What English-speakers call “think tanks” – well-funded groups of bright people surrounded by computers who try to imagine what will happen in the coming decades – do have their uses. Though the predictions they come up with may often be wildly wrong, they will always be needed by politicians and businessmen who must peer into the future and prepare themselves for whatever appears to be on its way.
Much depends on their judgement. As Argentines found out in the decades that followed World War II, finding oneself on “the wrong side of history” as a result of choices made when change was in the air can be terribly costly; three-quarters of a century later, the country is still paying a heavy price for letting its government flirt too ostentatiously with the Axis powers. Though it may have seemed sensible enough to hedge one’s bets in the early 1940s, when Nazi Germany was overrunning her neighbours with contemptuous ease, the future many foresaw, whether with fear or relish, failed to materialise and Argentina found it very hard to fit into the international order which would be built by the United States. As the years trundled by, a reluctance to understand that something definitive had happened persisted and continued to hold back development.
The US-led order is now in trouble, not just because Russia has gone on an imperialistic rampage but also because its creator, and principal beneficiary, is going through a monumental crisis of confidence, while China, which until quite recently was a mere bit player on the world stage, has emerged as a far more formidable rival to the United States than the Soviet Union ever was.
Like many of his compatriots, Vladimir Putin thinks Russia, which, along with much territory, inherited from the Soviet Union many vices and a few virtues, among them a genuine respect for education, fully deserves a seat at the top table, an illusion which neither the North Americans nor the Chinese share, though the latter have been careful not to say it out loud. With a population that is 10 times smaller than China’s, and a far tinier economy based largely on the export of raw materials, the late senator John McCain once derided her as a “gas station run by a mafia that is masquerading as a country.”
However, in addition to a great deal of gas and petroleum, Russia does have a stock of nuclear weapons plus large armed forces. These had an impressive reputation until they tried to conquer Ukraine, only to be repulsed at the gates of Kyiv. The current view seems to be that they are an easily demoralised and badly equipped rabble which would not last more than a couple of days against NATO. That may be an exaggeration, but there are Western military experts who say that, once armed with the state-of-the-art gadgetry that has been promised and is already being delivered, the Ukrainians could succeed in driving all surviving Russian soldiers back to where they came from.
This prospect alarms those who fear that defeat on the battlefield and the growing impact of economic sanctions could turn Russia into a land as wretched and vengeful as North Korea, but office-holders in Washington and London do not find the eventuality at all disturbing. As far as they are concerned, the Russians deserve to be beaten down, which is a bit hard on the millions to whom it had never occurred that Ukraine posed an existential threat to their country and therefore should be demolished.
Putin has, or had, his admirers in the West. Leftists like him because he is against the US and NATO, right-wingers because he is against many social trends they find distressing, but for all but the most fanatical the invasion of Ukraine, followed by the destruction of entire cities and a mounting number of atrocities, was a step too far. By behaving in a way which brought to mind the horrors perpetrated by Hitler and Stalin, Putin could well have condemned Russia to a future as a Chinese satellite
It is taken for granted that, until he is stopped, Putin will continue to do great damage, not only to his own country and Ukraine but also to many other parts of the world. The sudden increase in food prices he has provoked is expected to have extremely unpleasant consequences for countries in Africa and the Middle East, which need imports from Ukraine to keep hunger at bay, while Europeans have grown used to relying on Russian gas and petrol to heat their homes and fuel their economies. Even Argentina, which in theory could quickly replace Russia as a big supplier of natural gas but to do so would require huge investments in foolishly delayed infrastructure projects, is getting jolted by the shockwaves emanating from Ukraine. As the country is flat broke, there are liable to be severe gas shortages when winter kicks in.
Thanks to her immense demographic size and the talents of her inhabitants, China would already be the world’s top power had the Communists been defeated by the forces of Chiang Kai-shek; after retreating to Taiwan, the Nationalists applied policies that led to rapid economic growth. After Deng Xiaoping replaced Mao’s ruinous version of Marxist economics with what one might call neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics, the mainland set out on a similar path. On a per capita basis, it is still far poorer, but should incomes per head draw level, the Chinese economy would be bigger than those of all Western countries combined.
The upshot is that not only Argentina but most other countries have to decide if it would be better for them to cultivate their relations with what could soon be the top superpower or to assume that the US will recover from its self-inflicted internal woes and, with the help of the Europeans, Japanese, Canadians, Australians and, perhaps, Indians, manage to keep the predominantly Western “rules-based world order” going for many more decades to come. The rhetoric coming from Washington suggests that both Republican and Democrat politicians are taking the Chinese challenge far more seriously than most did before Donald Trump let it be known that the time had come to start pushing back.
Argentina is Western. She would find it very difficult to find a comfortable place in the hierarchical system that is envisioned by the men in Beijing who, like most others in former times, firmly believe that their own traditions are superior to those of lesser peoples. However, in many circles hostility towards the US “empire” makes many see China as a welcome counterweight. If the competition between the two gets fiercer, as looks likely, such prejudices could eventually do as much harm as did the sentiments stirred up by individuals who found fascism attractive – unless, that is, China does come out the winner and those who favoured her can congratulate themselves on their foresight.a