The old new world order

The current Taiwan Street crisis is not the first tense moment in the history of China’s difficult relations with the US. However, previous crises were triggered by China: this is is the first time that such crisis was triggered by the US. That is a fact, and it is what leaves observers like me totally baffled. Why? Why now? Regardless of whether or not Ms. Pelosi’s visit was coordinated with Mr. Biden and the US foreign affairs and security establishment, it is a fact that it trashed all credibility of the United States as a predictable and reliable partner for peace and stability in Asia.

With a war against Russia in our backyard (I am a Belgian living and working in Brussels) and the US acting irresponsibly in Asia (barely recovering from its disastrous 21st century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and plenty of lesser adventures in Africa and elsewhere in their self-declared war on terrorism), Europeans are left wondering what will be next. Optimist hawks point to the new relevance of NATO with the joining of previously neutral Sweden and Finland. I am not so optimistic. Two points may be made here:

1. Such NATO expansion confirms Russia’s worst existential fears: NATO is not about coexistence with Russia (or China) but about further expansion of a US-led block that refuses to accept the fact that the world has, de facto, become multipolar: one world, many cultures, different political systems. Unlike China, the West refuses to move beyond ideology and focus on peaceful coexistence and work towards “the greatest good for the greatest number.” I am quoting the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham here. I am doing so very consciously: when talking liberal ideologies or democratic values and all that, it is always useful to go back to the original liberal and utilitarian views that inspired our societies rather than refer to some kind of new variant of it (think of the American Dream or other modern rephrasing of the values of democracy and freedom).

2. Ukraine no longer needs NATO. NATO is irrelevant: it is mainly the US that is providing the sophisticated multi-billion dollar weapon systems that Ukraine has been asking for. The Ukrainian Army is now one of the most powerful armies in the world (much behind the US but probably at par with European countries such as Germany, France and the UK). That is not because of European support, which is counted not in billions but in millions. That is also not because of NATO support (there is none). It is because the US decided to just take over. After its pull-out from Afghanistan, it is rather convenient to have the old enemy back again: Russia.

And now China is back as the number one enemy well. Good old bad China. And good old bad Russia. The war on terror became a bit difficult to defend domestically anyway. So we are back to the future. Or back to the past: a new Cold War with supposedly communist and dictatorial regimes that supposedly threaten our lifestyle, culture and freedom.

There are a few differences, however. Back in 1989, when the Tiananmen protests were suppressed and led to a profound restructuring of China’s economic and political system, China’s population was the largest in the world (as it is now, even if India, which did not manage to make the demographic transition, will soon have even more people to feed than China), but its gross domestic product (GDP) was only the world’s ninth largest. China’s GDP is now commensurate with its population: measured in purchasing power parity terms, it is now the largest economy in the world.  

A somewhat more relevant difference is that trust in the US acting as a benevolent protector of world peace and stability has been eroded. I do not have any statistics on this but I would not be surprised if confidence levels would now resemble those of Americans themselves: a 2021 Reuters-Oxford study shows less than 30% of US citizens trust what they are being told by their own media outlets. I quote: “The United States ranks last in media trust — at 29% — among 92,000 news consumers surveyed in 46 countries, a report released [last year] found. That’s worse than Poland, worse than the Philippines, worse than Peru. Finland leads at 65%.” Now that I look at it again, I see that the 2022 report is out. There is no improvement: “Only 26% of Americans trust news generally.” That is a 3-point decrease and still the lowest figure in the sample. If US citizens do not trust their own government and/or media, why would we?

I am not a China expert but, from what I read and know about the political system in China (and from discussions with Chinese friends here in Brussels), I have more trust in China’s one-party democracy than in the two-party cut-throat system in the US. Just for the record and to be clear on where I stand here: I do not have such trust in Russia’s political system: President Putin must end the war and Russia’s political system will have to change and evolve with the times. I am not talking regime change here: I am just talking plain sensible domestic reforms, just like what China does. Putin has got what he wanted: a large land corridor to the Black Sea which, yes, is vital to Russia’s interests (historically speaking, the Crimea is Russian). So, yes, now it is time for Mr. Putin to back off and for both sides to cut a painful but acceptable deal ending the killing and suffering.

