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Navigating the Mountains and Ravines of a Post-Western World

Navigating the Mountains and Ravines of a Post-Western World
 Philip Stephens
Writer, Commentator and Historian

Russia’s war against Ukraine is transforming the geopolitical world order, breaking it down into multiple adversary camps. Philip Stephens, Writer, Historian and Contributing Editor at the Financial Times, believes the implications for the West’s strategic posture reach far beyond Europe. He shares how the West could guarantee the commitment of all nations to a stable international system based on the rule of law. This segment is part the series Ukraine Shifting the World Order.

We have become overly attached to neatness - to a global system drawn in straight lines. The postwar confrontation with the Soviet Union produced a bipolar world. Then, after the collapse of communism, came America's unipolar moment. The rise of China seemed to promise Sino-American bipolarity. More recently, in the wake of the Sino-Russian pact and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, political leaders have gone in search of another simple dividing line - on one side the world’s liberal democracies, on the other its autocrats and tyrants.

Russia’s war, however, imposes an inconvenient reality. A world that once seemed flat is fast being repopulated by mountains and ravines. The emerging order, or perhaps we should call it disorder, will be complex, fragmented and fluid, its jagged contours mapped by opportunistic alliances, plurilateral pacts and overlapping boundaries. To borrow a phrase coined by former British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, "the geometry will be variable". 

In place of tidiness, the prospect is for an international system arranged around shifting allegiances and blocs. Sino-American competition will sit at the core, but the new order will be one of multiple competing camps. Nations will be promiscuous. Significant powers will sometimes sit on the fence, and sometimes seek to stand on both sides of it. 

The great majority of nations from the Global South voted at the United Nations to condemn Putin's aggression. Yet only a handful have joined the Western democracies in imposing economic sanctions. This is a world in which India works closely with the United States, Japan and Australia in the Indo-Pacific "Quad" - a group calculated to constrain if not contain China - and sits down with the same China along with Russia, South Africa and Brazil in the "BRICS". 
For all the vaulting rhetoric during the past few months about the fight for freedom and democracy, values are already colliding with realpolitik. Liberal democracies face uncomfortable trade-offs. As a candidate in the 2020 US presidential election, Joe Biden pledged to reduce Saudi Arabia to the status of a pariah state. This summer a humbled American president traveled to the Kingdom cap in hand to ask the Saudis to ease the global energy crisis by pumping more oil. 

What the West needs now is an organising strategy to meet the challenges of a compact between China and Russia that, in the description of Xi Jinping, "knows no limits". 

One of the miscalculations made by Putin was to underestimate the reaction to his aggression. Ukraine has been resolute and Western democracies cohesive. The EU has acted as one, Germany has shed Angela Merkel's mercantilism, Sweden and Finland have joined NATO, Denmark has signed up to EU defence collaboration and US leadership has been light-touch. Sanctions will take time to bite. Europe has yet to wean itself off Russian gas. But the measures in place provide an impressive demonstration of economic power, not least the importance of the dollar's role as the world’s sole reserve currency.

The end of the Cold War saw the assertion of the primacy of liberal economics over geopolitics. Now friction-free global supply chains take second place in the urgent quest for security and resilience. Germany is rearming, and the EU is providing arms for Ukraine. What the West needs now is an organising strategy - something comparable, say, to the Cold War doctrine of containment - to meet the challenges of a compact between China and Russia that, in the description of Xi Jinping, "knows no limits". This is a work in progress.

Three urgent priorities present themselves: 

  1. In Europe, a durable framework of robust defense against further aggression, including the rediscovery of nuclear deterrence; 
  2. Resilient supply chains for energy and other vital resources and secure access to vital technologies; 
  3. And the pursuit of new coalitions of nations - reaching beyond traditional allies to those that share an interest in the preservation of a rules-based international system. 

The West has to rebuild its standing in the Global South to mobilise the broadly-based commitment among nations to a stable international order. The geopolitical contest that matters is not one between liberal democracies and the rest but one between the rule of law and the rule of the strongest. In the words of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine marked a Zeitenwende, or watershed moment. Other leaders, including Biden, have spoken of an assault not just on the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but on the entire architecture of the post-Cold War European order. They are right. Putin has torn up at once the Helsinki arrangements of 1975 and the 1991 Declaration of Paris setting the terms of the post-Cold War peace. 

In his ambition to recreate Greater Russia - in his own words to emulate Peter the Great in "gathering up" lands that have formerly been ruled from Moscow - the Russian leader is unabashed about his aim to dismantle a system in which sovereignty and territorial integrity are safeguarded by the international rule of law in favor of the recreation of 19th century spheres of influence resting on military might. There should be little surprise here. The Russian leader flagged his intent in Georgia in 2008 and later Ukraine in 2014.

The West has to rebuild its standing in the Global South to mobilise the broadly-based commitment among nations to a stable international order.

