Putin’s mistakes birth a new world order

There is little doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s miscalculations have birthed a new world order. At the strategic level, the Russian President is guilty of three fatal strategic errors.

First, his battle plan for invading Ukraine was far too byzantine, a fussy three-pronged assault that quickly bogged down partly as a result of this complexity.

Second, Putin didn’t believe that Ukraine was truly a nation, that the country (particularly its Russian-speaking eastern portion) would rally around its beleaguered government in Kiev, let alone fight heroically for it. In line with this, the Russian President had no idea that Ukrainian President Voldomyr Zelensky, frankly a bit of a failure in dealing with Ukraine’s daunting domestic problems, would prove to be a war leader of Churchillian caliber.

Third, the Kremlin did not count on quick and decisive Western support for Ukraine, embodied in the crippling sanctions imposed on a furious Russia, as the EU and Germany awoke from a generation’s strategic nap, rediscovering the seminal point that history has not yet come to an end, and that military might remains (and always will) a major tool of international relations, whether one likes it or not. These three dramatic miscalculations led to the failure of Russia’s blitzkrieg.

Crises clarify

The arch-realist Otto von Bismarck, as ever, put it perfectly, “When you draw the sword you roll the dice,” meaning that all sorts of unforeseen strategic consequences result when war is declared. War is the ultimate geopolitical crisis; they both change history and (even more importantly) illuminates history. War is the flash of lightning that suddenly makes the terrain clear to even the dimmest of analysts, such as those Europeans who have mocked a generation’s worth of pleas that they get serious about both military spending and having a sane energy policy.

For at the higher global geopolitical level, Putin’s failed gamble is also of the utmost importance, as it clarifies the great power division of the new era that we live in. On its own, the war in Ukraine has moved two of the great powers – the EU/Germany and Russia – from a neutralist position, and into (respectively) the US and Chinese superpower camps. Gone were the days of Brussels and Beijing strategically hedging as to their overall strategic orientation. The war reminded Europeans that freedom is not free; that it requires an autonomous military and energy policy, rather than merely free-riding (while often lazily criticizing) off the Americans.

But the war has also chastened the wounded Russian bear into being forced to wholly throw in its lot with China, as it has no other geostrategic options. Amongst great powers, there is now a clear alliance of revisionist autocracies (China and Russia) confronting a compact of status quo democracies (the US, EU, Japan, and the Anglosphere countries). While Washington is far from out of the woods, such a constellation of forces favors the West remaining the dominant political alliance of the new era. Ukraine has revealed all this, much as we have been saying for several years, in the past momentous time where (to paraphrase Lenin) the weeks have been where decades happen.

The West is newly united; the world is not

So far, so analytically good. But there is more ambiguous, even ominous news beneath this geopolitical headline. At the next layer down from the great powers, looking at regional power configurations across the globe, the West’s dominance is not the real story. Beguiling India, here, is the canary in the coal mine, illustrating that all is not well for the West.

Since the end of the Cold War, and with the subsequent rise of China, New Delhi has steadily drifted towards the American orbit. Shared fears of Chinese adventurism, exacerbated after Xi Jinping came to power in March 2013, have knitted the anti-Chinese Quadrilateral Initiative together, composed of superpower America, and great powers India, Japan, and the Anglosphere (Australia). New Delhi’s strategic fears were decisively confirmed when Beijing attacked India along their de facto border in the Himalayas in May 2020, a clear act of Chinese aggression. Before Ukraine, India has been increasingly confidently seen as fitting snugly in the US-dominated democratic great power camp.

But the subcontinent has a way of upending facile Western characterizations. Over the Ukraine War, New Delhi – despite a lot of American and European diplomatic pressure – has steadfastly clung to a policy of neutrality, refusing to castigate Russia for its obvious aggression. Strikingly, India (unlike Japan, the EU, and the Anglosphere countries) has not quickly and reflexively jumped on Washington’s pro-Ukrainian bandwagon.

There are numerous interest-based reasons for this strategic divergence. First, historically, India long sided with the USSR during the Cold War; support for Russia even after 1991 is a long-ingrained habit. Second, Russia remains New Delhi’s largest source of weapons imports, even as the US, Israel and France have gained market share. Third, an oil-hungry and energy-poor India has spotted the chance to obtain Russian oil and natural gas at bargain basement prices, as the US and UK energy blockade of Moscow comes into effect, and the Kremlin looks to divert its overall energy supply from a suddenly hostile West.

These basic points of national interest were all present before the Russian invasion, but it took the crucible of war for the world to see that maybe India was not yet prepared to march in lock-step with the American-dominated world, after all.

