The Fantasy of the Free World

Are Democracies Really United Against Russia?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provoked outrage and unleashed a barrage of economic sanctions from many Western governments. Some, such as Germany, have boosted their military spending after years of riding on American coattails. In these actions, certain analysts have found a silver lining to the devastation of the war in Ukraine. Writing in Foreign Affairs in March, Michael Beckley and Hal Brands argued that the international reaction to the invasion would reverberate well beyond the current crisis. The concerted response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions could “consolidate a global alliance that unites democracies against Russia and China and thereby secures the free world for a generation to come.” In this view, Russia’s war in Ukraine might be a pivotal episode in a global contest between autocracy and democracy. Chastened by Putin’s gross violation of norms, democracies will band together in a muscular reaffirmation of the liberal international order.

That is wishful thinking. The war is no doubt a seismic event that will have profound consequences for Russia, its immediate neighbors, and the rest of Europe. But it will neither reshape the global order nor presage an ideological showdown of democracies against China and Russia. After all, many of the world’s biggest democracies, including India, have so far not joined the U.S.-led economic campaign against Russia or even explicitly condemned the invasion. Far from consolidating “the free world,” the war has underscored its fundamental incoherence. In any case, the future of global order will be decided not by wars in Europe but by the contest in Asia, on which events in Ukraine have limited bearing.

GRAND ILLUSIONS
Many countries have heaped opprobrium on Russia, but condemnation has not been universal. The varied responses to the war muddle any vision of U.S.-aligned democracies pitted against Russian-aligned autocracies. Several major democracies, notably India and South Africa, abstained from the UN General Assembly vote on March 2 that demanded that Russia withdraw from Ukraine. Big democracies in Latin America, including Brazil and Mexico, have refused to participate in sanctions. Close to half of all Asian and African countries abstained or voted against the resolution. And only three Asian countries—Japan, Singapore, and South Korea—have wholeheartedly joined U.S. and EU sanctions on Russia.

Countries in Asia were of course alarmed by the invasion. Stock markets throughout the region fell precipitously following the news of Putin’s gambit. But most commentary in Asian capitals has regarded the conflict as a war between Europeans over the European security order—not an epochal global conflagration. Yes, the conflict has changed the European security calculus in fundamental ways. Western European countries have scrambled to strengthen their defenses, Germany has announced a process of rearmament, NATO is more unified than ever before, and the transatlantic alliance has been reinvigorated. The unprecedented stringency of the EU and U.S. economic sanctions on Russia is emblematic of this newfound Western unity.

But from an Asian perspective, the war in Ukraine doesn’t augur shifts to come so much as it underlines a shift that has already taken place. The fact that a war is being fought between Europeans on European soil is a reflection of how much global geopolitics has changed since the end of the Cold War. Before then, when Europe was the central fault line in the superpower contest, no wars were fought in the region; borders stayed frozen, lest any change provoke conflict between two nuclear-armed superpowers. But after the Cold War, conflict in Europe—in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and today in Ukraine—became neither unthinkable nor fraught with the same risks of annihilation or escalation, despite some alarmist panic about these apocalyptic possibilities today. Europe is a sideshow to the main theater of geopolitical drama: Asia.

Today, the center of gravity of the world economy has moved from the Atlantic to east of the Urals. Geopolitical disputes and security dilemmas that could affect the global order are concentrated in maritime Asia. And the world seeks a new equilibrium to account for China’s rise. The complex political dynamics in Asia don’t lend themselves easily to the kind of stark confrontation underway in Ukraine. Policymakers in Western countries shouldn’t think that their actions on the new frontlines in Europe will shape the contours of a wider struggle to come.

AN UNENVIABLE CHOICE
To be sure, the war in Ukraine will have significant second-order effects on countries in Asia—on their economic prospects when it comes to the supply of energy, precious and strategic metals, fertilizers, and grain. The slowdown in the global economy resulting from the spike in oil and gas prices will particularly affect countries in Asia which, by and large, account for almost 60 percent of crude oil imports in the global economy. The resulting rise in energy intensive fertilizer production costs will intensify the pain caused by the withdrawal from the market of Russian and Ukrainian wheat, which accounts for over 25 percent of wheat traded in the world.

China is probably the Asian economy with the greatest economic exposure to Russia, for food, energy, and other products and as a market for Chinese exports. It also counts Ukraine as its third-largest source of imported arms, after Russia and France. So far, China has chosen Russia over Ukraine in its public stances, but its relationship with Russia can in no way compare with or replace China’s economic dependence on the West. China will presumably want to avoid secondary sanctions and may therefore implement U.S. and EU sanctions on Russia where it cannot evade them.

The rest of Asia is considerably less exposed to trade with Russia, and there is little or no Russian investment in South, Southeast, and East Asia. Yes, these countries will experience some turbulence thanks to the war. All South Asian countries, for instance, are net oil importers and are vulnerable to price surges just when their economies are undergoing pandemic-induced inflation and shocks. Most South Asian countries have elections upcoming in the next two years, and their incumbent leaders are likely to make populist decisions in handling the volatility of commodity prices, choosing subsidies, price cuts, and elevated debt over steps that would be more economically sound over the long term.

