The shadow of history hung heavily yesterday as the geopolitical ramifications of the Ukraine crisis widened.
War between the great powers was the dominant fear of the Cold War, but that fear recessed with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of bloc versus bloc rivalry. But did The Hague just witness the emergence of a new bloc to bloc rivalry, triggered by events in the Ukraine?
Taking center stage in The Hague was the recreation of the G7 as a unified western bloc. Since 1998, the G7 had been widened to include Russia—part of a broader effort to embed Russia in a stable international order. For a time, this seemed a wise approach: give Russia a seat at the table in exchange for constructive behavior in the international system—and to a degree, it worked. Yesterday, as part of the West’s reaction to the Crimea, Russia was expelled. “It’s no great tragedy” shrugged Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Perhaps, but Russia had worked hard to be seen as a credible actor within the G8. Other Russian officials were more defensive, arguing that the G8 had no mechanism to expel a member, and that they would continue preparations for the G8 summit. It would be a lonely summit if so, for the G7 heads of state have agreed to meet on their own, without Russia, in June.
If the West was reconsolidating in the form of the G7, Russia tried a different tack to shore up its international defenses. From the earliest days of the Crimea crisis, Russia has talked up its relationship with China and with India, and looked to them to support its position on the Crimea. The Hague provided another opportunity. The presence of world leaders from all regions meant that there was an opportunity for a summit meeting of the BRICS, that is, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—a grouping of rising powers that has sometimes sought to position itself as a rival, or an alternative, to the West.
Russia didn’t quite achieve its objective, but there was a warning light for Washington in the BRICS’s meeting in The Hague. Russia sought strong BRICS language endorsing its actions in the Ukraine, and failed to get it; the BRICS statement was mealy-mouthed and diplomatic in the worst tradition of that word. (A rather disappointing stance from India and Brazil, who did not hesitate to criticize American intervention in Iraq a decade earlier, but not what Russia was looking for either.) But Russia did get stronger support on one key point. The BRICS clearly rejected sanctions as a response to instability in the Ukraine. No surprise: the West readily forgets that India, South Africa and China have each been under western sanctions at some recent point in history, which makes them deeply uncomfortable about the tool.
The events illustrate key themes in international affairs. The U.S. can drive a western coalition to respond to Russia, but it’s not enough. The actions and reactions of China and India and the rest of the emerging powers will matter, too. So far, they’re torn: they’re not at all happy with Russia’s adventurism in Crimea (witness China’s unwillingness to join Russia in vetoing the U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the action). But nor are they comfortable with the reassertion of western leadership in international affairs. Their discomfort arises from this fact, too: for all that we hear about the rise of the rest, the rise of the BRICS, the shift of power away from the West, the fact is that the West—the U.S., the E.U., key western allies like Japan—still control roughly 70 percent of the global economy.
So are we watching the emergence of a G7 versus BRICS world? Many have warned that we’re already in that world, or that it’s fast approaching. That conclusion is over-drawn, though. The West sometimes risks, by its actions, pushing the BRICS closer together, but there are underlying divides there. India and Brazil have both explored closer relations with the West of late, though the Snowden affair set that process back somewhat. And what’s more, the most important of the BRICS, China, shows signs of seeking a bloc relationship.
Indeed, The Hague also witnessed another development, the latest meeting between President Obama and President Xi of China. There are lots of sources of tension in that relationship, notably in the South China Sea. But there are a lot of positives in the relationship, too, and both presidents were at pains to stress them. President Xi, no stranger to “19th century” geopolitics, went out of his way to stress the value of “win-win cooperation with regard to the United States.” Too early to say whether the U.S. and China will succeed in crafting win-win cooperation to balance ongoing tensions, but there is lots of scope to do so. And if they do, that will serve as a further bulwark against a return to bloc-to-bloc dynamics.
Still, there was a sad irony in that the site of these developments was The Hague. The Dutch have spent much of the last year celebrating The Hague as a “the seat of international law,” and celebrating a milestone in the history of its famous Peace Palace—an ornate building paid for by Andrew Carnegie as a fitting home to what’s known as the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The Court was imagined as a body that would hold the powers to the standards of international law, and thus help avoid war. It was established in 1913. A year later, of course, Europe was engulfed in a brutal war between the great powers.