A complicated, multipolar menage awaits the West

Worse, from a Western perspective, India is not alone in disdaining the American lead. Significant regional powers in the Middle East (including traditional US allies Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, as well as usual suspect Iran), and outliers North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba and much of Africa, have studiously clung to a path of neutrality regarding the conflict. In fact, over Ukraine, it would be far more accurate to say that – while at the great power level the West is presently dominant and that it is united around a pro-Ukrainian policy over the war –the rest of the developing world, epitomized by emerging great power India, are far from being in the Western camp.

The good news for the West then, is that it is surprisingly united as the new era dawns. The bad news is that the rest of the world has yet to follow its lead. Worse still, the developing world’s two great power champions, China and India, while increasingly hostile to one another, share an antipathy for merely going along with the West in our new era. It will take realism, and a Bismarck, for the West to maintain its dominance in our new era. But it can and must be done.

This post was originally published on Aspenia Online.

The EU awakes from its long strategic slumber

For the first 20 years of my working life, about the easiest general political risk call I could make — whatever the crisis — was that the EU could be counted on to punch well below its weight. Despite having one of the three largest internal markets in the world (along with the US and China), Brussels was bound to disappoint, doing little practically in terms of furthering its specific foreign policy goals, as often it didn’t have any. Nor was it prepared to expend the blood and treasure necessary when it did.

Perennially betting against Brussels — economically sclerotic, militarily impotent, and geopolitically divided — did nothing to harm my political risk call record. Better still, from my point of view, the EU (shamefully) subsidized a coterie of supposedly independent foreign policy experts, who — well aware of where their bread was buttered — functioned at international conferences as little better than cheerleaders.

On the rare occasions the EU was successful, these partisans would trumpet this as a sign that Brussels was ascending to superpower status. When it failed, the not-so-neutral experts would sagely intone that, in failure, the EU would “do its homework,” using its missteps to make the next great leap forward in terms of its integration. This circular analytical reasoning mostly fooled those who were themselves spouting such logical nonsense, but my competitors’ being constantly wrong about Brussels has been very good for business.

However, as the historical adage has it: “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” With the Ukraine war, we are living through such weeks. A primary requisite of first-rate political risk work is to constantly check assumptions, even those such as my call about the EU, which have been on the money for decades. For the adage is right: Things change, the world changes in an instant; and we have to be ready for it.

In the case of the EU, the basic problem has always been Germany, its economic motor and by a long way its most important state. Henry Kissinger neatly encapsulated Berlin’s historical tragedy: It is too small to dominate the whole of Europe and too large to be just one of a series of European great powers. This uneasy structural reality was greatly exacerbated during the do-nothing years of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship, when for decades nothing happened except Berlin making of itself an intellectual and strategic black hole.

Steadfastly refusing to end its ruinous holiday from history, Merkel’s long, dreary rule led to Germany adopting a mercantilist, economics-first foreign policy, valuing its increasing trade ties with China and comfortable with its energy dependence on Russia. Putting itself in such a strategic straitjacket inevitably lead to Germany adopting a quietist, quasi-neutralist foreign policy, as to rock the boat by siding with the West against these revisionist powers would have had real and disastrous economic consequences. Never said in all this flawed logic was that it was Merkel who was deciding to wear the straitjacket of her own free will, rather than a cruel indeterminate fate thrusting such a choice upon her.

For a generation, this neutralist Germany has made the adoption of a genuine common European foreign and security policy an impossibility, as with a Gaullist France tugging one way and an Atlanticist northern and eastern Europe another, a chaotic tower of strategic babel was the only possible outcome. It was Merkel’s steadfast refusal to re-arm and to have any real outward-looking foreign policy that made a mockery of every effort at Europe forging a common strategic identity. As long as Merkel’s isolationism held sway, betting against Europe was easy.

But, in the blink of a historical eye, things have changed. In about 10 days the new German government of Olaf Scholz adopted almost every policy I have been begging them to undertake for the past 20 years. Germany can, after all, meet NATO’s 2 percent of GDP pledge for defense spending. Better still, after a generation of Germany’s weapons systems atrophying, Scholz has set aside €100 billion to bring its military kit up to speed.

In energy policy, too, big changes are afoot as Berlin has de facto abrogated the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project with Moscow, after decades of western pleas for them to do so fell on deaf ears. Equally significantly, Germany’s isolationist drift has been halted as it moves resolutely back into the US-dominated Atlantic camp. Simply put, in 10 days there has been more strategic movement in Germany than in the past 20 years.

At the higher, European level, Germany’s sea-change alters everything. Suddenly Europe is, in the medium term, not going to be militarily impotent; rather, with a re-arming Germany and an already militarily capable France, it will be a strategic force to be reckoned with. Vitally, Europe’s collective strategic drift toward either neutralism or chaos is also at an end; it is now solidly in the Atlantic camp.