I had hoped Mr. Biden and Mr. Jinpeng would have worked together to jointly convince Mr. Putin of such point of view, broker some armistice and freeze the conflict so as to stabilize Russia’s economy and stop hurting citizens on either side, but Ms. Pelosi’s unannounced and totally random visit to Taipei dashed all hopes in that regard. One can only conclude that Uncle Sam loves and hates the good old bad Russians so much that he is happy to be at war with them again. So where are we headed, then?

1. As mentioned above, as a European, you may think that NATO is relevant again and that our governments doubling defense spending will make things better but that is a mirage (meaning: an optical illusion). NATO is irrelevant. Us buying more guns or having more nuclear-tipped missiles on our soil makes zero difference in terms of posture or possible deterrence of any security threat that may or may not be out there.

2. The largest threats to world peace and security now are, without doubt, flashpoints in Asia. Such threats range from Iran over Pakistan and India (tensions between those two countries can also not be analyzed without taking China into account) all the way to the Pacific Ocean with, yes, the Taiwan Strait and North Korea as the most ‘clear and present danger’ to peace and stability in Asia.

I am not worried about these threats. To be blunt: they are none of our business. They may have been our business 30 years ago, back in the old days of this Cold War between East and West. Today, we are well into the 21st century and that is a entirely new era in which we should just tag along with whatever happens around us. To be extremely blunt and very clear on where I stand on this: there is absolutely no reason whatsoever why we Europeans would want to be dragged into the next war which, as outlined above, is likely to be in Asia. For example, why would we or our sons want to get killed in the defense of, say, Taiwan against a Chinese invasion? We only need Taiwan’s microchips, right? Why would we care if those are produced in China or in Taiwan or in some kind of new Greater China? Also, South Korea is well equipped to deal with a conventional challenge from the North. No reason for us to get involved.

Having said that, wars always have a tendency of spiralling out of control and that is why we should be worried. We can, therefore, only hope that China will effectively maintain the status quo and continue its long-held goals of peaceful coexistence – as it did when Hong Kong ceased to be a British colony and went back to the mainland as per the terms of the 1898 lease agreement between what was then Qing China and the United Kingdom (one country, two systems).

So what role is there for Europe and the US then? There is none. In my previous post, I wrote this: “It is about time that China, Korea and Japan find the peace they never had – still mourning the injustices of the second world war – a war that was not theirs to choose. This Taiwan crisis makes it clear that the US has outplayed its role in the East. The Europeans remain powerless in the middle (but Europe has plenty of brains and true multiculturality to offer). Peace in Asia will be peace for the world – and the only nations that can bring it to Asia are Asian countries.”

Two friends of mine (one Korean, one Belgian) told me such view is naive. So be it. I tell my kids not to worry about war in Africa or Asia. In contrast, war in Europe – as we have now – is an obvious worry, but dropping more and more multi-billion arms packages in there and refusing to talk to Russia (and China) – as the US Secretary of State did when he had a golden chance to talk to his Russian and Chinese counterparts but did not grasp it two days ago (at the occasion of the East Asia Summit) – is not a great way of starting to deal with it.

[I am polite and phrasing this very euphemistically. Think about it honestly: who was/is not talking to whom here? Also, if Ms. Pelosi would be serious about peace and democracy in Asia and, perhaps, want to talk about things she does not like about China, then why did she not want to see Xi Jinpeng himself and/or his much beloved (in China, that is) wife Peng Liyuan while flying around in the region there? Knowing a thing or two about protocol and hospitality in Asia, I am sure she would have been well received. Anyone who knows Asia, knows how important it is to respect protocol and, surely, how to avoid a loss of face, which is exactly what she caused: a loss of face for China. This is not going to be fixed or pardoned any time soon. Diplomacy is wasted now.]

In short, yes, it is back to the future, with one big difference: we should not trust the US to defend our interests anymore. We should do that ourselves. And we can do that by staying clear from irking large and powerful nations such as China and Russia: let them run their country the way they see fit. Let us accept to live in this multipolar but largely peaceful world and accept diversity: many cultures, different systems of governance, and all the richness that comes with it. We do not need a global cop. Especially not a global cop that keeps repeating the same line over and over again: “You are either with us or against us.” It may be a military principle (not part of Sun Tzu’s rather successful Art of War principles, however), but politics – national or international – simply do not work that way. We can self-regulate based on well-established international rules: territorial integrity, non-interference in domestic affairs, no extrajudicial killings in foreign lands, etcetera. Global cowboys have no place in such system. If the US would want to be constructive, it could, possibly, lead the way if it wants to by, for example, bringing its own defense budget closer to the NATO average rather than us ramping it up.

