The fight of our lives

Since the last annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, the course of history has changed dramatically.

NewsEditor
NewsEditor
24 May 2022 Tuesday 22:20
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The fight of our lives

Since the last annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, the course of history has changed dramatically. Russia invaded Ukraine, shaking the European Union, which was created to prevent war from returning to the continent, to the core. Even when the fighting is stopped, which it will eventually be, the situation will never return to the status quo ante. In fact, the Russian invasion may become the start of World War III, and our civilization may not survive.

The invasion of Ukraine did not come out of the blue. For the past five years or more, the world has been engaged in a struggle between two diametrically opposed governance systems: an open society and a closed society. Let me define the differences as simply as possible.

In an open society, the role of the state is to protect the freedom of the individual; in a closed society, the role of the individual is to serve those who rule the state. Other issues that affect all of humanity – fighting the pandemic and climate change, avoiding nuclear war, maintaining global institutions – have taken a backseat to this systemic struggle. That is why I say that our civilization may not survive.

I got involved in what I call political philanthropy in the 1980s, a time when much of the world was languishing under communist rule. He wanted to help people who were outraged and fighting against oppression. I created foundation after foundation in rapid succession in what was then the Soviet empire. The effort turned out to be more successful than he expected.

They were exciting days. They also coincided with a period of personal financial achievement that allowed me to increase my annual donations from $3 million in 1984 to more than $300 million three years later.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the tide began to turn against open societies. Today oppressive regimes are on the rise and open societies are under siege. Currently, China and Russia represent the biggest threats to open societies.

I have given much thought to the reasons for this change. Part of the answer lies in the rapid development of digital technology, especially artificial intelligence.

technology with fangs

In theory, AI should be politically neutral: it can be used for good or for evil. In practice, the effect is asymmetric. AI is particularly good at producing instruments of control that aid repressive regimes and endanger open societies. COVID-19 also helped legitimize these control instruments, because they are truly useful in dealing with the pandemic.

The rapid development of AI has gone hand in hand with the rise of Big Tech and social media platforms. Quickly, these conglomerates have come to dominate the global economy, spreading across the world.

These developments have had far-reaching consequences. They have sharpened the conflict between China and the United States. China has transformed its technology platforms into national leaders. The United States has been more hesitant, fearing the effect of these technologies on individual freedom.

These different attitudes shed a new light on the conflict between the two different systems of governance. President Xi Jinping's China, which collects personal data to monitor and control its citizens more aggressively than any other country in history, should benefit from these developments. But this is not the case and I will explain why.

Putin and Xi are paired

Let me first of all refer to recent events, in particular the meeting between Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 4 at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics. Xi and Putin issued a lengthy statement announcing that cooperation between them "has no limits." Putin informed Xi of a "special military operation" in Ukraine, but it is not clear whether he told Xi that what he had in mind was a full-scale invasion. US and British military experts certainly told their Chinese counterparts what was in the offing. Xi approved, but asked Putin to wait until the Winter Games are over.

For his part, Xi resolved to hold the Olympics despite the appearance of the extremely contagious Omicron variant, which was already beginning to spread in China. The organizers did their best to create an airtight bubble for the competitors and the Olympic Games ended without a hitch.

But Omicron took root in the community, first in Shanghai, China's largest city and commercial hub. He now he is spreading to the rest of the country. However, Xi persists to this day with his zero COVID policy, which has inflicted enormous hardship on the people of Shanghai, forcing residents to stay in makeshift quarantine centers rather than allowing them to self-isolate at home. . Shanghainese have been pushed to the brink of open rebellion.

Many people are puzzled by this apparently irrational strategy in the face of the pandemic, but I can give you an explanation: Xi is keeping a guilty secret. He never told the Chinese people that he had been inoculated with a vaccine that was designed for the original variant of the disease in Wuhan, but offered little protection against the new variants.

Xi cannot afford to be transparent about this, because he is going through a very delicate moment in his career. His second term in office expires this fall and he wants to be appointed to an unprecedented third term and, eventually, rule for life. He has meticulously choreographed a process that would allow her to fulfill his life's ambition and everything must subordinate to this goal.

Resistance against Russia

Meanwhile, Putin's "special military operation" has not gone according to plan. Putin hoped that his soldiers would be welcomed as liberators by the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine. His army wore dress uniforms for a victory parade.

Indeed, the Ukraine put up unexpectedly strong resistance and inflicted profound damage on the invading Russian army, which was poorly equipped, poorly led, and quickly demoralized. The United States and the EU quickly came out in support of Ukraine and supplied it with weapons. With their help, Ukraine was able to defeat Russia's army, much larger than its own, in the battle for kyiv.

Putin could not afford to accept defeat and changed his plans accordingly. He put General Vladimir Shamanov, well known for his ruthlessness in taking Grozny, and then for the brutality of the campaign he conducted in Syria, in charge and ordered him to achieve some success by May 9, when the Victory Day.

But Putin had little to celebrate. Shamanov concentrated his efforts on the port city of Mariupol, which used to have 400,000 inhabitants. He reduced it to rubble, as he had done with Grozny, but the Ukrainian defenders held out for a long time.

The hasty withdrawal from kyiv exposed the atrocities that Putin's army had committed against the civilian population in the northern suburbs of the city. War crimes are well documented, and images of civilians killed by Russian troops in towns like Bucha have sparked widespread international outrage, though not in Russia, where the population has not been informed about Putin's war.

The invasion of Ukraine has now entered a new and more challenging phase for the country's defenders. The Ukrainian army must fight in open terrain where the numerical superiority of the Russian forces is more difficult to overcome.

The Ukrainians are doing their best, fighting back and even, at times, fearlessly penetrating into Russian territory. Those tactics have had the added benefit of showing the Russian population what is really going on.

