Putin’s Wars on Rationality and Globalization

By David L. Carden, first resident U.S. ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations

Throughout history, the scarcity of natural resources has been one of the major causes of conflict and interstate war. World War II was fundamentally such a war, with both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan pursuing what they believed were “rational” agendas to obtain important resources, including food and energy. To provide an alternative process for obtaining such resources, the Allies took a series of steps to create a system of interconnected trade and investment designed to make nations more interdependent. The result was what is now called “globalization,” which, despite its shortcomings, has done what the Allies hoped it would do; it reduced resource-related conflict and made the world more peaceful, secure, and prosperous.

Until now. Beset by nationalism, protectionism, and the disruptions caused by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, including the interruption of food supplies and higher oil prices, the beneficial effects of globalization are at risk of coming to an end. Nationalists, such as Putin, are prepared to beggar the future for their own short-term political advantage. Their actions are threatening a return to the resource wars of the past.

To begin, it’s important to understand the criticisms of globalization. The most common is that it’s caused some people real harm. It’s inarguable many have suffered, but the antidote is an honest, analytical assessment of why they have and what can be done to help them move forward, not the simplistic diagnoses of nationalist politicians appealing to populist sentiment. Their agendas are invariably to further their own power; how else can one explain their utter failure to provide tangible support to those most affected by globalization by providing such things as education and training?

Globalization also has been criticized as a form of imperialism. But those who make this claim fail to consider the economic and health benefits that globalization has created. Moreover, some of the most troublesome consequences of globalization’s alleged imperialistic impacts, such as the tolerance of poor working conditions and the export of pollution, could be addressed by politicians through implementing chapters in international trade agreements that protect workers’ rights and the environment. But again, they haven’t acted.

One critique of globalization stands out as the key to understanding the underlying reason it has become a four-letter word to many leaders; it cedes authority to international organizations. Said simply, leaders don’t want to give up power, regardless of the benefits globalization has brought for those whose interests they profess to serve. They increasingly are building their power bases based on the grievances of their supporters, despite the fact they are the ones most often responsible for them being left behind. Former President Trump’s “America First” mantra is but one example.

The agendas of nationalists and protectionists threaten to create the conditions to return to a pre-World War II approach to resource allocation that historically has led to war. Such agendas are inherently irrational for two reasons. First, they raise the risk of conflict and competition over resources when an alternative, globalization, exists to obtain them. Second, they disable the global mechanisms needed to address the shared challenges that now threaten all nations. World War II taught us where resource conflict can lead. Climate change is beginning to teach us where the failure to cooperate will take us.

The connections among nations that followed World War II that avoided conflict and led to a rational allocation of resources have become attenuated. The resulting irrationality in international affairs that’s resulted is revealed both in the threat to the global order, and also by the retrograde definition of rationality offered by those who have called Putin’s invasion rational because it was “reasonable” for him to believe he would prevail.

Unfortunately, this approach to what is rational is being used by nationalists and protectionists to justify actions they claim to be in their respective countries’ best interests. In doing so, they are weakening global markets and exposing the world to conflict over resources. Some are adopting onerous tariffs or other barriers to free trade, or banning the export of essential resources. Others are attacking international organizations, including the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization. Still, others have territorial ambitions similar to Putin’s, including China, which has its eyes on Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Whether these and other actions would have been “rational” before the benefits of globalization were available, and before the cross-border challenges emerged to threaten the community of nations, may be arguable. But they surely should be seen as irrational now that we have global markets and a world faced with a host of existential challenges. For this reason, events like the war in Ukraine, and other steps designed to weaken the current global economic system, are inherently irrational.

The risks of abandoning the rational approach to resource allocation provided by globalization are high. One example of what could happen can be seen in the current food shortage caused by Putin’s invasion, and in the potential for him to use food as a weapon. The need for food is existential. Britain’s MI-5 famously observed that society is only “four meals away from anarchy.” Lenin thought it was only three days. And Hitler was so concerned about food supplies he wrote a book about it.

With these truths in mind, consider the following scenario that might follow from Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia currently exports 19% of the world’s total wheat requirements. Ukraine exports 9%. Their total exports of 28% of the world’s supply would give Russia substantial control in the future price of wheat if it were able to control the production of both countries. Consider as well that Russia’s grain production is projected to drop17%by 2050, whereas Ukraine’s is projected to increase 29-30% over the same time period. Finally, Russia has stated it wants to use the expansion of its agricultural production to confer “additional benefits” by making it one of the world’s largest producers of food.

Whether it is Putin’s plan to control Ukraine’s agricultural capacity in order to weaponize food isn’t clear, but the opportunity it would provide for him to do so is. Obtaining such control would help Russia regain its superpower status. It also would augur for the return to a pre-globalization era when the unavailability or high price of commodities set the stage for conflict. Seen this way, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine not only is encumbering the cooperation currently needed to manage shared challenges such as climate change, but also threatens to position Russia to hold nations hostage for a commodity they cannot do without.

Countries in the developing world that have failed to criticize Putin’s aggression and disruption because they are being offered below-market-priced Russian oil, or due to misplaced notions of geopolitical even-handedness, will pay the greatest price in the future should Russia succeed in obtaining outsized influence in global food and energy markets. Some recent examples of food shortages should serve as a warning to them and others. Recall that the Russian ban on wheat exports in 2011 due to a production shortfall contributed to the “Arab Spring.”

The economic and resource related risks created by nationalists such as Putin are real. It is critical they be countered by domestic and international narratives that focus on the long-term benefits conferred by globalization and cooperation among nations. Fortunately, such narratives are emerging, primarily around climate change and pandemic preparedness and response. They offer an opportunity to change the conversation going forward on a wide variety of global issues, including resource allocation.

Of course, domestic nationalist agendas will continue to be an impediment to these conversations. But while history has shown that support for irrational political actions taken by nationalists often wanes, the existential risks faced by the world require that steps must be taken now to accelerate the process, including by managing the most caustic aspects of social media. In addition, the private sector’s support of Russian sanctions and its abandonment of investments in the country are a template for disinvesting in countries that do not promote a stable global market. 

The common denominator of these elements is the need for an assessment of what truly is rational. Among other things, this will require nations to deemphasize bilateral engagement in favor of the multilateral mechanisms needed to solve their shared challenges. In addition, competition between ideological camps must be avoided whenever possible, especially when promoted by countries and politicians only seeking to augment their own domestic and international power. A bipolar world and nations at war with themselves are at risk of failing to meet the existential challenges to come.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a teachable moment. The global action needed to manage the cross-border forces that will shape the world’s future will need to be anchored in what is truly rational, not in the irrational agendas of nationalists, protectionists, autocrats, and despots. If we act on this lesson, as we did after World War II, Putin’s War at least will have served an important, if tragic, purpose.

This piece is republished from The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.

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