[…] Hey ! I like that idea ! That is a nice compromise to offer to the US telling us to arm up, isn’t it? We go up if you come down ! I really like that idea. It would make us feel safer. It would also make NATO look more like a true alliance. Consider this: when the US went to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, they just dragged all NATO countries with them. It was qualified and justified as an ‘out of area’ NATO operation with, of course, most of the command and control done by the US. The NATO Council members were bullied into it and justified it legally to the taxpayers and other audiences by a reference to the war on terrorism which, as far as I know, has no real legal basis from an international law point of view. But that was it. I was there too for my own country (Belgium) and it was all very interesting. But so now we have a real war much closer to Brussels or Berlin or Paris and London but NATO shits in its pants and leaves the war to international volunteers and, yes, the US.

I went to Ukraine too, by the way. Unofficially, this time around. And only very briefly, back in March. As a volunteer fighter. Yes. Watch this newsreel if you do not believe me: I am featured in it, shortly after we went underground after a Russian missile strike on our training basis. I could see all those guns coming in after a month or so, plus a lot of other people who were either more naive or – the opposite – much more useful than me, and so I decided to come back home. Not because I got scared (I stayed much longer than others) but because I was not needed: there were enough guns coming in and, yes, more than enough other volunteers who, unlike me (I was just a diplomat in Afghanistan doing civ-mil cooperation as Belgium’s chargé d’affaires), had real combat experience and better reasons to not like the Russians. I think of the many Georgians joining the Legion, for example. And, yes, many crazy Americans with no knowledge of the law of war and no respect whatsoever for the enemy (they found it strange, for example, when I would remind them of the fact that Russian soldiers were also fathers or sons and were not at the front because they wanted to be at the front – unlike them trigger-happy American volunteers). :-/

OK. Let me get back to the point instead of talking personal stories. The point is this: if the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a clear and present danger but NATO does not want to get involved because it got cold feet after the failure of the Afghanistan operation (what were we doing there, anyway?), then what is the use of NATO? It is a bit hard to not conclude that it currently just serves as some kind of collective market for buying US defense equipment, right? That is another reason why I am against a rise in defense spending:

1. It does not make us safer (see above).

2. I do not think European taxpayer money should be used to enrich the shareholders of US defense companies and further strengthen what the great American general Eisenhower and then US President warned his own countrymen for back in 1961: the growing military-industrial complex and its influence on politics.

It is now clear that Eisenhower’s nightmare has become true: the US military-industrial complex is now a fully-fledged military-industrial-political complex. Democrats or Republicans make no difference any more, as evidenced from the GOP praise for Ms. Pelosi’s brinkmanship. All leading US politicians are anti-China and, therefore, there is little hope either of the two parties will contribute much to peace and stability in Asia. If, as is very likely judging from the polls, we will see a lame duck government in the US after the November elections (when Republicans are likely to take over US Congress), Republicans and Democrats are likely to agree on the following: keep increasing the already enormous US Defense budget, keep pestering China, keep the war in Ukraine going and, possibly, send troops to other flashpoints (there is plenty of choice in Africa, and no one really cares about that continent anyway – except for China, perhaps).

Does this sound arrogant? Probably. Most probably. Plain arrogant. You are right. However, having survived a suicide attack, multiple RPG barrages, cross-fire, and other hazards in Afghanistan as well as, more recently, a missile strike in Ukraine as part of the volunteer International Legion in Ukraine (that strike made hundreds of casualties but I was lucky, again), I think I have the right to speak up and repeat the core message of my previous post: Yankee, please go home. You are not helpful when it comes to avoiding, preventing, or mitigating conflicts, and you are surely not very helpful when it comes to trying to broker compromise and end conflict.