The sanctions that followed his annexation of Crimea and occupation of much of Eastern Ukraine were half-hearted. Germany wanted to hold on to cheap Russian gas, Britain to the flow of Russian riches in London, and France to the idea that Moscow could yet be part of a European security architecture less beholden to the United States.

More generally, the journey towards a post-Western world did not start in February 2022. The unipolar moment - remember those predictions of a permanent US hegemony? - ended more than a decade ago with America’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Led by Xi Jinping, China long ago abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s admonition that it should hide its strength and bide its time. Rapid economic rise has been accompanied by a military assertiveness in the South and East China seas that belies any residual hope it might choose to be a "responsible stakeholder" in a western-designed global system.

Some have taken longer than others to wake up to reality. Merkel made regular pilgrimages to Beijing to boost German exports. Not so long ago Britain’s then Prime Minister David Cameron was boasting that the UK wanted to be China’s "best friend" in the West. The now disgraced Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson called himself a "Sinophile". All the while Xi has been transforming an authoritarian state into a totalitarian one. The West will have to continue to engage with China even as it decouples itself from Russia. Economic interdependence cannot be wished away. Nor too can the need for the West to collaborate with China to meet global challenges such as those posed by climate change. What is clear though is that engagement should be within a framework that banishes any remaining illusions about Beijing’s intentions.

During the 1990s, the organising assumption in the West was that in the fullness of time the rest of the world would emulate its liberal model - Francis Fukuyama called it the "end of history" in an essay that held a mirror to Western hubris. The US paraded its military might and Europe styled itself a normative power. Just as George H. W. Bush's wars of choice in the Middle East punctured Washington's pretensions, the 2008 financial crash shredded the credibility of an economic system arranged around unfettered markets. Government responses to the crash - fiscal austerity policies that loaded the cost on to the less affluent alongside monetary loosening that further enriched the wealthy - in turn, fed the populist surge that saw Donald Trump elected to the US presidency and Britain's decision to leave the European Union. Turkey, Brazil, India and the Philippines are now ruled by "strongman" leaders committed at best to illiberal democracy. For the South, the West now presents a tarnished exemplar, weak at home and prone to double standards abroad. These nations do not want to emulate Russia or China, nor do they want to be preached at about how to conduct their politics and economics. 

For all that we might have been forewarned, the shock of watching tens of thousands of Russian troops march into Ukraine was profound. Wars between states had been consigned to history. Or so most Europeans thought. Even those who had read the runes of the shifting global power balance and were hard-headed about relations with Beijing and Moscow failed to imagine Russia would launch a war of subjugation against another European state.  

There is a role for both NATO and the European Union in rebuilding the continent's defences. 

Putin has exploded Germany's self-serving delusion that trade ties trump geopolitical competition. Merkel's foreign policy was framed around free security from the US, cheap gas from Russia and lucrative exports to China. Some in Berlin (and in Paris) still hanker after an accommodation with Moscow, but it is evident that, whatever the course of the Ukraine war, Russia will present a threat to European peace for as long as Putin remains in power. 

There is a role for both NATO and the European Union in rebuilding the continent's defences. Arguments about  US presence and about the extent of EU's strategic autonomy are a luxury neither partner can afford. The US remains pivotal to reinforcing permanently NATO's eastern flank and re-establishing credible deterrence against further Russian aggression. Germany's much-increased defence budget provides a parallel opportunity to strengthen the alliance's European pillar around a much-strengthened EU defence capability. Britain’s government is often too slavish in its devotion to the transatlantic alliance. French President Emmanuel Macron’s mistake is to sound too much like a Gaullist. 

The prerequisite, of course, is that European resolve holds during what promises to be a protracted conflict. Wars end in negotiation so it is a matter of logic that Ukraine's Vlodomor Zelensky will eventually have to sit down with Putin. What would be as foolish as it would be unforgivable would be for Western nations to put pressure on Kyiv to open talks before Ukrainian forces have decisively turned the tide of Russian aggression. Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Foreign Secretary Liz Truss banished Britain to the margins of diplomacy by talking about imposing total defeat on Putin. Paris and Berlin, however, have sometimes seemed too eager to push Ukraine into negotiating from a position of weakness. Putin's strategy is to divide the West. The way to counter it is to agree that Zelensky alone can decide when he is ready to discuss peace.

The world is watching. The implications for the West's strategic posture reach far beyond Europe. The received opinion says that the Sino-Russian rapprochement unveiled by Putin and Xi in February during a meeting in Beijing will likely prove unsustainable in the long term. The asymmetry of the relationship, the argument runs, will begin to chaff in Moscow as China asserts its role as the senior partner. China's designs on Russia’s depopulated far east have long posed a threat to Moscow.

All this may be true, but for the foreseeable future the US and Europe confront the reality that the world’s most powerful "strongmen" are united in their ambitions. Putin's ultimate goal is to drive the US out of Europe. With an eye on eventual Eurasian hegemony, Beijing harbours much the same goal. Xi has probably been embarrassed by the initial failure of Russia's military campaign in Ukraine, but, like Putin, he believes that powerful states should run their own neighbourhoods. For Russian designs on Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus read China's determination to take Taiwan and establish Beijing's primacy in the Western Pacific.