There are surely many bumps in the road ahead, and changes this profound will not proceed in an easy straight line. But that does not lessen the momentous importance of the past few days. Europe’s medium-term strategic position in the world, for the first time in my working life, is on a decisive political risk upswing. 

This post was originally published in Arab News.

We must stop pretending the EU is a great power

This is a tale of two delusional think tank meetings I have recently attended, illustrating how far gone is most political risk analysis regarding the status of the EU. Cheerleading has taken the place of thinking, as the simple fact is that Brussels is funding many of the supposedly independent observers at such conclaves. To expect critical thinking from “experts” whose financial imperatives revolve around keeping the EU’s mandarins happy is to expect too much.

At the first meeting, I found myself sitting on a panel with an American Wilsonian. He was representing the Democratic Party view of US relations with China, while I represented the Republican Party view. After a good discussion, questions came from the primarily European audience. The first revolved around the fact that the questioner wanted to know where the EU fits into the strategic picture of the Sino-American cold war, as wasn’t it so that Brussels must be counted as the world’s third great superpower?

Even though it was a Zoom call, my Wilsonian counterpart — whom I agreed with over almost nothing — and I exchanged ironic glances. Finally, for all his innate pro-EU inclinations, he brutally told the questioner the truth: The EU, while a trading superpower and a huge internal market, simply doesn’t play at the global strategic level as a great power (let alone a superpower), as it is less and less economically dynamic, is endemically politically divided and is militarily (other than France) impotent. In the shocked silence that followed, I quipped that I wanted to cede all my time to my Democratic counterpart for having the temerity to tell the brainwashed audience the truth — that the EU simply isn’t a great power.

If this is so, my second think tank meeting focused on the nub of the problem: A mercantilist, neutralist, isolationist-leaning Germany. In standard fashion, the German think tank denizen sent to debate me made all the usual excuses; while I am right to be critical, Germany (in that most galling of phrases) “would now do its homework,” easily overcoming a generation’s-worth of historical and empirical evidence to the contrary, and would decisively right its ship of state over the coming months.

Exasperated, and tired of the analytical lying at cocktail parties, I brutally interjected that the reality is that Germany would do nothing over the next year and change nothing, as its people prefer their cosseted lifestyle (and genteel decline) to the real sacrifices that would be involved in paying for a relevant military and crafting a common European foreign policy. I was met by hateful stares and a sullen, unchallenged silence, for what could they say, given the last decades of Berlin’s holiday from history?

Crises intellectually clarify, even for the most obtuse observers. Two recent challenges to Brussels from the world’s revisionist powers, China and Russia, ought to make plain that wishful thinking has taken the place of facts-based political risk assessments of an EU that is so much less than meets the eye.

First, tiny Lithuania — to the fury of Beijing — has decided to favor Taiwan in the crafting of its foreign and economic policy. China responded by putting pressure on Vilnius and defying the EU, particularly Germany, to do anything about this. While in the past few days, the EU launched a legal action against China at the World Trade Organization (WTO) after Beijing restricted or blocked imports from and exports to Lithuania, Berlin responded precisely as I would have predicted — that is, in a neutralist, isolationist, mercantilist manner — and not as EU cheerleaders would have it. Glumly aware, as an export-driven superpower, that China, for the fifth year in a row, is its largest export destination, Germany is pressing Brussels to tone down its criticism of China and to de-escalate the controversy.

Major German companies, particularly carmakers heavily dependent on trade with Beijing, have warned Vilnius that they will pull out of Lithuania unless the dispute is quickly settled. For, despite all its usual blather about how much the EU means to it, when push comes to shove and with its now economic interests on the line, Berlin has seen to its commercial interests  at the expense of European unity.

Likewise, over the Ukraine crisis, in a basic way President Vladimir Putin is airing his grievances. As such, in the earliest days of the crisis, Moscow met with the US, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, not with the EU.

Why should he? In practical terms, Moscow met great power to superpower (the US), with the world’s most important military alliance (NATO) and with the largest gathering of transatlantic states (the OSCE). The EU simply does not play a major role in strategic terms; for Putin to prioritize meeting with Brussels would have been a colossal waste of time. While a shocked Brussels looked impotently on (and I am shocked that they are shocked), Putin made it clear that, in a crisis, the EU simply does not have the relevance its cheerleaders dream of. Nor is this state of affairs likely to change.

Instead of swallowing comforting, if delusional, fairy tales about its far-flung importance, it is time to analytically shout from the rooftops the obvious: That the EU emperor simply isn’t wearing any clothes.

This post was originally published in Arab News.