Dr John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political risk firm. His new book is To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk.
If I read one more word in the British press about the coming of a new Cold War, I think I’ll run screaming for the door. While undoubtedly (and predictably) despicable, what Vladimir Putin did in the Salisbury poisoning case does not change the basic geostrategic facts of the new era; Russia is no longer a Great Power, but merely an ageing, corrupt gas station with nuclear weapons. Cold Wars are for superpowers; a declining Russia is hardly that.
Before the press gets the vapours about what I am saying, here are the facts. Russia’s GDP is about the size of the state of Texas. As Dmitry Medvedev has glumly made clear, it remains a one-trick pony utterly dependent every day on the spot price of oil and natural gas, as this remains the only vibrant sector of the Russian economy.
Moscow has suffered estimated losses of around $40 billion due to the surprisingly effective sanctions enacted in the aftermath of Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Russia is thought to lose another $30 billion a year due to endemic corruption, while the collapse of the global price of energy over the past years has crippled the country to the tune of another $30 billion. Demographically, Russia is in real danger, with the population alarmingly set to shrink by ten per cent before 2050. Russia is dangerous because it is weak, not due to its strength. We do Putin a favour to make him our equal when he is so obviously not.
However, the real peril here is that the hysteria whipped up by the Salisbury case analytically obscures the true geostrategic danger out there; the rise of China as a revolutionary power that wishes to dominate East Asia and shred the norms of the western-inspired world order. While we fiddle with the Kremlin, ignoring China ensures that Rome burns.
In China, a new superpower is rising, one that is ignored by much of the British press and politicians alike because little is known of it and it is too far away to be thought of. Such a shameful lack of curiosity won’t do in our new multipolar order. Given its four decades of unprecedented economic growth, booming defence spending (now the second largest in the world) and utter disregard for international norms (it recently lost its nine-dash line arbitration South China Sea case in The Hague and nothing happened, with Beijing merely cavalierly ignoring the ruling) there is a real geostrategic danger in front of us, while we obsess about an old danger long past.
And it is not only that China’s power—unlike Russia’s—is on the rise. With Xi Jinping intent on ruling indefinitely, it is becoming painfully clear that the West has lost its strategic bet about Beijing. It was hoped that as the world accommodated China as a rising power (through agreeing to its entry into the World Trade Organisation), as China became both richer and more enmeshed in the global economic order, it would also become both more pluralist and more conservative, transforming itself into a benign (in Western eyes) status quo power, determined to defend the present western-inspired order.
That bet now appears to have been definitively lost, as despite its wondrous growth Beijing has become even more authoritarian and increasingly determined to re-write global norms, from island-building in the South China Sea through using its ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) modern version of the Marshall Plan to economically link and then dominate much of Asia and Africa, to its bending their politics, over time, to its will.
Only China has the means, motive, and opportunity to over time threaten and supplant the present western-inspired global order. Putin makes a wonderful Bond villain but he mustn’t be allowed to obscure the geostrategic reality that dealing with revolutionary power China is the name of the game in our new era.