The received opinion says that the Sino-Russian rapprochement unveiled by Putin and Xi in February during a meeting in Beijing will likely prove unsustainable in the long term. 

This demands of the West a recoupling of Atlantic and Pacific security. The American pivot to Asia seemed to suggest a downgrading of Washington's commitment to Europe. For their part, many Europeans have assumed they can rely on a US security guarantee while pursuing an entirely independent, and essentially economic, policy towards China. Such thinking on both sides of the Atlantic was always flawed. Now it has been rendered irrational. No one is monitoring the war in Ukraine more closely than Xi Jinping. For all its supposed attachment to the UN principle of territorial integrity, China has been a consistent champion of Putin's decision to ride roughshod over Ukrainian sovereignty. Xi's hope must have been that the war would weaken the West. Any faltering now in US support for Zelensky would be taken by China as a measure of weakness in the Pacific. Washington’s allies would make the same judgement. The US cannot give up Europe to Russia without sacrificing credibility in Asia. 

For its part, Europe cannot ask Americans to guard its eastern frontier against Russia while they pursue an independent, mercantilist, policy toward China. There will always be disagreements, of course. Scroll back through the decades of the Cold War and there were plenty of times that the two sides of the Atlantic pulled in different directions - among them France's withdrawal from NATO's military planning, Germany’s pursuit of Ostpolitik and America’s flirtation with war in space. The important thing now, as then, is that both share the threat perception and understand the fundamental identity of interest in meeting it.

Barring a change of regime in Moscow, sanctions against Russia can and should remain in place for the foreseeable future. As long as it menaces its neighbours, Russia should not expect more than basic trade exchanges. Once Europe has weaned itself off Russian gas there is little prospect that it will return as a customer for Gazprom. Restrictions on the transfer of technology should likewise become a semi-permanent feature of the relationship.

The West's focus instead should be on shaping a new security context for the economic relationship.

With China, the relationship of necessity will be complicated. The economic connections and trade volumes are far greater and the arguments for a collaborative as against a confrontational approach stronger. Decoupling the Chinese from the West’s economy would spell the end of globalisation and risk an era of trade wars reminiscent of the 1930s. Heat waves on both sides of the Atlantic this summer have been a reminder of the existential danger of climate change.

The West's focus instead should be on shaping a new security context for the economic relationship. It can do business with China while guarding against its expansionist intentions. This includes a more discriminating approach to limit western vulnerabilities. Germany, for example, is at last, looking hard at its economic reliance on the Chinese market. Trade diversification will loom large in the strategy document under preparation in Berlin. Volkswagen's dependence on China for about half of its global earnings looks reckless. The US has put in place a panoply of technology controls. Europe is belatedly looking more closely at China's investments in sensitive economic sectors. And, given Xi's ambitions, it is simply not sensible to rely on Taiwan more than four-fifths of the world’s most advanced semiconductor chips. Ties with like-minded democracies such as Japan and Australia are the obvious starting point for strengthening security arrangements in the Indo-Pacific. So too is a close relationship with India. The Indo-Pacific Quad comprised of the US, India, Japan and Australia offers a blueprint to widen and solidify relationships among other regional powers.

At its heart, the Quad is calculated to constrain China's ambitions. But it represents an alignment of interests rather than an alliance - hence the accommodation of India's refusal to impose sanctions on Russia. The Quad provides in parallel the core grouping of an emerging Indo-Pacific community of nations committed to economic integration, improved connectivity, and public goods. The binding thread is the shared interest in preserving a rules-based system. 

It recognises - as did Biden's announcement this year of a new Indo-Pacific economic framework - that states reluctant to be seen lining up against Beijing, not least because of their economic reliance on China, can still be willing recruits to arrangements that bolster economic co-operation and underpin, for example, maritime security. The organising characteristic is flexibility. Participants do not have to sign up to "western values". The absence of a rigid institutional architecture and binding rules encourages plurilateral initiatives. These include so far a supply chain resilience project, the "blue dot" infrastructure plan and an international solar alliance. ASEAN has published its own Indo-Pacific "outlook", France has a long-standing military presence in the region plan and the European Union has sought to make its presence felt with its own Indo-Pacific strategy. Such arrangements will offend those attached to neatness and disturb those looking to draw a sharp line between democracies and autocracies. A democrats-versus-autocrats divide describes the world as we might like it to be rather than it is. (Where, incidentally, does Recep Tayypi Erdoğan's Turkey, a NATO member, fit in such a construct?). 

The hegemony of the West is ending, power has become widely dispersed and rising states in the Global South are determined to make their own choices. The answer is not a rush to the Kissingerian "realism" of those who even now would bargain away Ukraine in negotiations with Putin. It is a recognition that in this complex, messy, contested world, the West is best served by restoring public faith in democratic institutions at home and a robust defence abroad of an international system based on the rule of law.



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