But the war will not change the fundamental geopolitical dynamic in Asia, unless the United States becomes very distracted from its Indo-Pacific strategy. Many Asian countries, including U.S. allies, are economically bound to China yet rely on the United States for their security. India is one example. Its trade with China has set new records in the last two years despite frosty political relations and a military buildup and clashes along their shared border. At the same time, India’s security and intelligence ties with the United States have increased substantially. Russia, which accounted for 88 percent of Indian arms imports in 2002, saw its share decline to 35 percent by 2020, by when the United States and its allies accounted for 65 percent. India does retain large stocks of legacy Russian platforms, but the trend toward diversification in its arms imports is clear and steady.

Far from consolidating “the free world,” the war has underscored its fundamental incoherence.
This dynamic of multiple affiliations and partnerships is the norm in Asia, and it will complicate any Western framing of a larger confrontation with the autocracies of China and Russia. India has received a good deal of criticism for its reluctance to speak out against the war in Ukraine. (It also abstained from the February UN Security Council vote condemning the invasion.) U.S. officials have also warned India not to agree to Russian proposals that might help the Kremlin evade the effects of sanctions.

For India, the war has posed a stark and unwelcome choice between the West and Russia, a choice that it has done everything possible to avoid making. The United States is an essential and indispensable partner in India’s modernization, but Russia remains an important partner for geopolitical and military reasons. Whereas Russia is willing to codevelop and produce sensitive defense technologies such as the BrahMos missile and to share nuclear submarines with India, North America and Europe provide India with access to advanced technologies, markets, and financial and educational systems that Russia cannot match. The United States is an essential partner for India’s maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, including working together under the auspices of the so-called Quad, a partnership that also incorporates Australia and Japan. But India’s interests on the Eurasian continent require working with Russia and Iran now that the United States is no longer militarily present in Afghanistan. Indian diplomats have therefore chosen to stress the need to find a negotiated way out of war in Ukraine, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has encouraged Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to talk directly to each other to rapidly end the crisis.

India has subtly expressed its unhappiness with the invasion by reiterating its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. If past experience is a guide, Indian officials will have made their displeasure clear to their Russian counterparts in private. Public opinion in India about the invasion remains divided, although many high-profile public figures have been stronger in their condemnation of the invasion than the government has been. But expecting New Delhi to take a more strident official position against Moscow is unrealistic, and Western criticism and pressure will probably rankle a postcolonial society like India’s.

As shocked as Western policymakers profess to be by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they might remember that such behavior is neither unprecedented nor representative of a real change in the norms of state behavior in Europe and the world. For one, such a violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity is something that Asia has seen and experienced in the past at the hands of major powers. The long list of outside interventions and invasions (including the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Vietnam War), of ongoing proxy wars and “frozen” conflicts in which casualties mount daily, is proof that major powers are content to pay lip service to norms about sovereignty and territorial conflict even as those norms are repeatedly breached. Besides, it is hard to think of any powerful state that has not been associated with such acts of commission or omission in living memory. That does not justify Russian actions in Ukraine. But it does suggest that analysts and policymakers should use greater delicacy in how they frame the contest and in the demands they make on Asian and African states.

A LINE IN THE SAND?
No matter how long the war in Ukraine lasts, how the West isolates Russia, and how the war’s secondary market effects hit Asian economies, the balance of power in Asia is unlikely to be significantly affected. To be sure, the total collapse of the Russian state would have serious ramifications, but that outcome seems unlikely for now. In Asia, the war will not close the gap in military strength between, on the one hand, the United States and China and, on the other, the large number of middle and subregional powers in Asia. The latter will still have to negotiate between the sole superpower and China. Nor does it seem likely that a newly consolidated Western alliance, however invigorated, will find the energy to take an active or meaningful role in security dilemmas in Asia so long as it is preoccupied with containing Russia in Europe.

Instead of consolidation, the war in Ukraine seems likely to lead to greater fragmentation of the global order. It has reinforced the urge to build strategic autonomy in Europe as European countries begin to take a greater share in their own defense rather than rely to such an extent on the United States. It has also reinforced Asia’s sense of its own difference—its focus on stability, trade, and the bottom line that has served Asian countries so well in the last 40 years. The war will likely challenge economies that are already reeling from the pandemic and the retreat from globalization over the last decade. The combined economic and political effects of the war are likely to persuade Asian countries to embrace greater self-reliance, a trend already engendered by the pandemic.

But Russia’s invasion does not draw a line in the sand between the allies of the free world and its foes. A global Manichaean struggle is not in the offing. Those observers hoping for a conflict of that scope to arise from the rubble of Mariupol and Kharkiv will be disappointed.

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