There are times in history when the situation has become so complex, so absurd, that the only remedy to the illness which befalls civilisation is equally absurd, but not equally complex. There is a way out, but we must be prepared to attempt the impossible if we are to avert the probable scenario of decay and collapse. In 2019 and 2020, on this blog, I recommended support for left-wing populism as a strategy for addressing within-country inequality in western democracies. In 2016, as I began work for my previous blog, I recommended avoiding right-wing populism in order to prevent the disintegration of a fragile international order. Alas, my plea was in vain, and international cooperation has predictably fallen apart as a result of Brexit and Trump, while domestic stability is undermined by the failure to redress rampant inequality that Corbyn, Mélenchon, and Sanders tried and failed to address, due to their electoral failure at the hands of centre-ground and right-wing counterparts. It is hard to avoid comparisons with the late Roman Republic, when wealthy senators forcibly prevented the brothers Gracchi from implementing land reform to address rising wealth disparity in the germinating empire. Afterwards, generals such as Sulla and Caesar promised their soldiers land in return for allegiance in their pursuit of power. A civil war engulfed the land, and the Republic was replaced by Empire under Augustus Caesar. Instead of democratic redistribution, monarchical moderation could contain civil strife for two hundred years, when the crisis of the third century led to a new imperial reordering of Europe.
But it does not have to be this way. The failure of populism does not make Caesarism inevitable. We live in a different world in which class conflict is not the only axis along which tilts the fate of civilisation. Interstate conflict affects countries’ ability to manage their internal conflicts in the context of external competition. The prospect of war among sovereign states restrains the class conflict that trade unleashes within them, since any state must maintain control over its classes if it wishes to survive. If we can arrange the international arena in such a way that domestic conflicts are managed, we can resolve two existential dilemmas — interstate disunity, and distributional inequality — with one stone of solution.
There is a way. The immediate conflict is between the U.S. and China, as I have argued since 2017, when Trump initiated a trade war that, on reflection, was a (perhaps uncharacteristically) wise decision. China’s military strength rests on its economic power arising from trade in primarily industrial goods. The only reliable way from preventing China from following the path of Wilhelmine Germany in the run-up to the First World War is to isolate it from the world economy, thereby undermining its military strength. The chief difficulty: China sources a plurality of the world’s manufactured commodities, making relocation of production from China to other countries necessary. Indeed, this is already proceeding apace — Vietnam is developing closer economic and geopolitical ties with America, which is detaching from its unhealthy dependence on Middle Eastern oil through the shale gas revolution.
But this is not enough. America’s strength rests in its alliances, in part with Europe, which fears a now-resurgent Russia as it wages war with the small country of Ukraine, armed with western weapons designed to repel a Russian invasion. Putin has miscalculated, but so has America, which has allowed NATO and the EU to encage Russia in such a way that it is bound to lash out violently, as it did in Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine in 2014. Western sanctions, a modern form of siege warfare, left Russia with little choice — which is not to excuse Russia’s war with Ukraine, where suffering continues to immorally eat away at the conscience and lives of so many, but rather to explain it in a way that all sides can rationally understand.
China is on a completely different strategic footing, with the second-largest economy on Earth, and the means to effectively challenge U.S. hegemony. Russia’s difficulties in eastern Ukraine reflect its decaying strength. It is strong enough to cause difficulties for the west, but not so strong enough to launch a bid for hegemony. Such bids are the seeds of great power conflict, and China’s rise has sown the seeds of such a conflict since its fateful acceptance into the W.T.O. in 2001.
A triple crisis now threatens the world. The hegemonic trap of U.S.-China conflict is combined with a crisis of energy security and a crisis of the military security of many countries, linked and unlinked to the central hegemonic conflict of our time.
A strategic alliance between the U.S. and Russia would accomplish three objectives. It would contain China by isolating it from a crucial energy and economic ally — a source of gas for its growing military machine. It would break OPEC in two and free the West from dependence on the Middle East for oil, which has caused many devastating conflicts this century, to no end. And it would free Europe from the devastation of warfare by integrating Russia into NATO and the European political and economic architecture which has prevented war in western Europe since World War II, all under the stabilising hegemony of the United States.
I do not see any other way out of this crisis. Fighting in Ukraine must end. The bloodshed is morally unacceptable, and it serves no strategic purpose for any party. For every ethical, economic, and geopolitical reason I can conceive, an alliance between the U.S.’s hegemonic sphere of political and economic security and the great people and unstable polity of Russia will be a bold move for our decaying civilisation. If we can replace the vain pursuit of vengeance with peace and reconciliation, we can contain the real threats to civilisation: the rise of China, the untrammelled power of international capital, and the spectre of climate change. For Nancy Pelosi is wrong — this us not a fight for values, or a clash between ‘democracy’ and ‘autocracy’. It is a fight for the survival of human civilisation. If the medicine is bitter, what does it matter if it helps cure the illness? We must be prepared to build unholy alliances to contain the coming chaos. Our very survival as a planetary civilisation may depend on it.