The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Bruno Macaes On Putin And The World Order

Macaes was a Portuguese minister and is now a member of the European Council of Foreign relations. He’s written a few books and at least two of them, on the Belt and Road and on Eurasia in general are insightful, though Bruno is definitely a Eurocrat who sometimes struggles to see the world without Eurocrat lenses. This is particularly true when it comes to Russia (remembering that these books were written before Ukraine, which he did not predict) but there are some points where Macaes “gets it.”

This is primarily when it comes to Putin’s views of the international order:

Putin doesn’t think along national lines. In thinks in terms of larger blocs, and ultimately, in terms of the world order… You cannot resist the pressures that come from the world order. So either the world order will come to mirror some elements of the contemporary Russian regime or Russia will mirror the liberal, Western political order.

Notice how Russia is called a regime. It’s a small tell, but a tell.

Later, on, the European view (where Macaes is an insider):

The Brussels bureaucracy has a very simple theory of the world. States are captured by special interests, but they may reform if there is pressure from the outside. If they do, they will certainly prosper.

Obviously the Europeans see the “outside” as them, with an assist, perhaps, from the US. They don’t seem to have noticed that Europe has been in economic stagnation for some time, or consider that perhaps they are captured by special interests also. Macaes does later on touch on European subjugation to the US, but never really deals with it squarely.

But bottom line this is “we are the reasonable people with the right laws and regulations and way of doing things and you all should do what we say, and we will pressure you to do so.”

Europe knows best.

Back to Russia (somewhat paraphrased)

1) There are no neutral, universal rules. Neutrality is only a pretnse aimed at deceiving others. The benefits of globalization are unevenly distributed because rules are made by those with power to make them.

2) International politics is an arena of permanent rivalry and conflict.

This is, of course, similar to the first quote. The “rule based” international order is just the set of rules and institutions set up by those who had the most power, and the rules were set up to benefit those who had the power.

I don’t see how any of this could be controversial, though there are limits to it. The US did deliberately offshore its industry, for example, and this started after WWII to build up Europe, Japan and South Korea as strategic allies. When neoliberalism came to power, they then started offshoring it to what more clear-eyed people saw was a potential rival: China, because elites wanted short term profits.

But generally speaking the rules of the world order benefit the US and its satrapies like Japan, the EU nations, Canada, Australia, South Korea and so on. This was intentional and intended and anyone who thinks otherwise is nearly a candidate for an insane asylum their denial of reality is so strong.

It is the Europeans who are living in a fool’s paradise, thinking, forgive the expression, that their shit doesn’t stink and that they are mostly driven by pure motives: that their system works and is a universal model and that they have the right and duty to force it on others.

One could say the same for the Americans, except that more of the smarter ones know they’re hypocrites.

This nonsense was epitomized by Fukuyama’s “The End of History” which anyone with a lick of sense and the most minimal knowledge of history knew was absolute bullshit. But it was the bullshit that Western elites wanted to hear: they had won, their victory was eternal and everyone else would inevitably, in a pseudo-Marxist historical inevitability way, become like them.

So you could give the Chinese your industry and get filthy rich doing so and it wouldn’t matter because they were going to become a liberal capitalist democracy. There would only be one elite, a transnational one, and its enemy was its own population, not other members of the elite, no matter where they lived.

Now to be fair to Macaes he’s clearly anti-Fukuyama and by the time he wrote these books he could clearly see that obviously Capitalism and Democracy were not the same thing.

But this isn’t really about Macaes, it’s about differing views of the world order.

The West thinks, or among the more self-aware elites pretends to think that they have created a neutral world order they just happened to win, or, in more sophisticated terms, in which they had a first mover advantage, but which is basically fair.

Putin, and though it’s not dealt with here, China, plus most of the developing world see this as absolute bullshit: the world order is just the rules made by the strongest and enforced by them with their financial, economic and military might.

This is why Russia has often said that any real negotiations must be with the US. Not the Ukraine, not even with the EU, but with the US, because they are the ones who make the rules and they are the ones who decide on NATO policy. It is why the real negotiations have included the Chinese, because the Chinese are the coming superpower. It’s why China was able to make peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia: again, because China is genuinely powerful.

