Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday, 5 April 2022



The US will be the ultimate winner of Ukraine’s crisis 

America stands to gain in stature and influence in Europe, Asia and the court of world opinion 


 From 2026, if all goes well, liquefied natural gas will arrive via tanker on the shores of northern Germany, will pour into cryogenic storage vats set to minus 160C, and then “re-gasify” before coursing through the grid in place of Russian imports. Germany has no LNG terminal at present. Within 72 hours of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it expedited the construction of two. Of the exporters that stand to profit, the US is nearer than Australia and, unlike Qatar, won’t leave Berlin exposed to another erratic autocracy. It is a tasteless thing to argue, and perhaps even to think, but America will be the ultimate “winner” of the Ukrainian crisis. Eight months after its exit from Afghanistan suggested imperial decline, the nation’s strategic prospects are changing in ways that are unrecognisably better. The “arsenal of democracy” in the last century might be its fuel source in this one. And those exports are the least of it. If Germany honours its recent pledge to splurge on defence, then the US should be able to share more of Nato’s financial and logistical burden. A Europe that is more tethered to America and at the same time less of a drain on it: no Kissinger could have schemed what the Kremlin is poised to achieve through accident. Far from ending the US turn to Asia, the war in Ukraine might be the event that enables it. As for that part of the world, if the Chinese aim is to exorcise at least the Pacific Rim of US influence, the past six weeks have been an education in the size of the task. Japan could hardly be doing more to side with Kyiv, and therefore with Washington. Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea’s president-elect, wants to meet Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. A rapprochement between these east Asian friends of the US — but not always of each other — has been helped by the threat of China-Russia unity. All of which leaves the question of Taiwan. It is easy to exaggerate the read-across from Ukraine, whose independent statehood, unlike the island’s, is recognised in Washington. At the least, though, the potential costs to China of an attack — in lives, sanctioned trade and moral standing — are now too plain to need spelling out by the US. In retrospect, debacle though it was, what happened in Afghanistan last August obscured the underlying strength of America’s place in the world. We are living through a reminder of its economic weight and natural resources, as well as of the intelligence assets that predicted the fact, if not the fitful progress, of Putin’s invasion. At the same time, the world’s memory is being jogged as to the largest and most easily forgotten of all US advantages: the unpopularity of its rivals. For the first time since the end of the cold war, we have a glimpse of what an alternative to a US-led world might look like. An autocratic axis, in which strongmen support or at least overlook each other’s depredations, is more than theoretical now. Not all countries flinch at the sight: India and Israel haven’t, at least not as much as Washington had hoped, and that is to cite examples among just the democracies. But even nations that are hedging are having to squirm and consider the reputational cost. It is not the US, the established hegemon, that is on the moral defensive. It is the revisionist powers. When Russia attacked, the idea that a world with a wider spread of power would necessarily be more just lost what spurious credibility it had. Of course, people rallied to the US after the attacks of September 11, too, only to sour on it again. But al-Qaeda were mere spoilers of the international order, not realistic inheritors of it. People could go back to being cynical about the US (which, by invading Iraq, gave them every excuse) in the knowledge that no plausible usurper of its global role skulked in the wings, meriting scrutiny of its own. Russia was still shaking off its turbulent 1990s. China’s economy was a sliver of its present size. The world had not yet begun its 15 consecutive years of democratic retreat. Anti-Americanism was highly affordable. Well, as with so much else, the cost has gone up of late. If there is such a thing as the court of world opinion, it now has to weigh the US against not an abstract ideal but the reality of a Moscow-Beijing partnership of unequals. More than the billions of cubic metres in new gas orders, or even the probable reprieve for Taiwan, it is this change in the intellectual atmosphere that leaves America enhanced. It need only be better than the alternative to be very attractive indeed.


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