Paulo Bilezikjian: The Ukraine war will eventually end, what comes next?
A new world order of polarized extremes is unlikely to emerge, the United States remains the hegemonic power, China will prioritize the domestic agenda.
There is an increasingly prolific field in Political Science called War Termination Studies. Given the current war in Ukraine, this has obviously become more relevant. Some of the best known scholars of this field such as Hein Goemans and his former student Branislav Stanchev seem to believe that this war will not end anytime soon because, to put it simply, Mr. Putin is neither a democrat nor a full fledged dictator. In other words, he is authoritarian enough to conduct war as he sees fit but also has to cater to his domestic audience. This, at least theoretically, tends to make wars drag on as the leader believes that, as Goeman puts it, he can “gamble for resurrection”. Moreover, they argue wars last longer when at least one of the parties does not find the other credible when it comes to respecting agreements and the like. As the cliche goes, when you start a war, you don’t know how or when it ends. I believe they make strong points, recently corroborated by Mr. Putin’s reaction to the attack on the Kerch Bridge, targeting mostly civilians in Ukraine and subsequent similar events.
Eventually this war will end. There has been a lot of talk of some sort of New International Order emerging after it. One theory has the original BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa )and perhaps Iran in a concerted effort to counterbalance the West, or more precisely, the United States. I doubt this will be the case. If anything, American hegemony in the post war environment will be strengthened, at the very least in relative terms. A country-by-country analysis should help us better understand why.
Russia will most likely come out of the war substantially weakened politically and economically: an aggressive middle power and commodity based economy with lost credibility, to put it mildly. Mr. Putin’s “resurrection gamble” seems to prolong the inevitable and contribute to accelerating the decline of a country that is inescapably linked to Europe. In the best case scenario, espoused by former Russian diplomat Boris Bonadarev in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, a post Putin Russia would be led by a competent technocrat and with the help of the United States and Europe, rejoin the International System as a constructive partner.
In the last forty years or so, China has undergone an absolutely impressive economic transformation, arguably the most successful one in history. However this has not yet translated into military and political power in the international arena of a level compatible with its economic relevance.
From a military standpoint, China is dwarfed when compared to the United States. Whereas the US has bases in eighty-five countries and territories, China is present in only four, all of them essentially inconsequential when it comes to projecting power. The United States has twenty aircraft carriers, China, two. Military spending in China is estimated to be one-third of the one in the US. Furthermore, much has been made of the Chinese diplomatic/economic offensive in Africa. Beijing University Professor Michael Pettis, stated not so long ago: “One of the big problems with development-country lending and especially from inexperienced lenders, is how dangerously procyclical it is.” Now that China is facing a potential wave of defaults in Africa and elsewhere, it becomes clear that they are not prepared to handle it swiftly, it is a source of bureaucratic confusion, to use an euphemism. More importantly, China’s agenda, rightly so, has been directed at improving the quality of life of their citizens and creating a dynamic corporate sector with international reach. Anything that threatens that is seen as a potential political destabilizer. As of now, they have their hands full with domestic economic and political issues that are way more important than anything else. China thinks long term and their capacity to properly calculate where to place their chips is second to none. What would they gain from creating an alliance against their major consumer markets, many of which are also suppliers of a myriad of inputs? China is far more integrated in the now very complex global supply chain than Russia. China stands to lose if deglobalization and relocalization really accelerate, perhaps contrary to popular belief but supported by empirical evidence. They might buy cheap oil from Russia and Iran, but they will not sacrifice the gains they have made in the international arena in the name of some hard to grasp anti-Western agenda. It also must be quite skeptical of repeated Russian threats of a nuclear attack.
Brazil, South Africa and India
When it comes to the other BRICS members, we are short of reasons to believe they can become important agents of a new world order. Brazil is practically irrelevant in the international arena and has been merely taking what some deem to be a pragmatic approach when it comes to Russia, buying cheap destilates and fertilizer raw material. South Africa’s relevance in the international arena is similar to that of Brazil.
India is very happy to buy cheap oil from whomever is willing to sell it. They are probably rethinking whether their reliance on Russian military equipment makes sense. It is true that there is a sense of gratitude towards Russia for its help during the 1971 War but they are far from joining any kind of anti-West alliance. US-India relations are reputedly very close and I see very little reason for that to change. India, as a conscientious regional power, plays both sides judiciously, but they are also quite good at calculating which side to take. Other countries, notably Iran, now enmeshed into political turmoil and a very fragile economy, are non-starters.
Meanwhile, the world has to deal with the ongoing bubble burst in essentially all assets: real estate, equities, fixed income, crypto assets and the list goes on. The repercussions of which are uniformly negative for economic growth and stability. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine only complicates things further and may accelerate deglobalization. There’ll be few winners from the current mess we are in. We should perhaps think in terms of losing less. That’ll depend on logical and empirically based policy decisions at the national, regional and international levels. A review of priorities is absolutely essential. We’ll know soon enough how this plays out.