Putin, at least in relation to international politics, lives in the real world, not in some Fukuyama fairy-land. Seen from that point of view his actions become more understandable: to let the West continue to push NATO towards Russia and to succeed in its color revolutions and coups, is to acquiesce to a world in which Russia must be second rate at best, because none of Russia’s preferences for how the world order is set up are not implemented. Russia doesn’t need almost everything, nor does Putin believe Russia can get everything: if you want that you have to be as powerful as the US after the fall of the USSR or like the British empire at its peak.

But if Russia can’t get even the things that are most important to it, like Ukraine neutral and not in NATO, then the negotiations have to be changed: they have to become kinetic, to use the modern speak. A test of power is necessary: is the West powerful enough to impose its will or not?

And that is what is being determined in the Ukraine: can the US still just force Russia to accept what the US wants or not? Does the US still run the world order? It’s one reason why the Chinese, ultimately, are supporting Russia, because they agree about the shape of the world order. And it’s why the US and the EU have spent so much supporting Ukraine. Because this is a test and neither side feels it can afford to lose, for if it does, its preferences for world order take a huge hit: it shows that it doesn’t actually have enough power to enforce its will to the extent it desires.

For the US that is that Russia be a “gas station with nukes” at most and preferably be broken up, “de-colonized.” For Russia it is that a military alliance aimed at it can’t push further against its borders, and that its allies or satrapies can’t just be taken away (as Libya and Ukraine were) without great cost.

In the real world you get what you have the power to get. It shouldn’t be that way, but that’s how it is, at least for the time being. Perhaps we’ll change that at some point in our history, but it is the way the US and Europe have lived, it is how they rose to power and it is how they have retained their power. To say “no more war now that we’ve won the major wars and made the world in our image” is laughable.

Putin is just playing their game, because it’s the only game.

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  1. someofparts

    Everybody knows Americans pay wildly inflated prices to the people who make weapons here. It hasn’t sunk in yet that people who cheat you on the cost of production going in will also cheat you in the manufacturing process itself. What are the odds that the crooks who make our weapons spend the money it takes to hire the best engineers and make the best product? So yeah, Americans are in the process of learning that our military power has gone the way of our industrial base and the dodo.

    Reading the Global Times yesterday, the sheer volume of provocative hostile activity this country is engaged in on China’s maritime borders is astonishing. Starting to wonder if I will lose the death bet even at my age.

  2. Feral Finster

    Years ago, a group of Ukrainians and I had a conversation with a group of Russians at a Berlin conference, who were amused an an American feline could meow in grammatically correct and accent-free Russian.

    “But I thought that all Americans were stupid?” asked one of the junior Russians. The Head Russian In Charge responded that only about 95% of Americans are idiots. In fact, there are people out there even more stupid than Americans.

    “Really, who could possibly be more stupid than Americans?”

    The Head Russian In Charge remarked: “Europeans”.

  3. bruce wilder

    Russia, a “gas station with nukes” and its corollary, Russia’s economy (nominal dollar) GDP are illustrations of how bad the terms of trade imposed on Russia are.

  4. somecomputerguy

    At the time it came out, simultaneous with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fukuyama’s thesis from his article, was interpreted as;

    “Liberal democracy, along with some mixture of markets, seems to have proven itself as the ultimate social model.”

    Fukuyama followed up with a book, “the end of history and the last man,” When I read the book, I detected a sub-text that surprised me.

    In the article and the book, Fukuyama seems to be saying that ‘this liberal democracy stuff really does seem to work better than the alternatives.’

    In reading the book, I believe you find that Fukuyama and the people he is writing for, fellow American conservatives, hate and fear the idea that democracy works.

    I believed the book was an attempt to rescue authoritarian American conservative ideology, from Fukuyama’s own observation, by portraying democracy as something that can’t possibly succeed in the long run, because human nature is fundamentally anti-democratic.

    Humans fundamentally hate being equal, and are compelled subjugate each other. This is why the ‘last man’ overthrows democracy, despite it’s success in making humans lives better.

    I later read that that Fukuyama is a follower of Leo Strauss.

    My understanding of Strauss;

    If you follow Strauss, you are a closet aristocracy fan.

    You believe democracy should be a sham, that humans need to be told what to do by their betters, for their own good, and that it is more that perfectly okay to lie about believing this.

    Normally when Straussians talk about “democracy” it is an ‘in-joke’. Something for the rubes to latch on to, while insiders wink at each other. They mean nothing of the kind.

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