The United States has also done its best to bridge the financial gap between Russia and Ukraine, most recently allocating an unprecedented $40 billion in military and financial aid to the Ukrainian government. I can't predict the outcome, but Ukraine certainly have a fighting chance.

A more united Europe

Recently, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and other European leaders went even further. They want to use Russia's invasion of Ukraine to promote further European integration, so that what Putin is doing cannot happen again.

Former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, leader of the Democratic Party, has proposed a plan for a partially federated Europe. The federated portion would cover foreign affairs, asylum, energy, defense, and social and health policies. Many people, myself included, insist that food and climate security should be added to the list.

In the federal heartland of Europe, no member state would have veto power. In other policy domains, member states could join "coalitions of goodwill" or simply retain their veto power.

French President Emmanuel Macron, in a significant extension of his pro-European strategy, has defended the importance of geographical expansion, and the need for the EU to prepare for it. Not only Ukraine but also Moldova, Georgia and the Western Balkans should qualify for EU membership. The details will take time to work out, but Europe seems to be moving in the right direction. He has responded to the invasion of Ukraine with greater speed, unity and vigor than ever before in its history. After a hesitant start, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has also expressed a strong pro-European position.

But Europe's dependence on Russian fossil fuels remains excessive, largely due to the mercantilist policies implemented by former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She had made special deals with Russia for gas supplies and made China Germany's biggest trading partner. Germany became the best performing economy in Europe, but now there is a high price to pay. Germany's economy needs to reorient itself. And that will take a long time.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was elected because he promised continuity with Merkel's policies and style of government. But events forced him to abandon continuity, which was not easy, because he had to break with some sacred traditions of his own Social Democratic Party.

However, when it comes to maintaining European unity, Scholz always seems to do the right thing in the end. He suspended the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, committed 100 billion euros ($104.8 billion) to defense and provided arms to Ukraine, breaking a long-standing taboo. And Western democracies generally responded with similar resolve to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

despotic disasters

What do the two dictators, Putin and Xi, today linked in an alliance, have to show? They have a lot in common. They rule by intimidation and, as a result, make puzzling mistakes. Putin expected to be welcomed in Ukraine as a liberator; in the same way, Xi is clinging to a zero COVID policy that is impossible to sustain.

Putin seems to have recognized that he made a terrible mistake when he invaded Ukraine and is now laying the groundwork for negotiating a ceasefire. But a ceasefire is unattainable, because he is not trustworthy. Putin would have to start peace negotiations, which he will never do because it would be equivalent to giving up.

The situation is confusing. A military expert who had opposed the invasion was authorized to go on Russian television and inform the population how bad things are. Later, he swore allegiance to Putin. Interestingly, Xi continues to support Putin, but now with some limits.

This begins to explain why Xi is doomed to fail. Giving Putin permission to launch an unsuccessful attack on Ukraine was not in China's favor at all. While China was to be the lead partner in the alliance with Russia, Xi's lack of assertiveness allowed Putin to usurp that position. But Xi's worst mistake was doubling down on his COVID zero policy.

The continued lockdowns have had disastrous consequences, sending the Chinese economy into free fall since March. In April, the national highway logistics index, which measures road transport in China, fell to 70% of its level a year ago. For Shanghai alone, the highway logistics index has fallen to 17% of its level a year earlier. Considering that more than 80% of the total cargo volume is transported by trucks in China, these figures indicate a virtual collapse of domestic commercial shipments.

Also, the Caixin Composite PMI Index, which uses data collected from some 400 companies to track private sector business trends in China - including sales, new orders, employment, inventories and prices - fell to 37.2, compared with 43. 9 in March. When the value of the PMI index is below 50, the economy is contracting. China's sharply falling economic activity is going to have global consequences, but, for now at least, preparations for this have been scant.

These negative results will continue to gain momentum until Xi reverses course – which he never will, because he cannot admit a mistake. In addition to the real estate crisis, the damage will be so great that it will affect the global economy. With supply chains disrupted, global inflation is likely to turn into a global depression.

Minimize the risks

For the West, the dilemma of dealing with Russia is that the weaker Putin gets, the more unpredictable he becomes. EU member states feel the pressure. They are aware that Putin may not wait until they develop alternative sources of energy before turning off the gas taps, while he still hurts, as he has done with Bulgaria, Poland and Finland.

The REPowerEU program presented last week reflects those fears. Scholz is particularly anxious about the special agreements that Merkel made with Russia. Draghi is braver, even though Italy's dependence on gas is almost as high as Germany's. Europe's cohesion will face a severe test, but if it continues to act together, it could strengthen both energy security and Europe's leadership on climate change.

What happens to China? Xi has many enemies. Nobody dares to attack him directly because he controls all the instruments of surveillance and repression. But it is well known that within the Communist Party, dissent has become so intense that it has even manifested itself in articles that ordinary people can read.

Contrary to expectations, Xi may not get his coveted third term because of the mistakes he has made. But even if he succeeds, the Politburo may not give him free rein to choose the members of the next Politburo. That would markedly reduce his power and influence and lower his chances of becoming ruler for life.

Meanwhile, as the war in Ukraine continues to rage, the fight against climate change has had to take a backseat. However, experts tell us that we are already far behind and that climate change is about to become irreversible. That could be the end of our civilization.

This prospect strikes me as particularly terrifying. Most of us accept the idea that we will eventually die, but we take it for granted that our civilization will survive.

Therefore, we must mobilize all our resources so that the war ends soon. The best, and perhaps the only, way to preserve our civilization is to defeat Putin. That is the fundamental question.

George Soros, founder and president of the Open Society Foundations, is the author, most recently, of In Defense of Open Society (Public Affairs, 2019).

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022. www.project-syndicate.org

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