2014 has been a difficult one in international relations, marked most notably by the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. But there is still much that world leaders have to be thankful for.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, makes opening remarks as U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, listen at the the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit on Nov. 11, in Beijing. Photo: AP
If the leaders of the world’s major countries gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving this year, their speechwriters would be in a tricky spot. The political harvest in 2014 was rich, but the fruit was probably not to the liking of most peaceful citizens worldwide. International crises, wars and catastrophes seemed to follow each other relentlessly; one of Europe’s largest countries, Ukraine, was engulfed in political fire, and relations between Russia and the West sank almost to Cold War levels.
So what is there to give thanks for this year against the background of such political turbulence?
The world of great power politics is a world unto itself. What plunges ordinary people into a state of horror often only whets the appetite of those with the power to decide the fates of nations. International crises arouse passion in the hearts of the powerful, and provide a glorious opportunity to show all what they are capable of.
A politician who uses an international crisis to outdo his competitors is described afterwards as ‘talented.’ The epithet ‘outstanding’ is reserved for those able to resolve that crisis. All too often, the great politicians whose names figure prominently in the pages of history textbooks are those who provoked an international crisis, used it to eliminate competitors, and only then, if they had the time and effort, sought to resolve it and usher in global peace.
The Ukrainian crisis, which has led to a humanitarian disaster in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and untold human suffering, has changed a great deal in international relations. And, paradoxically, it has opened a window of opportunity for many of those around the table of our hypothetical Thanksgiving summit.
Perhaps the main beneficiary of the unfolding crisis in Ukraine has been the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping. Chinese diplomats could not have handpicked a more favorable environment than the one in which China found itself after the quarrel between Russia and the West. And the resolution of the years-long wrangle over the price of Russian gas was the least of it. Moscow described Beijing as its most important strategic partner and conferred China with what amounts to most favored nation status in the implementation of numerous joint projects.
In the end, the development of economic ties with Russia is not the factor that will determine China’s economic future. Of far greater significance is that with Russia on board as a de facto junior partner and ally, China will acquire a strategic advantage over its key foreign competitor, the United States. Russia’s resource base, strategic nuclear potential, and voice on the UN Security Council are all, to varying degrees, under Beijing’s command, and comrade Xi Jinping may just feel that bit more confident than a year ago. So some do have reason to give thanks this fall.
U.S. President Obama seems to be faring much worse: the midterm elections were a wipeout, the American economy is still in second gear, Islamists are on the rampage in the Middle East, and his ratings are falling. Yet despite his few political victories in 2014, Obama could not let the Ukrainian crisis slip by. He seized the opportunity to demonstrate who’s still in charge and to frame a common agenda uniting the countries of the Western world (for the first time in many years).
Despite the obvious economic losses, Europe, steered by the United States, managed to present a united front against Russia. The system of common values that took shape in the second half of last century proved quite lively and efficient. The United States and Europe were joined by Australia, Japan, and many other international players, who, after weighing up the pros and cons, chose not to show open solidarity with Russia. Rather, they opted to continue reliable partner relations with the United States.
L-R: President of China Xi Jinping, Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper, U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott watch the Welcome to Country ceremony by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people at the G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014. Photo: AP
2014 presented German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a few extra gray hairs, but also an opportunity to act as a key negotiator on Ukraine and to further shore up Germany’s already solid position in European politics. In the strained circumstances of the past year, Frau Merkel gave both British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande a master class in how to be a consistent and realistically-minded politician. Other European leaders paled in comparison.
If our hypothetical Thanksgiving Summit were guaranteed to be off limits to prying eyes and ears, where politicians could speak their minds about what they have gained from the events in Ukraine, the meeting would probably drag on for some time. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko would impart to his colleagues that without Maidan and the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, he would not be president (which, incidentally, may be more of a curse than a blessing in today’s Ukraine).
The leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, would say that he not only acquired the status of major facilitator and confidant of the warring parties, but also had an opportunity to strengthen the Belarusian economy through smuggling under sanctions. Even North Korea’s Kim Jong-un would weigh in with a boast that the Pyongyang regime had found a new influential backer in the form of Russia, shielding North Korea from international censure.
Lastly, what would the most powerful man in the world – at least, according to Forbes magazine – Russian President Vladimir Putin, say about the fortunes of fate? Can an international crisis ever bring political dividends to all parties involved, even irreconcilable enemies? Experience shows that, yes, it can. For Vladimir Putin, the year 2014 has been the most triumphant of his career. His approval ratings in Russia have never attained such lofty heights, and despite the highly ambivalent attitudes to him, no one is indifferent to the figure of Putin. What more could a successful politician ask for?
In the spirit of optimism one hopes, nevertheless, that neither Obama, nor Putin, nor Poroshenko, nor indeed comrade Kim Jong-un, would in fact wish for the crises in Ukraine, Syria, Korea, and elsewhere to continue plaguing international relations, and would give thanks if peace and quiet finally ruled the world. However, as Carl von Clausewitz once famously noted, war is just the continuation of politics by other means.
The opinion of the authors may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.