Discover more from 3am Thoughts
The Uncomfortable Truth
The Ukrainian war has exposed 30 years of rot in the Western liberal order.
There is an uncomfortable reality that the war in Ukraine has laid bare, but which in fact has been in the making for the duration of the post-Cold War period. That reality is that the operation of the so-called ‘liberal international order’ has been instrumental in facilitating the rise of a revisionist and aggressive Russia and a resurgent, belligerent China. The geopolitical and strategic landscape, once centred around a Washington-led consensus of democratic norms and market-based assumptions, has shifted to favour more authoritarian global actors and reactionary domestic actors.
The worm at the core of the failure of the post-Cold War order is the lie upon which the Western neoliberal model of society has been built for 40 years; that economic freedom (i.e., market freedom) equates to personal freedom. This was the presupposition that the fall of the Soviet Union, at a time when China remained a largely poverty-stricken backwater, allowed to take root as the guiding principle of foreign policy for Western institutions.
The ‘liberal international order’ is a term of art for the system of multilateral institutions (e.g., the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, etc.) that emerged from the ashes of the Second World War, but remained largely confined to the West for the duration of the Cold War while the world was divided into distinct, bipolar geopolitical spheres of influence. Envisioned during the Second World War, the concept assumed that the world would be ordered around sovereign states adopting representative democracy, the promotion of civil rights and individual human rights, and free trade and private property rights as the economic lynchpin. These principles would be enshrined in, and promoted through, various multilateral international institutions such as the UN, IMF, and WTO.
With the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of both the command-based economy and repressive Soviet state apparatus, the presupposition of democracy and free markets as consonant parts of the new world order became internalised as dogma. The major error, more evident with the benefit of hindsight, was the direction of effect implied within this presupposition; that access to international free trade and market exchange for newly independent nations attempting democracy, like Russia, or non-democratic countries like China, would facilitate the growth of a middle class that would precipitate the evolution of political freedom within those nations. The presupposition was that economic freedoms would give birth to political freedoms. This order, and the presuppositions underpinning it, have facilitated the journey to the current geopolitical moment.
With this presupposition guiding policy, the table of the liberal international order was opened, with no checks or balances in place to ensure that a seat at a table required behaving with table manners. Russia and China sat down, started throwing food at everyone else and spitting in their drinks, mocking the table to do something in response, knowing all they had to do was reach under to their Western counterparts and stuff a few greasy dollar bills in their pockets to shut them up.
Facilitated by economic deregulation and mobility of capital with practically zero oversight, Russia and China have been able to avail and take advantage of the full economic benefits of the Western order, while concomitantly rejecting the political liberalism that was presumed to go hand-in-hand with the former. This relationship has cemented authoritarianism, providing these autocratic states with unilateral access to global economies and institutions, while maintaining State-based repression domestically, and controlling the flow of capital, ideas, organisations, and individuals.
They receive maximal benefit for minimal cooperation, and they have been aided and abetted by the West every step of the way. In a recent paper on the rise of an illiberal global order, Alexander Cooley of Columbia University and Georgetown University's Daniel H. Nexon highlighted some key distinctions between U.S.-Soviet tensions during the Cold War and the friction between U.S.-China relations now. During the Cold War, the U.S. did not rely on the Soviet Union for manufacturing and goods, and did not outsource domestic U.S. production to the USSR. Now, the U.S. and China exist in competition while operating within overlapping geopolitical spheres and multilateral institutions. And Russia has been on a murderous territorial reconquest since the invasion of Georgia, one which was happily ignored until the invasion of Ukraine as long as kleptocratic Russian cash flowed into London property.
The journalist Jake Bernstein has shed light on the cosy facilitation of kleptocracy by the grossly unregulated Western financial system. South Dakota, Delaware, and Wyoming, are de facto money-laundering states for kleptocrats, facilitating a range of practices - hidden trusts in perpetuity, the ability register companies in the U.S. but maintain records outside the country, to have no named links to companies - that champion secrecy and lack of transparency. These trusts and shell company registration rules (or lack thereof) have allowed kleptocrats to move the wealth they've extracted from their own populations around through Western institutions with impunity. “Londongrad” has been the European destination of choice for the kleptocratic spoils extracted from Russia by its oligarch elite.
China uses the very economic liberalism that facilitated its rise to bully the West into submitting to its Party line. When the manager of the NBA's Houston Rockets dared to usher support for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, China pulled Rockets merchandise from circulation and blocked broadcasting of the NBA. Journalists from both the BBC and Wall Street Journal have been expelled for criticising China, but autocratic regimes like China and Russia not only retain access to Western platforms, they have become skilled in the art of disinformation warfare through those very platforms, with no consequences. And last year, Google and Apple removed an app designed to help supporters of Alexei Navalny coordinate an opposition vote, under pressure from the Kremlin.
