This morning I achieved some clarity on the geopolitical context. While the following scenario is still below 30% confidence, it is beginning to separate itself from the many other scenarios and so is worth sharing more broadly.
The primary method of this approach is empathic: assume the full frame of a given perspective (i.e., Putin, Xi) and look at the world entirely through their eyes. There are, of course, many other methods of making sense of the world and all have a role to play. But this approach yields useful results in the present context. The primary hypotheses of this scenario are as follows:
Putin and Xi are, broadly speaking, collaborating. Some of this collaboration is likely explicit and formal. Much of it is implicit and due simply to an alignment of interests and a shared sense of methods.
Putin and Xi are perceiving the West as a declining power. Their view is that the West is weak, stupid, infantile, hopelessly decadent and thoroughly parasitized by a mercenary Virtual ‘elite’ class that seems more than happy to wage an internal war on their own Physical classes.
That they have been operating under #1 and #2 for some time and are moving into an increasingly overt/explicit mode.
That this whole stream is part of a larger shift from a historically rare global hegemony to some new multi-polar (and, therefore, actually multi-cultural) world.
In other words, Putin and Xi are asserting their interests according to their own cultural values (and not the value assumptions of the West) and according to their best assessment of the actual relationships of power on the ground.
Its important to remember that what we in the West might call “liberal democratic norms” are, historically speaking, highly ab-normal. Neither China nor Russia, both heirs to their own long and storied civilizations, values these ‘norms’ directly. We, for example, value things like “individual rights” and “ethnic and cultural diversity” to a degree that both China and Russia perceive as madness (and a sign of weakness to be exploited).
Thus, simply violating Western norms, in itself, isn’t any particular concern to Putin or Xi. Only the potential consequences thereof. In this context, we can then look at the Ukraine event as a very simple question: “Yeah, I’m doing this, what are you going to do about it?”
Let’s run the possibilities.
Will Western ‘leadership’ commit to nuclear war in defense of the Ukraine? Very, very unlikely.
Will Western ‘leadership’ commit to kinetic war in defense of Ukraine? Also very unlikely, and in the event that they do, there is a good chance that Russia will win. (see Bismark Analysis)
Will Western ‘leadership’ enact sanctions against Russia? Probably, but equally probably they will be more form than substance (Germany really can’t kick that sweet energy habit) and there is a good chance that China and Russia are already looking at a new post-Western economic order here (de-dollarization, etc.).
Will Western ‘leadership’ complain piously and call Russia names? Oh, most certainly, and most likely that is all that they will do.
How will China play as the above begins to unfold? This is a crucial piece of the puzzle. The obvious moves are around Taiwan. I’d be shocked if China doesn’t take advantage of the attention pointed towards Ukraine to advance their intentions on Taiwan. What this looks like precisely is highly dependent on (a) how things are unfolding in Europe and (b) the bigger strategy that is unfolding. And, China being China, there are likely many other moves to be made besides Taiwan.
My sense, then, is that Ukraine is a probe into the state of the decline of the West. From a Putin/Xi perspective, worst case scenario, it creates entropy that continues to degrade the coherence and effectiveness of the West (while upgrading coherence in Putin’s Russia). Best case scenario, it pushes Western institutions through critical points (for example, losing a kinetic war and the ensuing demoralization) that signal open season on the “new new world order”. In between are a wide variety of opportunities for nimble and astute players.
If we step out of the empathic frame, can we evaluate these hypotheses?
Are Putin and Xi working together to some extent? From my perspective, highly likely. Both are perfectly sophisticated international actors and both should be able to agree that there is plenty of Western lunch money to be taken before the interests of Russia and China diverge.
Is the West weak, stupid, infantile, hopelessly decadent and thoroughly parasitized by its ‘elite’ class? Again, from my perspective, this seems like a fair evaluation. Sitting as a citizen of the United States for the past six years or so, I can’t say that I’ve been favorably impressed by the competence or integrity of my civilization along pretty much any dimension. Certainly if I were a betting man sitting in Moscow or Beijing, I’d be inclined to make a pretty decent sized bet against D.C., London and Brussels (to say nothing of Ottawa).
Are we looking at a larger shift from a historically rare global hegemony to some new multi-polar world? This seems highly likely. Notably, almost everyone is now behaving as if we live in a post-American Hegemony world. Look at how the various nations shifted alignments during the 2020-21 COVID period (looking at you Serbia) and extra-state actors are also stepping into the power shift. The World Economic Forum, for example, is playing a much more up-front and central role than the State Department. Hell, Blackrock is starting to look more relevant than the Treasury.
Importantly, this kind of shift is profoundly more than simply political. As mentioned, the kinds of cultural values that have been more or less “normalized” across most of the world for the past century or so will also be undergoing a rebalancing as diverse nations no longer feel like they must pretend to hold Western liberal values in order to participate in an American dominated world. The consequences of this rebalancing will certainly be disorienting for Westerners, who have become used to controlling the (moral) frame over the past three decades.
Well, thats the gist of it. Like I said at the beginning, this scenario is still sitting at a low confidence, but it seems like a useful lens to look through if you happen to be contemplating the current situation with an eye towards the bigger context.