Entering a new year, many news commentators customarily do a retrospective analysis of the past year as a means for proposing possible scenarios for the upcoming one. This is an increasingly difficult task as events become more chaotic and unpredictable.
Today, we cannot speak of political processes with an internal logic that allows us to delineate causes and possible developments. We should rather speak of political phenomena that cannot always be fully explained—and thus analysed—with coherent criteria.
This difficulty is partly due to the diminishing of the lumen rationis – the light of reason. We see the introduction of “weak thought,” a way of thinking not based on rational certainties and moral principles but whims, impressions, and trends. Adding to the problem is the crumbling of all social structures, beginning with the family, which cancels the customary points of reference.
Analysts have remarked that this decadence has reduced “public opinion” into “public temperament.” A good example of “weak thought” is the success of many so-called influencers that flood social media. Their utterly banal posts are deprived of any intellectual content yet get millions of “likes” (and also millions of dollars). When “influencers” can have more weight than thinkers and politicians, it is a sign that the world has lost its bearings.
All this said, I think we can nonetheless discern some dominating trends. I will concentrate on the shifting geopolitical situation.
For most of the twentieth century, we were used to a bipolar vision of the world. Two superpowers were competing for world hegemony: The United States and the Soviet Union, each with its own geopolitical strategy. In reality, only one superpower, the United States, existed since the U.S.S.R. was what Empress Catherine the Great sarcastically derided as a “Potemkin village,” that is, a pompous façade with nothing behind it.
The fall of the Soviet empire ended this vision. Analysts then spoke of a multi-polar world, no longer dominated by two superpowers but rather a range of rotating regional powers. History is beginning to disprove this vision.
Indeed, the United States still maintains its superpower status—albeit with a waning conviction and, thus, diminishing vigour. However, two other countries are emerging as significant players. They do not actually compete for world hegemony but divide the task as a sort of joint effort. These players are the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation. From my European perspective, the most immediate threat is Russia. However, China is the long-term danger for everyone.
The debacle of the Gorbachev-Yeltsin governments immediately after the Soviet fall reduced Russia to shambles, with groups of oligarchs vying for a share of the cake. Afterward, Vladimir Putin managed to restore centralised power to the government. Indeed, biographers are now revealing how this KGB colonel foresaw the downfall of the U.S.S.R. and manoeuvred accordingly in the nineties. Aided by KGB cronies and friendly oligarchs, he has managed to gain control of the country. In an interview with me in 2003, noted Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovskij warned: “Putin is trying to recompose the power of the Kremlin. He is going back in history. There is even talk of reconstituting the Soviet Union in some form.”
I’ve been to Russia several times and know the country first-hand. Russians do not have a liberal-democratic mentality. They love authority. They appreciate a strong hand at the helm. This was the secret of the tzar’s power (he was the “autocrat of all the Russias”).
When the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace in Petrograd, they did not destroy it, as the French revolutionaries of 1789 did with the royal palaces they took over in Paris. Instead, the Bolsheviks turned the Winter Palace into a museum: the Hermitage. They stepped into the tzar’s shoes. With utter ruthlessness, Stalin understood this mentality and governed as a real autocrat of old times. Thus, he invoked the religious faith of the people and rallied national patriotism to fight World War II, which Russians call “the Great Patriotic War,” a reference also to the resistance against the French invasion in 1812.
In Russia, power is sacred. He who governs “Holy Russia” is, ipso facto, “holy.” When a leader takes national glory to an apogee, he becomes especially holy. Little wonder Russian churches are full of icons depicting not only the tzars but also Stalin, with saintly halos.
Putin is heir to this tradition. He has surrounded himself with the grand trappings of imperial power. He has favoured the cult to the Romanoff Family and praised the Stalinist period as one of great glory for Russia. He has cunningly revived the people’s longing for the Great Motherland. For protection against possible invasions, this Motherland must be surrounded by client states: Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and others. The Nazis called such buffers “Lebensraum,” the vital space.
Putin has also resumed Russian expansionism. He carries out heavy-handed intervention in the Middle East. He supports left-wing governments in Latin America to keep the pressure on the United States’ backyard.
Facing the Russian Federation, Europe is in “submissive mode.” We saw this compliance in 2008 when Russia militarily took the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia. We saw it in 2014 when the Russians invaded Crimea, simultaneously fomenting the creation of the puppet republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. Apart from a few pro forma protests and “sanctions” that were immediately softened, Europe did nothing to defend these countries that wanted to remain independent and linked to the West.
A significant reason for this shameful compliance is the supply of Russian natural gas. Like it or not, the fate of Europe, especially during the winter, is in the Kremlin’s hands. As much as 47% of the European Union’s gas needs come from Russia. This dependence will further grow when the North Stream 2 pipeline becomes operational.
As mentioned, Russia has always been a “Potemkin village” to a certain point. The nation can pound the table as much as it wants, but its real power is far less intimidating. Our long-term threat is China.
The Chinese have very high regard for themselves and their country and a not-so-secret dream of world domination. A high-ranking foreign officer once told me: “China has a Bismarkian policy,” that is, an imperial one. A fundamental difference between China and Russia is that China can count on almost limitless financial resources, which the West, in a textbook case of short-sightedness and naiveté, provides.
Besides direct penetration into Europe and its markets, there are at least four areas of concern regarding China from my European perspective.
One is the problem of Taiwan. Beijing does not accept the Republic of China on Taiwan and reacts ruthlessly to any diplomatic recognition. Last November, Lithuania opened a representative bureau in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital. The very next day, Beijing threatened that “Vilnius will pay the full consequences for this act.” The Chinese imposed harsh economic sanctions against this Baltic country. Europe, however, is a unified commercial block to the point that what touches one member affects all the others. Will the European Union retaliate by imposing, in turn, economic sanctions on China? Or will it let a member State be bullied with impunity? In this latter case, it would officially acknowledge that the European Union does not exist.
The second point of concern regards the Balkans. Silently, almost secretively, Beijing has penetrated into this highly explosive region, establishing itself as an important player. Many wars have started here. If the European Union does not take care, it may find itself with a Chinese bridgehead at the gates of Europe.
Yet another area of concern is the Russian natural gas supplies. Europe’s dependence on Russian gas could be attenuated by importing it from the United States, which has plenty. However, most of America’s gas goes to…China. It’s a problem of markets, they say. The Chinese pay more for it. It’s a problem of brains, I answer. We should sell to our friends and allies, not our potential enemies. However, this simple logic seems to be beyond the mental capacity of not a few leaders.
A final area of concern would merit an entire article. On 14 July 2021, the European Commission issued new environmental proposals known as “Fit for 55” or the “Green Package.” It intends to reduce the so-called greenhouse gas emissions by 55%, to achieve “climate neutrality” by 2050. “Fit for 55” will penalise the European economy. Over the years, the European economy has been losing competitiveness vis-à-vis Communist China, which practically doesn’t apply any environmental regulation.
Take, for example, the migration to electric cars. China controls 51% of the global total of chemical lithium, 62% of chemical cobalt, and 100% of spherical graphite—the major components of lithium-ion batteries. A wholesale migration to electric cars would hand over Europe’s economy to Communist China.
I close with a question: Is all this simply due to a free-market logic that privileges low prices? Or can we discern a strategy, a plan, or a plot? Maybe this can be the subject of another article.
– By Julio Loredo