Reviews | Putin, Ukraine and the illusion that trade brings peace

On April 12, 1861, rebel artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter, starting the American Civil War. The war eventually became a disaster for the South, which lost more than a fifth of its young men. But why did the secessionists believe they could achieve this?

One of the reasons was that they believed themselves to be in possession of a powerful economic weapon. The economy of Britain, the world’s leading power at the time, was deeply dependent on cotton from the South, and they believed that a cut in this supply would force Britain to intervene alongside the Confederacy. Indeed, the Civil War initially created a “cotton famine” that put thousands of Britons out of work.

In the end, of course, Britain remained neutral – in part because British workers saw the Civil War as a moral crusade against slavery and rallied to the Union cause despite their suffering. .

Why tell this old story? Because it has an obvious connection with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It seems pretty clear that Vladimir Putin saw Europe’s, and Germany’s in particular, dependence on Russian natural gas the same way slave owners saw Britain’s dependence. vis-à-vis King Cotton: a form of economic dependence that would force these nations to realize his military ambitions.

And he wasn’t entirely wrong. Last week, I castigated Germany for its unwillingness to make economic sacrifices in the name of Ukraine’s freedom. But let’s not forget that Germany’s response to Ukraine’s requests for military aid on the eve of the war was also pathetic. Britain and the United States rushed to supply lethal weapons, including hundreds of anti-tank missiles that were so crucial in repelling Russia’s attack on kyiv. Germany offered and dragged its feet to deliver… 5,000 helmets.

And it’s not hard to imagine that if, say, Donald Trump was still president here, Putin’s bet that international trade would be a force for coercion, not peace, would have been justified.

If you think I’m trying to shame Germany into becoming a better defender of democracy, you’re right. But I also try to make a broader point about the relationship between globalization and war, which is not as simple as many people have assumed.

Western elites have long believed that trade is good for peace, and vice versa. The long American push for trade liberalization, which began even before World War II, has always been partly a political project: Cordell Hull, Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of state, firmly believed that lowering tariffs and increased international trade would help lay the foundations for peace.

The European Union, too, was both an economic and a political project. Its origins date back to the European Coal and Steel Community, created in 1952 with the explicit aim of making French and German industry so interdependent that there could never be a European war again.

And the roots of Germany’s current vulnerability go back to the 1960s, when the West German government began to pursue Ostpolitik – “Eastern policy” – seeking to normalize relations, including economic relations, with Germany. Soviet Union, in the hope that increasing integration with the West would strengthen civil society and move the East towards democracy. Russian gas started flowing to Germany in 1973.

So, does trade promote peace and freedom? This is surely the case in some cases. In other cases, however, authoritarian rulers more concerned with power than prosperity may see economic integration with other nations as a license for bad behavior, assuming that democracies with a strong financial stake in their regimes will turn a blind eye to their abuse of power. .

I’m not just talking about Russia. The European Union sat idle for years as the Hungarian Viktor Orban systematically dismantled liberal democracy. To what extent is this weakness explained by the significant Hungarian investments that European, and especially German, companies have made while seeking cost-cutting outsourcing?

And then there is the very big question: China. Does Xi Jinping see China’s tight integration with the global economy as a reason to avoid adventurous policies – like the invasion of Taiwan – or as a reason to expect a soft Western response? Nobody knows.

Now, I’m not suggesting a return to protectionism. I suggest that national security concerns about trade — real concerns, not far-fetched versions like Trump’s invocation of national security to impose tariffs on Canadian aluminum — should be taken more seriously than I, among other things, I didn’t believe it.

More immediately, however, law-abiding nations must show that they will not be deterred from defending freedom. Autocrats may believe that financial exposure to their authoritarian regimes will make democracies afraid to stand up for their values. We have to prove them wrong.

And what that means in practice is both that Europe must act quickly to cut off Russian oil and gas imports and that the West must provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs, not only to keep Putin at bay, but to win a clear deal. cut victory. The stakes here are much higher than Ukraine alone.

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