“At a Global Conference, Rumblings of Much Bigger War” By Clark S. Judge: managing director, White House Writers Group, Inc.; chairman, Pacific Research Institute.
This past weekend the International Institute of Strategic Studies held its annual Global Strategic Review Conference in Oslo, Norway. Because of its elite membership and closeness to a wide range of global players, the conference is a good place to take the pulse of the global policy community.
Five years ago, at my first of these sessions, I was surprised at the unease so many expressed about the new American president. I thought that outside the United States everyone was more or less gaga over Barack Obama. Instead, I found concern about whether the new American leader was up to managing America’s pivotal role in the world.
Now five years later, the conference had a more ominous subtext. By this time in 1914, the guns of August had opened fire. A century later, their ghostly boom echoed through the Norwegian conference hall. The remarks of two speakers — the Institute’s chairman, Francois Heisbourg, and a Shanghai-based Chinese venture capitalist, Eric Li — jump out from my notes.
Heisbourg focused on Russia. He talked about Russia, the Ukraine and the Crimea in terms with which we are all familiar – a seizure of territory by one European power from another unprecedented since the end of the Second World War. Indeed with the exception of China’s seizure of Tibet, he noted, no country in the last 70 years has done what Russia has done. What was new, striking and unsettling was Heisbourg’s report on his discussions with Russian officials.
Policymakers around Putin, he said, do not see the West’s rulebook for international relations as applying to them. They reject the idea of rule of law in global affairs. They see themselves as in the same position as Germany struggling under sanctions imposed on it following World War I. Like the Germans, they believe they had unjust penalties imposed upon them in their weakness following the Cold War.
Heisbourg termed this interpretation of recent history as “bizarre.” In fact, Russia had received major financial and other aide from the West following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But this view of humiliation and penalization is “deeply entrenched in the Russian elite’s psyche.”
So our problems, he continued, are not just with Putin but the Russian elite as a whole. That means that destabilizing the Russian president – the focus of sanctions — will not work. Indeed despite sanctions beginning to bite, opinion polls have recently found that Putin’s approval ratings among the Russian people as a whole has risen from 80 to 85 percent. These polls came from real pollsters. There is no off-ramp to this crisis. It will continue for a long time. And if people are careless, Heisbourg warned, things could end up as they did in 1914, only worse.
A graduate of Berkley and Stanford, Eric Li – in addition to his place in the senior ranks of Chinese business – is an apologist for China’s ruling elite. Listening to him, I felt I could have been hearing China’s president, Ji Xinping, in a candid moment.
The architecture of the international system is coming apart, Li asserted, as it must. It centers around the United States, which is in trouble, thanks to internal contradictions and external overreach. When the U.S. had 80 percent of global GDP at the end of World War II (though the real number was actually in the neighborhood of 20 percent), others could count on it to act in the national interest. Now that it has shrunk to 30 percent (in fact last year it was about 23 percent), it will act in its own interests alone.
In any event, Li continued, China is a rising power that may have been helped by the current system but that had no role in constructing it. So the system is not in its interest. China’s objective is to reclaim its traditional strength in Asia. It wants a bigger share of the pie, and if others don’t like that, too bad. The world’s choice is simple, he announced: a bigger share of the pie for China or “a total breakdown of the international system,” meaning “war.”
So here is what I took away from Oslo. On the centennial of a conflict that in many ways destroyed a civilization, both Russian and Chinese elites see themselves in exactly the same place that Germany saw itself after the Versailles Treaty (and, in fact, before the war itself, which was a major driver of Germany and Austro-Hungary’s move to war). They are, in their own eyes, part of an international system that they did not make and that is stacked against their nations’ interests. And they want out.
Even without ISIS and global terrorism, the world has become a very dangerous place.