President Vladimir Putin’s catastrophic blunder in invading Ukraine has upset the applecart of the post-1991 international order. The outcome of that conflict is currently unknown – there are a wide range of possibilities. However, most of the better outcomes will result in an end to the globalization dream – in reality, nightmare – and a return to an atomized world, with higher costs, to be sure, and maybe the occasional war but with far greater freedoms. Only the unlikely triumph of globalizers would condemn us to a truly unfree world, and perpetual and increasing impoverishment.
The most likely outcome in Ukraine is a negotiated settlement, with Putin getting modest benefits from Ukraine but regretting having started the war because of the economic costs to Russia and the various sanctions imposed. Only the two extreme outcomes are dangerous. If Putin gains complete control of Ukraine, he may be emboldened and try some other aggression, for example in Transnistria, which would trigger the West’s Munich complex “This is the Sudetenland” and a general war. I will discuss this improbable outcome no further; its dangers are obvious.
At the other extreme, if Putin is toppled, then first, his successor will almost certainly be more socialist and more unpleasant, and second, the globalists would have won. I will consider this second most dangerous possibility later, but fortunately the major balance of probability is for an intermediate outcome.
The partial cutting-off of Russian banks from the SWIFT global payments system illustrates one kind of effect the war will bring. SWIFT was founded in early 1973, a few months before the first Middle Eastern oil crisis, when the U.S. was still close to its maximum hegemony. European and other “free world” countries were happy to tag along with a U.S. system, which for form’s sake was set up in Brussels (allowing all the U.S. bankers who initially staffed it to claim a generous expatriate lifestyle). There was no alternative nexus of power, so there was no serious alternative payments system (COMECON ran something clunky, but it was used only internally to the bloc).
After 1991, the newly liberated countries of eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union and the reforming economy of China all joined SWIFT – there was no established alternative, and in the naively globalized world of the 1990s, there seemed no problem with a global monopoly – indeed, global monopolies were in fashion.
Russia’s expulsion from SWIFT has politicized payments and will remove the global monopoly. An alternative system will be set up, or possibly several, controlled by countries inimical to the United States, with perhaps India or some other suitably neutral nation setting up a clearing house between payments systems that refuse to deal with each other. The world will become more complicated and more expensive, but there will no longer be a single nexus that can be used to observe other countries’ payments or to block them. There will be a rise in cost, but an increase in freedom.
The same is true in other areas where globalization is patently breaking down, for example in social media, search and the whole range of consumer-oriented infotech. In this case, splitting into purely national systems would be anti-libertarian, because it would allow national governments to operate the censorship capabilities that have been so egregiously seized by Facebook, Twitter, Google and the like.
However, using anti-trust legislation to break down social media within each country, so we got a truly atomized system, would be enormously beneficial for the freedom of everybody whose ideas do not run reliably along the lowest common denominator. I envisage a world where authoritarian societies will operate a Great Firewall, while genuinely democratic societies will allow information from abroad, but have draconian regulations against monopolization, while enforcing First Amendment-type protections against companies censoring their customers. Google subsidizing the loss-making YouTube for 14 years or Facebook buying up its competitors would be a thing of the past. That may be a “belt and braces” approach, but I believe it necessary to preserve freedom of expression and the rights of minority political viewpoints to be heard.
Another winner from the end of globalization will be the world’s energy consumers, who will find the climate change hysteria becomes impossible to pursue in a non-globalized world. Already, China is mocking the West’s obsessions, building coal-fired power stations as fast as it knows how. At the other end of the spectrum, Germany is beginning to realize that its fanatical pursuit of “net zero” has left it utterly reliant on Russian energy. In a non-globalized world, Germany and Japan will spend enough on defense to defend themselves, and the rest of us will no longer to have to subsidize their reluctance. They will also either build nuclear reactors or make arrangements to import energy from suppliers more reliable than Russia; this too prevents them from “free-riding” through excessive virtue signaling at the expense of the rest of the world. Ending the climate change mania will yield far greater benefits to ordinary people than the theoretical benefits of global free trade, or even the cost of an occasional local war.
An atomized, localized world will have higher trading frictions than a globalized one, but ordinary people will gain much more by the greater freedoms that will arise. It will no longer be possible for the World Economic Forum to attempt to impose a neo-feudal “Great Reset” on the world economy through the malign intervention of global institutions and think-tanks, because the influence such institutions will have will be drastically reduced. Indeed, if we are really lucky, we will be able to abolish them, thus saving the world from both their maunderings and the cost of their overstuffed budgets.
As for Russia itself, with or without Ukraine, it is not destined to fall back into grim Communism, provided the present regime or an agreed successor remains in power. The Soviet Union, it must be remembered, was constantly having “harvest failures” when as in 1972 emergency supplies of wheat had to be sent to them by the West to feed their people. The reason for this was simple: as the Ukrainian people themselves discovered during the Holodomor, collective farming was a uniquely inefficient system, which when run with the brutality and corruption that appear to be a Russian trademark, produced mass starvation from time to time.
Since 1991, however, and more particularly since Putin’s advent in 2000, Russian agriculture has been fully capitalist, with land owned privately and farmers able to get the benefit of the crops they grew. Consequently, Russia now grows around 25% of the world’s grain and Ukraine, also capitalist although less securely so, grows another 15%. Brutal or not, modern Russia with its energy, resources and farm output, as well as its engineering skills, is a relatively wealthy country that will find it quite easy to achieve the self-sufficiency that now seems likely to be enforced upon it. Globalization allowed rich Western companies to buy up Russian assets at cheap prices, without adding much to their management after the basics had been learned; autarky may well prove more attractive. Certainly, neither Russia nor Ukraine, provide they remain capitalist and avoid “climate change” and other anti-capitalist fads, will ever be short of products to sell to the resource-greedy West.
The true nightmare of this conflict, apart from the death and suffering it is inflicting on both sides, will arise if Putin is toppled and the institutions of “woke” globalization are further validated. China will not obey damaging “climate change” treaties, and will cheat on trade agreements, but unlike Putin’s Russia it has never fully accepted capitalism and hence is not a useful brake on the follies of the Western wokies.
A world in which globalism defeats Putin is thus a world of globalism triumphant. As we have seen recently in Canada, civil liberties and democratic freedoms are worth nothing in such a world. The World Economic Forum and its equivalents would be free to impoverish us all, based on spurious “climate change” alarmism, with the full backing of academic institutions, the large multinationals and the media and with no democratic checks on their operations, nor alternative sources of power through which they might be quelled. This, the ultimate triumph of globalization, is the true nightmare we must fight a l’outrance to avoid.
An atomized world, with old-fashioned 19th Century rivalries and no central authorities. It looks like bliss to me!
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)