I’m not a huge fan of Bruno Macaes, as I feel that he’s a bit of a tourist, academically speaking. One of those white European men who feels that he can spend a bit of time in a country like Russia or China and then pronounce on all aspects of its history and culture. I also have to admit that I only really know him from the occasional article and his tweets, so maybe I’m a tourist myself as far as Macaes-ology is concerned. I’m jealous of his success, if I’m honest with myself.
I’d still recommend his article on “A War Of World-Building”. When I tried to mind-map it I found it quite hard to summarise and recreate the argument as a set of steps, but that’s probably because I’m very attached to the Anglo-American academic style. This is one of those European intellectual articles that is more like an abstract impressionist painting than an architectural drawing. The parts do not link together in a strict logic, but the overall picture is quite clear once you stand back.
What I liked about it was the idea that geopolitics is not just about geographical territory, but also about other domains. Another domain could be trade, or a virtual space, like the information space created by the internet. This resonates with my idea that Russia is fighting three different conflicts in Ukraine: a 19th century one, in the military sense, a 20th century one, as it defends against a trade embargo, and a 21st century one, where it battles for control of the information space about the military operation. I’m going to develop this idea widely on this blog.
Another of the many interesting ideas from Macaes’ article is that the conflict is about the right to set the rules. I agree with him that Russia’s military operation is intended to push back against America’s setting of the rules in foreign and military policy. This is already present in Russian official rhetoric, which is saying that this conflict started in 2014 when, in the Russian view, the USA supported a coup in Ukraine against a legally elected President.
This is why President Putin said he had to fight back, not just because of Ukraine, but to stop the USA encroaching on Russia’s sphere of influence and to reduce the risk that the USA could dominate Russia. I believe that Putin’s fear is that if the US can decide who is the leader of Ukraine, then soon they will be deciding who is the leader of Belarus, Kazakhstan and, eventually, Russia. The principle of non-interference in another state comes straight out of the treaty of Westphalia, which underpinned international relations in the 19th century. President Wilson abandoned that idea in 1917.
Macaes’ statement that “The danger for the Western order is that the tools used to punish and constrain Russian power will erode the legitimacy of that order” is also a powerful insight. I’m not going to talk about legitimacy, because it’s not my field. However, this sentence suggested to me a corresponding point that the tools used to punish Russia can undermine the system that they are intended to defend.
This idea will resonate with observers of Russia. In 2003 President Putin defended himself and his reforms against a political attack by Mikhail Khodorkovsky and did so successfully, but did so in a way that killed off the liberal part of the Putinist agenda of 2000. This was especially so of the planned legal reforms.
Extending this to current international relations we can see how the 20th century conflict waged against Russia via sanctions will start to roll back globalisation. These are a modern form of the trade blockades used in WWI. Other countries like China and Saudi Arabia will see the sanctions used against Russia, and they will start to build defences against them. All of these countries are now looking at their supply chains and reserves and thinking about how to protect themselves against future attack.
How might this cure be worse than the disease? First, the damage caused by the interruption of international supply chains, the arteries of globalisation, means that countries will move to reduce their dependence on key imported inputs. This must reduce trade and lower growth trajectories. This move to self-sufficiency could in turn undermine trade partnerships like the EU and NAFTA.
Second, countries will look to hold their reserves in forms that cannot be forfeited in the way the Russia’s reserves probably will be. This is easier said than done. One country’s asset is another country’s liability. The reason why so many countries hold their reserves in US Treasuries is because (a) the US government borrows a lot and (b) there is trust in the US government’s willingness and ability to repay this borrowing. Any country that might be sanctioned by the USA in the future will now have much less trust that their reserves are safe in the form of dollars or euro. Countries like China and Saudi Arabia are going to be much less willing to lend their reserves to the USA and its allies.
Finally, both Russia and China need to look at Ukraine’s absolute victory in the information war. Perhaps they only care about the information space inside their own countries. However, one factor in the speed and unity of anti-Russian sanctions was the fact that international public opinion is overwhelmingly on the side of the Ukrainians. Perhaps it simply is not possible for a non-democracy to compete in this space. Russian and Chinese politicians don’t have to sell their ideas to their own people, so how can they hope to sell them to another country’s? But there is no question that having international opinion unanimously on their side has been a huge asset to Ukraine. This means that other countries will want to re-invest in soft power, and acknowledge that their previous attempts in this sphere have been failures.
In conclusion, sometimes it is good to look at a subject through the eyes of a non-specialist and think about the bigger picture. In particular it helps to look at categories and ideas that are normally outside the scope of normal research on a specific country. By failing to acknowledge the importance of the information sphere in 21st century international relations, Russia has handed a victory to Ukraine in this part of the conflict. Maybe Russia will never be able to deploy any forces on this field of battle, in the same way that Saudia Arabia doesn’t have icebreakers.