As diplomatic parleys go, seven hours of talks is no big deal. Nations and delegations have engaged for days, even weeks and months. But the seven hours US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan invested in “intense” talks at the Cavalieri Waldorf Astoria hotel in Rome last week with China’s top-ranking diplomat Yang Jiechi, a former Chinese ambassador to the US, could be one the most consequential diplomatic engagements in the 21st century.
At its heart, the Sullivan mission was simple: Convince China that Russian President Vladimir Putin had erred badly in attacking Ukraine, That he, Putin, is in the global doghouse, That China would be compounding Russia’s mistake and inviting trouble for itself if it bails out Moscow, for which Kyiv would be “Putin’s Stalingrad” — a pivotal moment in World War II when Hitler’s 6th army capitulated in the Russian city.
Whether China will heed US advice — and threats of “serious consequences if it doesn’t — will be known within days. But the mission points to a scenario Washington is suddenly having to come to grips with: fighting a two-front war with two significant powers. It is one thing to beat up Panama and Grenada. But taking on two nuclear powers, even if their military strength is exaggerated in a country, whose outsized $778 billion defence budget is more than the next nine countries combined ($709 billion), is not something American planners are thrilled about.
In fact, Washington may already be late to the party — or rather to breaking up the party. Moscow and Beijing have been getting closer for some time now, and shortly before he embarked on the Ukraine expedition, Putin hoofed it to China where, on the margins of the Winter Olympics, he and President Xi Jinping pledged a friendship with “no limits” and lots of contracts.
The US is now going stir crazy trying to figure out if Xi green-lighted the Russian military operation, a caper that would test both American resolve and China’s own designs on Taiwan, not to speak of diminishing Moscow and making it dependent on Beijing, something that is already becoming apparent. Sullivan also reckons Putin may have gaslighted Beijing – told them of a Ukraine attack without fully disclosing how far he will go. A bamboozled China is still figuring out how to extricate itself from Russia’s misadventure. But as one Chinese partisan remarked, no matter what happens between US/Nato and Russia now, China will be the winner.
But the bigger question is: Will America pull through this challenge to its primacy? This is as much a test of the West as it is of Russia. America’s biggest and most lethal weapons are not its stealth bombers or aircraft carriers. It is Washington’s control of the global financial system in which the dollar remains the world’s reserve currency, and its stranglehold on the global information system, as Russia is discovering to its peril. Even if Moscow somehow overcomes the financial squeeze, its own version on the events leading to the Ukraine action and what is happening there currently has been completely shut out of the global discourse. The narrative is entirely Western.
Countries across the world are now analysing their own security matrix and calculus to see how they can survive two scenarios — one where the US retains its primacy, and one where it doesn’t. Already, the Ukraine conflagration has revived talk about the security nuclear weapons provide, giving us the frightening prospect of a nuclear free for all. Forget North Korea and Iran, which have always been nuclear wannabes, there are questions even in Japan and Germany, defeated Axis powers, about whether they should really be depending on America’s security umbrella.
There are also questions about the financial and monetary weapons the US can use. Does it make sense for a country — or its rulers and oligarchs — to keep their lolly in US treasury bonds or in Western assets? And how does one deal with a situation where a country wields the power to turn you into a “rogue state” if you do not heed its command?
Many countries will be testing the waters for survival strategies, although you don’t expect any of them to undertake the kind of monumental folly Russia has gotten sucked into, or reap the kind of whirlwind or blowback it is getting. Some countries, notably China and India, will not be intimidated, both on account of their size and their pride. They are too big to bully. But other countries too are looking around to see if America’s declining power and waning primacy will get a European boost from Russia’s misadventure.
Among the first steps some countries are considering — de-dollarising bilateral trade. If the dollar is dislodged as the world’s reserve currency, the downhill journey would have begun. But there is no indication that the US will give up without a fight. If anything, Putin’s misadventure may have revived America’s flagging fortunes.
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