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Commentary: Follow the money in Ukraine debate

by on April 02, 2014 10:35 AM

Follow the Money

If you follow the debates about Ukraine, you can see three trends: those who use the crisis for humor, those who use it to reinforce preconceived views and those trying to figure out if it’s telling us something new about today’s world.

For humor, I like Seth Meyers’ line: “Despite the fact that the Ukraine has been all over the news for the past few weeks, a survey found that 64 percent of U.S. students still couldn’t find Ukraine on a map. Said Vladimir Putin, ‘Soon nobody will.’”

For self-reinforcement, the op-ed pages are full of the argument that Putin’s seizure of Crimea signals a return of either traditional 19th-century power politics or the Cold War — and anyone who thought globalization had trumped such geopolitics is naïve.

For new thinking, I’m intrigued by an argument made by Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist, and Nader Mousavizadeh, a geopolitical consultant and Reuters columnist, in different ways: That Putin represents a new hybrid — leaders who are using the tools, and profits, from globalization to promote, as Mousavizadeh put it, “strategic choices in direct opposition” to Western “values and interests.” Or as Gessen said in The Washington Post: “Russia is remaking itself as the leader of the anti-Western world. ... This is exactly how Russians see the events in Ukraine: The West is literally taking over, and only Russian troops can stand between the Slavic country’s unsuspecting citizens and the homosexuals marching in from Brussels.”

REAL RESTRAINTS

My own view is that today’s global economic and technological interdependence can’t, of course, make war obsolete — human beings will always surprise you — but globalization does impose real restraints that shape geopolitics today more than you think. The Associated Press reported from Moscow last week that “recent figures suggest that Russia suffered roughly $70 billion of capital outflow in the first three months of the year, which is more than in all of 2013.” Putin didn’t miss that.

For reinforcement, I’d point to the very original take on this story offered by Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins foreign policy expert whose new book, “The Road to Global Prosperity,” argues that while global economics does not eliminate geopolitics, it does indeed trump global geopolitics today. It’s the key to trumping Putin, too.

As Mandelbaum (my co-author on a previous work) explains in his book, it is not either-or. Geopolitics never went away, even as globalization has become more important. For globalization to thrive, it needs a marketplace stabilized by power. Britain provided that in the 19th century. America does so today and will have to continue to do so even if Putin becomes a vegetarian pacifist.

But get a grip, Mandelbaum said in an interview: “Putin is not some strange creature from the past. He is as much a product of globalization as Davos Man.”

Putin runs a petro state. If it were not for the growth in the global market that globalization created and the energy revenues that it produces for Russia, Putin and the oligarchs who form his power base would be living off exports of vodka and caviar. Putin can’t survive without the revenues globalization provides him to buy off his people and former Soviet republics.

And that tells us how to “end Putinism,” says Mandelbaum, “which would be good not only for the world, but also, and especially, for Russia. The tools are primarily economic: denying Russian oligarchs access to the Western financial system and reducing the energy revenues flowing into Putin’s coffers.”

It is a new kind of containment. When containment was primarily military in the Cold War, America bore a disproportionate share of the Western burden. Now that it’s economic, “the Europeans will have to contribute much more,” argues Mandelbaum. “The Germans will have to be willing to forgo their sales of machine tools and cars to Russia, the French will have to cut back or give up arms sales to the Putin regime, and the British will have to stop the Russian oligarchs from using London as a playground and money-laundering site. Most importantly, the Europeans will have to wean themselves from Russian gas.”

As for Americans, we’ll need to pay higher energy taxes to promote conservation, and safely expand natural gas and renewable energy, which together will lower the demand for oil worldwide and reduce the money Putin has to play with. We can deflate this guy tomorrow without firing a shot if we’re all ready to do something rather than asking the 1 percent in the military to do everything. That is what Putin thinks we don’t have the guts to do.

UNIVERSAL SACRIFICE

“In the age of globalization, when the tools of geopolitics are more economic, everyone needs to sacrifice a little — rather than just a few of us giving up a lot — to sustain a global order where our values predominate,” said Mandelbaum. Crimea is not a test of whether globalization is still enormously powerful in shaping today’s world, he added, “that is already clear. It is a test of the West and whether we will use this system to shape events our way.”



Thomas Friedman writes a column for the New York Times.
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