The post-2001 U.S.-led version of militarised democracy promotion created a hypocrisy in the supposed democratic values and principles of self-determination purportedly enshrined in the multilateral institutions of the liberal international order, not only destabilising entire regions but facilitating Russia and China stepping in as both military and economic benefactors in the Middle East, Central and South Asia. China, Russia, and Egypt, now spearhead a coalition known as the “Right-Minded Group”, an oxymoron for a collection of countries seeking to curtail criticism of human rights abuses.
Elizabeth Economy, author of ‘The World According to China’, has elaborated on a growing pattern of behaviour of an emboldened China under Xi in the past two years alone: with the 2020 national security law, Beijing has scuppered Hong Kong’s autonomy as a special administrative region; China have developed and militarised seven bases in the South China Sea; have deployed their navy into Japanese territorial waters over the contested Senkaku Islands; have deployed their air force over Malaysian territory, again over waters China lays claim to; a Chinese coast guard vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat; and China have escalated into armed, albeit limited scale, conflict with India.
The presupposition that economic liberalisation would precede political reform was a miscalculation. The latter should have been the prerequisite to a seat at the table of the international order. In many respects, this miscalculation represents the major blindspot in prevailing Western ideology: capital. That wealth makes right, consequences be damned. This new illiberal global order, in which might makes right, has been facilitated by the West. Our institutions. Our banks. Our tech-oligarchs and corporate conglomerates. Our lack of regulation, principle, or moral compass. Where the only concept of duty in society is a fiduciary duty to capital growth. It is all so obscene.
This occurs against a background of backlash in numerous Western states against the failures of the neoliberal model, which has laid waste to the middle class, created a working class of economic Serfs, and sowed fertile ground for reactionary populism and authoritarianism of a political nature among conservative ranks and of a social nature among liberal ranks. Five tech-oligarchies - Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple - now have a combined wealth greater than the GDP of every country on earth except for China and the U.S. Yet poverty and inequality continue to skyrocket in numerous Western countries.
What do any of the >1 million families in the U.K. about to be plunged below the poverty line by a multi-millionaire Chancellor owe democracy? Would they take China's social system to be able to feed their kids and turn on the heat? The Wests entire gamble is that this answer will always be “no”. But as Cooley and Nexon state:
“…liberal democracies really do need to assume that they will not retake the catbird seat of the international order anytime soon. And so the question becomes not whether the liberal order will change but on whose terms.”
In this regard, Biden is the perfect “leader of the free world” for 2022; tired, old, confused, outmanoeuvred by once-lesser enemies, spluttering platitudes about democracy and freedom that sound like a recording from the 1990's but ring hollow today.
The assumption now is that the crises which the world faces can be addressed by recommitting to the operation of the same multilateral institutions and alliances, akin to giving the house a new lick of paint. But the limits of the operational capacity of these institutions and the very concept of the liberal international order they purport to uphold are clear. When these same institutions have been incapable of preventing the rise of illiberal powers in the first place, they are hardly going to be the solution to the imposition of illiberal geopolitical ambitions.
Consider this quote from Putin in his July 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, which all but foretold the invasion of Ukraine:
"Our kinship has been transmitted from generation to generation. It is in the hearts and the memory of people living in modern Russia and Ukraine, in the blood ties that unite millions of our families. Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people."
Now consider this quite from Xi at the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress in 2017:
"People on both sides of the strait are one family, with shared blood....No one can ever cut the veins that connect us."
There is something that I haven't quite been able to put my finger on over the past month about Ukraine. About why this war feels different. And I think I know it now. It is the fact that what they are fighting for is a purer version of what we, in the comfortable West, have come to consider “freedom”, which is primarily expressed as a freedom from responsibility. It has made a mockery of any idiot who ever used the words “tyranny” or “oppression” to describe wearing a mask during an infectious disease pandemic, or to describe the views of a speaker invited to a university campus.
It is the freedom to realise a vision of self-determination. Ukraine before the war was not a model democracy; it was a transitional regime, a work in progress. Ukrainians knew that. It was a country struggling for itself, in contrast to the traditional lynchpins of the West in the U.S. and UK, countries that have lost all sense of themselves.
The war in Ukraine now represents not only the type of conflict with a clear moral right side, but it is simultaneously shining a harsh light on the lack of moral compass and foresight guiding the West for the past three decades. What Ukrainians are fighting for are true individual freedoms, i.e., political freedoms, not freedoms that have been subordinated to economic interests. Where Polaris for the West has been its economic ideology, this very ideology has allowed the liberal international order to be manipulated by the whims of illiberal actors. As 300 Ukrainians were murdered in a theatre by the ongoing Russian bombardment, the fact that the West have aided and abetted the rise of a belligerent alternative international order appears even more grotesque.
So fight, Ukraine, for freedom and self-determination.
Just don't use that freedom to be like us.