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The Hinges of History Creak.
The future will develop not necessarily to the West’s advantage.
It’s not hard to realise when you are living in a time of genuine, large-scale change: the real problem is always guessing where you will finish up. We’re living in such a period of change now, and, whilst it’s easy enough to see what has already changed, and what is still changing, it’s much harder to see where we will finally arrive.
Historians of the future will probably identify a period around now (let’s deem it to be 2019-24) when the world went through one of its major periodic convulsions. They’ll compare it with other periods like 1914-19, 1945-50 and perhaps 1989-1992. Now in September 1914, all thinking people realised that the world was going to change, but it was nonetheless impossible to predict the length and nature of the War, the Russian Revolution and the fall of three Empires. Still, a thoughtful observer would have realised that the industrial strength of the main combatants, together with compulsory military service and economic mobilisation, meant that the war was probably not going to be a short one. And a long war might cause the Hapsburg and Romanov Empires to collapse, with unforeseeable consequences. Similarly, in 1945 everyone could see that the world of the future would be fundamentally different, but few if any would have dared predict that barely five years later western troops would be at war in Korea. (I’ll come back to 1989 in a moment.)
We’re in such a situation now: the tectonic plates of world politics have been shifting recently, even if the final configuration won’t be clear for a while. But, as always, our ability to understand this is limited by our political, moral and intellectual investment in the present, and our fear of an uncertain and perhaps unwelcome future. Now sometimes, of course, individual episodes lasting months or years are so violent and so unmistakeable, that we have no option but to recognise them for what they are when they happen. Nobody in 1789, 1919 or 1945 could really think that the world would continue as before. But the present crisis in Ukraine, for all that it is violent and different, is not particularly an agent of change in itself. It is rather an index of how things have changed already, and how the political and economic cards have largely been re-dealt. The outbreak of the Ukraine conflict, the way it’s turning out, and the noisy but limited western response, are only a surprise to those who haven’t been paying attention: the fundamental changes have already underway for some time.
We can set out the underlying reality in three simple points, with which almost everyone would agree.
In the last thirty to forty years, the Global West has largely offshored its productive capacity, and so its way of life now depends overwhelmingly on imported goods. Such industry as still exists is itself greatly dependent on raw materials and components supplied by countries with which it is not necessarily on good terms.
Since the end of the Cold War, western military capability has radically reduced, and NATO is now incapable of fighting a sustained, conventional high-intensity conflict in Europe. The handful of nations that have retained a significant military capability have focused their planning and procurement on operations in the Global South.
However, western nations continue to act as though they were economically and militarily superior, and to try to coerce nations on which they are economically dependent, as well as fighting a proxy war against a nation which has more combat capability in Europe than they have.
As I suggest, I don’t think the above is particularly controversial, although not everyone, perhaps, would put the argument so bluntly. Nonetheless, the question obviously arises: if these things are true, why is the West acting in a way that is obviously damaging its own interests? The answer, continuing my theme of forces and bodies, is political inertia. It’s well known that foreign and security policies, as well as international institutions and political relationships, are much slower to change than the underlying balance of economic and military forces. (If that seems paradoxical, recall that as recently as the start of the Vietnam War it was Taiwan, not China, that had a seat in the Security Council.) Political changes require either overwhelming consensus, overwhelming force, or a disaster of some kind: otherwise, the rock just keeps on rolling down the hill. That’s why, for example, NATO did not simply close down at the end of the Cold War. At that point, with battalions of international crises taking place simultaneously, and amid great uncertainty about the future, there was very little appetite for a large-scale, laborious, deeply controversial initiative which would have produced bitter divisions and fundamental disagreements about an alternative, or even if there should be one. Given that most member states found at least some utility in NATO, it was infinitely easier to let the organisation continue, and find new roles for it.
Which is to say that not only national and international institutions, but formal and informal political relationships tend to be those established by the results of the balance of forces and of open conflict in the past, and it requires either spontaneous disintegration or some powerful countervailing force to change them. If you doubt that, consider the differences in the current political systems of Britain France and Germany. Are they the results of careful, Burkean-style reflection on the political needs of each country? Obviously not: they are the outcome of wars, revolutions and political struggles over the centuries. France is an especially good example, since the political system changed three times in twenty years; in 1940, 1944 and 1958, each time accompanied by conflict. In that sense, Michel Foucault was quite right to invert Clausewitz’s dictum, and suggest that politics is best seen as the continuation of war by other means.
