After 25 years of globalization, Russia may be out to show that it’s finally OK to say “no” to the Americans.
It is now evident that the power struggle over Ukraine is only partly about Ukraine itself. Something much bigger is at stake. Namely, this is a seminal test of nearly 25 years of globalization — the economic, political and security integration of the world, largely controlled by the Americans and their European allies. Ukraine is not so much a crisis as a test.
The drama in Ukraine is real, to be sure, but can be understood through the basic elements of storytelling. Initially, the story seemed to be a local struggle between plundering oligarchs and a rabble of reformers and fascists. Suddenly, the characters expanded to include the Americans and the Russians, each of their presidents casting the other as the villain. The chorus alternately fretted about a new Cold War or gloated that economics trumped geopolitics.
The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle. Vladimir Putin is not trying to reverse the process of globalization. But he is trying to bend it so Russia alters globalization to its benefit. Just as firmly, the Americans and their European allies have pushed to profit even more.
NATO would love nothing more than having Kiev inside the Western military alliance. Yet the Western strike force this time is composed of bankers from the International Monetary Fund, offering billions in loans, replete with strings that would keep Kiev beholden for decades.
Indeed, Russia’s endgame in Ukraine can seem quite puzzling. NATO and the government in Kiev have warned of further incursions into the eastern half of the country. But to what end? Yes, Russia would gain an additional buffer zone of hundreds of miles to, say, the Dnieper River. And that is no small concern as Moscow sits just 700 miles from the Ukrainian border, the distance from, say, Toronto to New York.
But then what? Moscow, not Kiev, would then be saddled with governing a steaming cauldron of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians.
The answer is in plain sight, actually. Ukraine is not the crisis; it is, instead, the test. It is just valuable enough for both sides to actually engage in the struggle, one flexing its dollars and the other its tanks, as well as its rubles. (Putin, after all, has offered the Ukrainians financial help with fewer financial strings, though plenty of political ones.) But it is not quite valuable enough to go to war over.
This is a test that resonates elsewhere on or near a Russian border, from the Baltics through part of the Middle East — namely Syria, where Putin thwarted an American military strike — and eastward to Central Asia, wherever the proximity of Russian soft and hard power reasonably can be combined. But that, ultimately, is largely defensive and regional. Such a zone of influence might matter in, say, Kazakhstan or send tremors through the Baltics.
But can it influence matters on a truly global scale? The answer is yes. It can influence others to act likewise in the belief not that America is merely weak but that the American-led era of globalization is winding down and that there are benefits to finally saying “no” to the Americans. Saying “no” can cleave the Americans from their European friends. That, in turn, can soften the chances of military intervention or economic sanctions or simply increase bargaining power.
The obvious saying “no” is China taking — not merely staking — its claims in the South China Sea. Africa is now the hotbed of economic competition between the Chinese and the Americans and Europeans, not merely for resources but for the next generation of consumers. It might be more lucrative to say “no” to AT&T and “yes” to China Telecom. All because of the test in Ukraine. These same choices can be played out in new markets from Bangladesh to Peru.
The American-led world order known as globalization has delivered some of its promise, but it has tended to accrue most benefits to the wealthiest and most powerful — individuals, companies and nations alike. Like former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him, President Obama has the task of defending this system. He has simply replaced former President George H.W. Bush’s authoritarian-sounding “New World Order” with the softer “International Community.” But make no mistake; it is the same thing. In the view of much of the world beyond America’s borders — and even within them — this system is the sway of the dollar backed (ever so subtly most of the time) by the shadow of the gun.
Yet 25 years is a long run in modern international politics. In the space of that time, China’s economy has gone from factory floor to high-wage, sophisticated, wealthy consumerism. The 2008 financial crisis revealed how unstable globalization really was. The ensuing recovery revealed how unfair it really was, to the sound of protest in America, Greece and, most recently, Brazil.
Of course, Putin is no reformer, out for social justice. He has no real competing ideology, only the rough outlines of competing moral claims to Western history. And he is not bent on stopping globalization; he is merely trying to bend it to provide greater profits to Russia, which has reaped precious few — namely petrodollars — and, of course, concentrated them at the top.
Most important, though, he is testing the limits of American power and European steadfastness. So far, he is succeeding. But Ukraine is only the test. The crisis will come later, when the plot reaches its inevitable climax.
Richard Parker is a former military reporter for Knight Ridder. This article was distributed by MCT Information Services.
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