Human beings have a tendency to over-rationalise the past, overdramatise the present, and underestimate the future. With the war on in Ukraine, it’s very difficult to overdramatise the present, or to avoid characterising this as a time of historic consequences. What about the over-rationalisation of the past? We draw on examples from history to inform current international relations, and in so doing attempt to rationalise what happened in 1914, or 1939, or 1989. But our over-rationalisation sometimes presents misleading examples; to discuss the current conflict in Ukraine as a proxy war analogous to Afghanistan is to miss the possibility that it could be much more like Korea – in both cases we saw entrenched warfare influenced by (and sometimes directly involving) foreign powers, but with very different results.
I will discuss three points relating to the remainder of this seminar: on geoeconomics, on a ‘tripolar plus-one’ power structure, and on China. It is important to continue these discussions on geoeconomics because there are still two distinct schools of thought. We have traditionalists, who believe that geopolitics trumps geoeconomics; they are focussed on tanks, armaments, soldiers, and military expenditures – hard power metrics. And on the other hand we have a more modern school of thinking, in which geopolitics has a much broader definition and is deeply enmeshed in geoeconomics and vice-versa. From this viewpoint, absolutely everything can be weaponised: information, technology, the internet, national economies, and human beings themselves. I place myself in this second camp; as Mark Leonard has said previously, we are now in an era of unpeace, and it’s difficult to differentiate between wartime and peacetime precisely because everything has been and can be weaponised.
In the post-Cold War era, you could argue that — although there have been a few cases of serious conventional warfare, such as Yugoslavia (to take a European example) — for the most part we have been moving towards a form of warfare where everything is weaponised. We have entered a Hobbesian world, where life can all too easily become nasty, brutish, and short, and the international order has become a mess. As a scholar, I do not have the right word to describe where we currently find ourselves, but I will give an example with regards to Ukraine. I expected another frozen conflict limited to Donetsk or Luhansk or Donbas, and to continue in this mode of ‘unpeace’, but that’s not what has happened.
And so I move on to my second point. Before the war, I believed that we were moving towards a tripolar world balanced between China, the United States, and Europe, with occasional ‘plus-ones’ making an appearance in specific instances. Depending on the issue, we could have expected those plus-ones to be Russia, or Pakistan, or India, or across the Middle East and Gulf. And I expected this tripolar world to be driven, in part, by the rise of China and the decline of the US. But this, too, has been complicated by the war in Ukraine. Europe, a regulatory superpower, has been forced into a position of acting like a superpower, instead of remaining quite comfortably between the US and China. Any American ‘pivot to Asia’ would also require that Europe, if it is serious about geopolitics or geoeconomics, also pivot to Asia and especially China. This war has helped to demonstrate that both Europe and the US have ‘skin in the game’, so to speak — and will, I believe, result in Europe being geopolitically stronger after the conflict than before it.
My final point is on China. I have met Xi Jinping twice and spent hours speaking with him, and if I were him, I would have two thoughts about the war in Ukraine: the first is that this conflict is a little bit untimely in terms of domestic priorities, and the second is that it may yet serve China well in the international sphere. Domestic affairs in Beijing include making a success of the zero-Covid policy, managing the party congress, and implementing the control mechanisms of an authoritarian, digital society. The war in Ukraine is a distraction from all of these priorities. But, from Beijing’s point of view, there is also an upside. The present global focus on democracy, governance, and values is very Eurocentric; it is not being directed at China. Going into the midterm congressional elections this autumn, Washington is much more focussed on Europe than on Asia, and we aren’t likely to see as much China-bashing as we were seeing before the invasion of Ukraine. This is a positive thing for China.
In terms of how China responds to the war, I would argue that China has three options. Option number one is to pivot towards Russia, and to treat Russia like something of a vassal state which China supports on oil and gas — thereby possibly obtaining some Russian nuclear submarines as part of the deal. Option number two is to pivot towards the West, to emphasise China’s interest in peace and economic prosperity, and to pull back from Taiwan and its economic diplomacy through the Belt and Road Initiative. The third option is to be neutral, or whatever that means – as Finns, we are aware of the dangers inherent in oversimplifying ‘neutrality’. I mean a neutrality in which China plays the game in both directions, avoiding secondary sanctions by not playing too much with Russia, but ensuring that Russia remains economically viable so that it can remain a political thorn in the side of the West. I will conclude by saying that we are served poorly by our inherently European lens on this conflict. This attitude towards the conflict is perhaps understandable, given the real security concerns (exacerbated in Finland by a shared border) – but this excessively Eurocentric view is nonetheless bound to be detrimental to us in the long run.
Because of our Eurocentrism, we missed the major point of 141 members of the United Nations voting against Russia — which is that a sizeable bloc of countries chose to abstain. These countries chose to abstain because they find us patronising and overly sure that we are on the right side of history. In terms of what these events mean for the history of our times, I am still struggling to see what this will come to mean. We talked about the ‘post-great war period’ following WWI until WWII occurred, at which point it became the ‘inter-war period’. We are experiencing a moment of great fragmentation in global politics, in which the multilateral order created in the wake of WWII is being stress-tested by a new multipolar world. The result, thus far, has been the paralysis of the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. Our successful experiment with multilateralism in Europe may not work elsewhere. We are not seeing deglobalisation, but rather the regionalisation of globalisation. Recreating a multilateral rule of law will require rejigging or even revolutionising these multilateral institutions so that powers beyond those represented at Yalta will have a seat at the negotiating table. Perhaps the Spirit of Helsinki in 2025 could be the right moment to begin that revolution.