Moreover, if we adopt Foucault’s suggestion that we see power relationships in society as the sublimation of continued conflict, we find that, by extension, this explains conceptually something which is empirically obvious to those who have experienced it. Relationships between states tend to be based on habit and past correlations of power, rather than some kind of Realist instant quantitative judgement. States do not make a fresh calculation every time they are confronted with alternatives; they tend to do what they did last time, or what they always do. So, confronted with an unattractive proposition from the United States, a European government may ask itself if it really wants to devote the time and effort to fighting the issue, or save that time and effort for other things. And of course it’s perfectly possible that a state could finally turn such a proposition to its own advantage, or even sabotage its implementation. In the end, international politics isn’t simply a zero-sum game where the winner is decided by crude power, although I’m not always sure the United States realises this. And international power is relative, not absolute. It’s less a case of Russia (and China) being strong, than of the West being weak. Water always flows downhill, even if the gradient is very small.
So actual relations between states are the product of complex dynamics based on history, habit and past correlations of forces. It’s been like that for thousands of years, and anything else would make the international system impossible to manage. You can think of it as analogous to the operating system of a computer: there are mostly relatively minor updates, but sometimes major changes such as CP/M to MS-DOS and then Windows. (And of course competition: I’m writing this in MacOS.) When changes come, therefore, they come at points where the international operating system breaks down because it can no longer do the job. To continue the metaphor, we’re at a point where the operating system owned by the West is increasingly unable to cope, and is facing more and more competition from elsewhere. But those in charge haven’t realised it yet. The question is whether the system will soon be replaced, or at least massively changed.
I think it will. Systems break down when confronted with realities they can’t cope with. Just as after a certain age you find you can’t lift the weight you used to, just as your old computer won’t run the latest resource-hogging version of Microsoft Word, so international institutions and systems that can’t cope with the stresses of world events will die. In this sense, Ukraine is a test to destruction of both NATO and the EU, and the wider, western-dominated multilateral system they are both part of. NATO, in particular, has just been confronted by exactly the kind of situation that its founders expected—the exercise of Russian military power—and it did effectively nothing. No amount of hand-waving, no amount of sanctions or arms deliveries, can change that fact, which in turn changes everything. NATO and the EU can prolong the war, cause more suffering, and destroy many economies, including their own. But they can’t fundamentally affect the result, and the nature of their responses, beneath the surface posturing, demonstrates that they know this.
This is why things are different now than they were in 1989-92. At that point western leaderships had the opportunity to make major changes, and to establish a new security framework in Europe, but they chose to avoid change as far as possible, and to continue with the security structures they already had. Whatever you think of this approach, it was only possible because the underlying correlation of forces massively favoured the West. On the other hand, when it became clear that the Soviet leadership was not going to intervene to protect regimes in Warsaw Pact countries, those regimes fell almost overnight: quite suddenly, there was nothing holding them up any more, and there had not been for a while. The Soviet operating system had simply stopped working.
This had been obvious to some of us for a while. From at least 1987, it was clear that things were changing, and from 1989, the strains in the Warsaw Pact, and the fragility of its regimes, were plainly visible. But there was tremendous resistance to accepting this: those of us who argued in this way were dismissed as “Gorbymaniacs,” deluded by clever Soviet propaganda and being led into a trap. (Yes, nothing is really new.) It was not until the installation of Yeltsin that western political establishments finally, grumpily, conceded that the changes were indeed fundamental and irreversible.
There is another new normal now: a Europe in which Russia is the largest military power, and where the West as a whole is dependent on Russia, China and India for its economic prosperity. This is not new, of course, but it’s a shame that nobody noticed it before. In theory, that could be remedied with massive programmes of investment, construction and training, with wartime levels of military mobilisation and the return of conscription throughout Europe, as well as the reintroduction of import controls, tariff barriers and other evil relics of the pre-neoliberal past. In theory. Even then, the West will never again be in a position of military and economic dominance. Whether the Chinese take back Taiwan, for example, is essentially up to them: for the US, it’s not a question of “resolve,” but of an incapacity to affect the outcome very much, one way or another.
We had better get used to this new normal. It’s not going away any time soon.