Great Powers’ ‘Tribal Instincts’ Impel World Toward Trouble
Russia-China entente not the only problem
Chinese Supreme Leader Xi Jinping’s much-advertised journey to Moscow and apparent close friendship with Vladimir Putin is evidence of the weakness of both of them, Putin in particular, despite western impressions of the obvious. But the US and some of its less-discerning western allies need to remember that this month marks the 20th anniversary of its invasion of Iraq. Like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the US onslaught was driven by imperial delusions about remaking a country and justified by a similar collection of lies about threats – nuclear then, NATO now.
Clearly, Putin has been driven at least for the past year not by calculation of Russian long-term interests or even his own. Russia’s many weaknesses, now military as well as economic and demographic, have been on full display. Economic and political reliance on a China which still hankers after the return of territory lost to Russia in the 19th century and which wants to increase its influence in Russia’s onetime client states in Central Asia and the Caucasus, will in the slightly longer term, add to the many fissures in a country with a vast territory but where, as a result of Tsarist empire-building, ethnic Russians constitute only about 70 percent of the population, and a minority in some republics.
Putin, do not forget, comes from St Petersburg, the once Swedish city on the western fringe and is hence obsessed with what he regards as the proper place of Ukraine (and Belarus) in the history of Russia and its Orthodox Church – itself now a powerful nationalist voice just as it was when Russia expanded into Turkish and Muslim lands in the 19th century.
But what of China and the US? Are they too now increasingly being drawn into acting according to the most basic tribal instincts rather than rational assessment of national interest in finding peace and prosperity by not being driven by emotions and group-think?
In the case of Xi, his further concentration of power in a hand-picked Politburo, his more direct control of economic policies, his downgrading of the role of prime minister all increase the likelihood that he acts according to personal instinct, unchallenged by contrary advice from independent and powerful party members, let alone by a mostly well-informed bureaucracy.
It can be hard to tell whether Xi’s policies, for example to build chip and other industries from corn-growing to energy, decreasingly dependent on foreign trade are calculated or driven by an increasing obsession with western “threats.” What at times seems calculated at others seems to be almost racial in his antipathy to western influences, whether it is liberal democracy or the equal rights of women, a gender entirely missing from the Politburo.
Some of Beijing’s actions – including in Hong Kong, where arrests seem to continue daily – seem overblown given the power of the party and the state. In turn, its reactions and policies supposedly aimed at countering western attempts to, as Xi sees it, to contain China, to prevent it from taking its rightful place at the head of the world table and equal to the US have mostly been counterproductive.
Much of that counterproductivity is at the hands of Washington, which has busied itself with making or expanding international bulwarks such as AUKUS or the Quad. Chinese bellicosity and refusal to rein in North Korea’s nuclear adventurism have alarmed Japan, which is abandoning the pacifist foreign policy from which it profited since World War II,
Tokyo has been courting India, supporting Ukraine, increasing defense spending, and most recently mending relations with South Korea, which itself is warming to the idea of nuclear weapons as Pyongyang continues to expand its nuclear arsenal and the means to deliver it.
For sure, China is still popular enough in much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America where people have little reason to care about Ukraine or Taiwan – and may indeed care more about Israeli colonialism. But where it matters most, the nations feeling the hot breath of its sea claims and sea power – much of ASEAN, Japan, Australia, South Korea, and India – it seems China is more bully than the US. In its push to the top table China also prefers to forget that India already has a bigger population and a younger and more dynamic one, and by 2050 could have similar economic weight.
The US meanwhile has a different problem. Biden is surely no Xi or Putin, and the nationalist populists of the Trump variety are too erratic, as well as too hemmed in by institutions, to launch adventures. There seems no appetite in Washington to resume the trade liberalization that the US led for seven decades – in Asia, for instance, not re-joining the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership that two presidents spent more than a decade formulating, only to have Donald Trump void it. Although former President Barack Obama was a moving force on the 12-nation treaty to expand free trade when Joe Biden was vice president, Biden has ignored it.
Indeed. The inclination may be to retreat from some global involvement, as proposed by Republican hopeful Ron de Santis. But for the most part, US politicians and media are being overwhelmed by groupthink about the “China threat.” At its worst, this is a reminder of the 1940/50s “Communist threat,” the “Reds under the Bed” fantasies fanned by Senator Joseph McCarthy.
In this scenario, the US cuts off its nose to spite its face, ending trade and investment deals with Chinese companies, regardless of the balance of national interest., imposing ever more futile “sanctions” which have scant impact on the sanctioned but do grave long terms damage to the US global role, whether that is the position of the dollar or America’s role as the primary mover of open trade and investment.
This is damaging American export-oriented sectors more than it is China’s. As the Washington-based Peterson Institute for Economics reported this week: “US exports to China, which cratered during President Donald Trump’s trade war of 2018–19, are continuing to suffer. China is now shifting some purchases of foreign goods away from the United States. Both have the same fear: that the other side will suddenly weaponize trade flows—cut off imports or exports—in the name of security. Trying to get ahead of that, each is now attempting to diversify.”
The attitude also leads in turn to similar over-estimation of US influence – similar to the fantasy gripping Putin and possibly infecting Xi. That is the road to real conflict from which all three will lose and the likes of India, Indonesia, and Iran or even Nigeria and Ethiopia become the places to be.