HERE WE go again!
A new tsunami of triumphalism is sweeping across Western capitals, particularly in Washington and London. The illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine has been thwarted. The Ukrainians are putting up a glorious fight to defend their freedom. A new solidarity has been forged between America and Europe. The joint Western sanctions have crippled and isolated the Russian economy. Surely China is quaking in its boots at the thought of similar sanctions being imposed on it.
The above description of Western triumphalism may be an exaggeration, but not by much. There’s only one fundamental problem with a triumphalist mindset: it leads to sloppy geopolitical thinking. And just as the West wasted its post-Cold War “End of History” moment, it could do so again—unless it (especially the United States) recognizes that some hard geopolitical realities haven’t changed. Here are a few.
First, the West still makes up only 12 percent of the world’s population. The rest make up 88 percent. It’s true that a majority of UN member states voted to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as they should. But the countries that abstained made up more than half the world’s population. Equally importantly, most of the 88 percent don’t see the Ukraine issue simply as one of good versus evil, democracies versus autocracies. Instead, they also see a parallel Western project to bleed and cripple Russia. U.S. secretary of defense Lloyd Austin admitted this publicly. For many countries in the world, including friends of the United States, like India, bleeding Russia doesn’t serve their national interests.
Second, the bullets fired by the West against Russia, especially the economic sanctions (and the seizure of Russian Central Bank assets) were truly awesome. They were powerful. The Chinese are now under no illusion that similar sanctions will one day hit them. It would be foolish, if not downright irresponsible, for China not to plan its defenses against similar sanctions. Hence, if similar bullets are fired against China, say ten years from now, they will be blanks. The Chinese dependence on the U.S. dollar will progressively diminish. In one way or another, a parallel universe of countries tied more closely to the Chinese economy will emerge.
Third, it would be unwise for most counties of the world not to follow China in buying some insurance from potentially devastating sanctions. Even friendly countries like Saudi Arabia and South Africa will want to hedge their bets. The West’s myopia in dealing with Russia is also revealed by the unwise efforts to try and exclude Russia from the forthcoming G20 summit. The countries of the G7, which support the exclusion of Russia from the G20, make up about 11 percent of the world’s population. The countries that don’t support the exclusion of Russia make up over 40 percent of the world’s population. As Ambassador Ngurah Swajaya of Indonesia said recently, “putting significant pressure on Indonesia is simply unfair when it is trying to salvage the G20 and its relevance to all, particularly developing countries.”
In short, instead of the West winning a clear-cut victory, even if the Russian invasion of Ukraine fails completely, it will have to deal with a messy world, where most countries of the world will buy insurance, from both the United States and China. Many still have memories of having suffered from perfidious Western colonial ventures. Few in London or Paris would remember that they tried to colonize Thailand. Thailand remembers that the Russian tsar helped Thailand navigate this treacherous period of Thai history.
The wisest thing for most policymakers in Washington to do is to abandon this triumphalist mindset and do some cold and hard geopolitical calculations. Any cold assessment will show that the American-British effort to totally weaken and topple Russia is unwise. At the end of the day, Russia will not disappear. A totally angry and alienated Russia is not in European interests. Russia will be a neighbor of Europe for the next thousand years. And it will have reasonably good relations with most countries in the world, outside the West (the 12 percent).
Winston Churchill once wisely advised, “In victory, magnanimity.” A compromise solution in Ukraine, based on Henry Kissinger’s formula of Ukrainian political independence, international neutrality, and national reconciliation would still be the best way out. It’s important to add here that most of the rest of the world (the 88 percent) is genuinely shocked that no major Western voices are advocating peace in Ukraine. Instead, they only hear loud war drums. They would agree that Putin should be condemned for invading Ukraine. But they also believe that a total effort to defeat and eliminate Putin is unwise. The bottom line is that a messy peace that preserves world order is preferable to the instability of a protracted conflict.
Kishore Mahbubani, a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, is the author of Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy (2020).