Brokers of Conflict
Our posture on the international stage communicates domestic fragility.
The present political situation regarding the Russia-Ukraine war has often been likened to the interwar period in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. This is a useful comparison—but not for the reason that most Western observers currently think. They argue that conceding any of Moscow’s territorial claims is the equivalent of “appeasement” in regard to Hitler’s annexations of various German-speaking regions. For such analysts, the seizure of Crimea and the Russian-speaking eastern oblasts of Ukraine is a precursor to the Kremlin waging war deep into the European heartland, fueled by dreams of imperial grandeur. Anything less than total Ukrainian victory is therefore not only a matter of what is morally right, but a national security imperative for the entire Western world.
This is the position that has been articulated by current Republican presidential candidate Mike Pence, who recently stated that “anybody who thinks that Vladimir Putin will stop in Ukraine if he takes that country, I think has another thing coming.” Pence also stated that prolonging the bloodshed in Ukraine was necessary so that America can “prevent the day that Russia would roll into a country where our sons and daughters in uniform would be required to go and to fight and defend.” Pence does not bother to consider whether the assumption that his argument is predicated on—i.e., America should perpetually maintain an overstretched alliance system that guarantees involvement in foreign entanglements, directly contradicting the republican principles of the nation’s founding—is a good one.
The notion that Russian tanks will soon be rolling into Berlin and Paris should the Donbas remain under Moscow’s control is, obviously, asinine. Despite the neoconservative claims to the contrary, the U.S. led alliance is waging a proxy war in Ukraine not due to any calculation of geopolitical interest. But what is, and always has been, a national security issue for Moscow has become an ideological crusade for Washington. The U.S. political class actually believes that it is the principled actor in this fight—morally sure of its mission to implement Western institutions, political practices, and cultural norms. Joe Scarborough is being sincere when he defines anyone who opposes unqualified support of Ukraine as “America Last.” Likewise, defense of the “rules-based order” is synonymous with the spread of liberal democracy; refuse to lay down and accept the latter of your own volition and be found in violation of the former.
The “appeasement” comparison between interwar Germany and present Russia does not hold weight, but the example of the political situation pre-World War II is useful for demonstrating how biased and one-sided policy prescriptions ultimately blind decisionmakers to the larger geopolitical picture. Laser focus on punishing the Germans for the previous war not only led to the rise of a revolutionary regime in Berlin, but also aided in Soviet Russia’s rapid industrialization process and military armament. There is obviously a complex and intricate confluence of various factors that contributed to both the former and latter, but it will suffice here to notice that the Soviet Union in particular, and global communism in general, was able to curate its image as a moderate regime, and tactfully navigate the international terrain in a manner that directly benefited its own geopolitical aspirations as Western powers focused on Germany.
The ideological war that the West is currently waging has subsequently created the space for China to step in as a moderate and responsible major power. CCP leader Xi Jinping has positioned himself to be a reasonable voice calling for peace in a sea of Western voices demanding escalation.
Xi’s recent trip to Moscow and his meeting with Vladimir Putin is expected to be followed by a conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the near future. This will likely take place either virtually or through a phone call, although Zelensky has also expressed a willingness to sit down with the Chinese leader in a summit-format dialogue. A face-to-face meeting in the near future should therefore not be ruled out either. Andriy Yermak, head of Zelensky’s office, additionally reaffirmed Ukraine’s desire to see China—the country’s largest trading partner—play a role in international peace talks. “We believe that China is one of the most potent global leaders,” stated Yermak at an event hosted by the Brigham Chatham House think tank last Tuesday. “It should play a more noticeable role in bringing this war to an end, and in building up a new global security system.” Yermak also stated that Kiev expects Beijing to be “one of the guarantors within the framework of the [international] security system.”
Yermak’s analysis is not wrong. The relative influence of China in that system will only continue to expand due to the failure of transatlantic policy. Despite Western howling over the refusal of Beijing to condemn Moscow, the image of Xi as the only leader willing to speak from a neutral position with the two primary antagonists of the ongoing war presents a singular image on the international stage.
U.S. and European media may like to present the conflict as a Manichean struggle of good versus evil, but this is almost certainly not how it appears to a major segment of the world population. According to a recent study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Moscow has actually increased its support among countries of the world since the onset of the war. The number who lean toward Russia has increased from 29 to 35 over the past year, while those actively condemning it has decreased from 131 to 122. Some 63.8 percent of the global population now lives in a country that is classified as either neutral, “Russia-leaning,” or “supportive of Russia.”
Evidence of the shifting geopolitical winds is evident even closer to home as well. Consider the February poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, that saw U.S. respondents' support of arming Ukraine drop over from 60 percent to 48 percent. Only 37 percent were in favor of sending funds, compared to 38 percent against. It is not too much of a stretch to suppose that an increasing number of Americans would therefore also support the president sitting down with leaders from both sides in an effort to reach a peace settlement. Judging by Republican candidate responses to Tucker Carlson’s recent questionnaire, it certainly seems that those vying for the nomination understand the political expediency of reflecting this sentiment in their proposed policy toward the war.
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The current Western approach has allowed the Chinese regime to appear as the sensible, peace-seeking nation on the world stage. Beijing has additionally decried the use of force while refusing to condemn Moscow, acknowledging that reckless U.S. foreign policy contributed to pushing Putin to war. This is an honest appraisal of international affairs that most other countries—at least those not wearing ideological blinders—accept. That it is the number-one geopolitical competitor to the United States that is espousing this fact actively works to attract both greater support to Beijing and greater contempt to Washington.
Recall that China has also recently proposed a twelve-point peace plan for Ukraine that at least attempts to balance the concerns of both sides. Rather than forwarding any type of feasible peace plan of its own, the United States has opted to instead go with mouth-foaming histrionics about blood on Putin’s hands and the need for regime change in Russia. The Chinese proposal also comes on the heels of its recent mediation of bilateral relations between Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and the Shiite Iranian Republic—hardly a simple matter given the theological dimensions of the feud. Riyadh and Tehran have agreed to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and reopening mutual embassies in accordance with the Beijing-brokered deal.
For all the fearful talk of those such as Pence or Senator Lindsay Graham, or any of the purported “conservatives” conveniently compiled on this list by the Hill, about the U.S. losing its position as the world’s indispensable nation, it would be useful to take a step back and consider what America is doing to its image on the international stage. While China calls for peace in a war that it understands is not its own, the West barks out for escalation in a faraway land that it nonetheless claims to be its frontline. Even for those of us who prefer a return to a limited and measured foreign policy as envisioned by the nation’s Founders, it is inevitable that U.S. security and economic interests in the upcoming decades will be defined by U.S.-China competition. American obstinacy ensures that given the choice, other countries will increasingly choose to cozy up to the latter while questioning their relations with yesterday’s heavyweight champ.