with a new multipolar financial world. And everyone I know in Washington and the C-suite is trying to understand how a large number of both public and private actors from different countries, cities and communities, often as equals, will participate in this new world.
How many poles there will be and who will lead them is definitely up for grabs. But I wouldn’t confuse rhetoric with policymakers’ understanding of reality.
And now a word from our Swampians. † †
In response to ‘Can we ever wake people up about global warming?†
“The reality of the world is that selfish, rich, white men are still in charge. To change something big, you have to motivate them. Decades of experience teach us that they are not motivated by stories of endangered animals or displaced poor people.
To fix this, they need to find something they care about and that will be affected by climate change. Maybe it’s golf – the original course in St Andrews is on the coast: is golf still golf when that history is eroded by rising sea levels? Perhaps they are the most important sports – are baseball and football still real if they can only be played indoors or in Alaska? — Phil Willoughby, Seattle, Washington
“Your comment that sacrifice is not on anyone’s agenda does not apply to the US alone. Apart from the marginal groups, no one is thinking in the EU either. One of the reasons, I think, is that beyond war, managing sacrifice is not the forte of democracies. The challenge is to distribute pain equally across society, so that citizens perceive their own share of pain as fair compared to that of others. It’s a bit like creating a fair tax system, only with the added difficulty of applying it to a shrinking rather than a growing pie.” — Arne Baumann, Berlin, Germany