Yes, your army is more powerful than all other armies combined and does easily ‘win’ wars in true Blitzkrieg style (‘shock and awe’ tactics as you call it). However, you have demonstrated that you never ever win the peace that should necessarily follow. The Cold War was followed by a very cold peace, and now you have turned back into another Cold War. Worse, proxy wars have given way to a real war with Russia. Its start was Russia’s mistake, for sure. But the multi-billion dollar equipment packages and the trainers that come with it do not help in bringing it to an end. That requires hard-nosed diplomacy, and the Pelosi visit shows you do not want to use that. So please stay away then and stop fueling fires. Surely avoid starting new fires. It is simply too hot right now. Also, one of the many Afghan sayings I learned from my 12 years there (7 years permanently and 5 years on and off) is this: jangal ke dar gereft, khushk o tar mesoza. Literally translated it means this: “If a forest catches fire, both the dry and the wet will burn up.” We Europeans really do not want any forest to burn. Forest fires are hard to control. :-/

On climate change and global warming

The flash floods in Uttarakhand (and in other areas of the Himalayas – but the burst of a glacial lake made things worse in Uttarakhand) and the increasing number of freak weather phenomena in Europe and the US (such as Europe’s extraordinary cold spell this year, or this year’s record number of hurricanes in the US) have given the issue of global warming a prominence which it did not enjoy before. While that is good in itself, I do not expect it to have any real impact on international and national policies. As one expert puts it: “At its root, global warming is the product of the decisions and behavior of 6.5 billion human beings.” While this expert (his name is Anthony Leiserowitz), after having stated this obvious fact, then passionately makes the case for some kind of New World Order, I think it is entirely unrealistic to expect these decisions and behavior to change over the next decades.

While I was travelling from Nepal to Belgium a few days ago (do politicians sincerely believe that a tax on aviation emissions – the IPCC has estimated that aviation is responsible for around 3.5% of anthropogenic climate change – will change the travel plans of people like me – or you?), I had a pleasant conversation with a representative of a major European lamp producer (yes, lamps: the bulbs you are using to light your house). He just came back from a visit to a factory in Chandigarh, India, to which his company had outsourced the production of their energy-saving light bulbs. The man obviously liked his job – a quality which I greatly admire: because a job is so important in one’s life, I think one should really be passionate about it. That being said, the economist in me quickly grasped the irony: we, in Europe, are now saving energy by using energy-saving light bulbs produced in an Indian sweatshop. What’s the energy saved here – if we’re looking at it from a global perspective?

This is obviously only possible because the costs of international transportation have come down so much, and because markets have effectively become world markets. Even labor has become an international commodity now, as anyone who has traveled through a Middle Eastern airport will have noticed: these airports would not be there if it weren’t for the cheap Asian workers they are exploiting – people who are separated for their country and family for at least a year or even more.

I should write a separate post on this but it is clear there are societal costs to the increased international mobility of labor at both ends: domestically we lose jobs and suffer high unemployment – a key ingredient of social malaise – while the temporary or permanent immigrants do earn good money but struggle with integration and other psychological issues and – in the majority of cases – also leave a gap in the social fabric back home (as I live in Nepal, I could tell more than one story about this – but then this post would be way too long). But, again, humanity – despite all of the forms of collective action it is capable of – will not reverse globalization: it does not want to – and even if wanted to, it can’t.

Indeed, the trends we have observed since the end of the second World War will not change. The costs of international transportation will continue to decrease (and, if they would increase – because of rising energy prices or because of some kind of international tax (no, don’t think about it) – they will not increase significantly) and markets – for products, for capital and, importantly, for labor – will become more, not less, integrated. More importantly, no international deliberations will be able to request or force developing countries to not become developed: cities like Mumbai or Kathmandu (or Kabul, if you want a more outlandish example of a burgeoning urban area) will continue to grow, and the ‘middle class’ in all of Asia’s and Africa’s countries will continue to grow and want what they want: a refrigerator, a TV, and a motorbike (or, better, a little car). That will continue to fuel global warming.

European or American politicians are utterly unable to do anything about this. So, yes, the ice sheets covering the Antarctic and Greenland, and the Arctic sea ice, will continue to melt. And, yes, many island nations (the Maldives, the Kiribati islands, the Seychelles,…) and even some nations (Bangladesh – and large parts of Holland!) are under threat. And, yes, there will be more disasters like the ‘Himalayan tsunami’ of June this year (which killed thousands), or like the tornadoes in the US (which killed dozens), or like the floods in Central Europe – which damaged thousands of homes.

Global warming and its consequences are here already – and it’s only going to get worse. As usual, some will be more affected than others. But history has never been equitable – and humanity has never been able to change its course. We will soon be 7 billion. It will only get worse.