Win-win cooperation is the future
The world is shifting towards a multipolar world order with China and Eurasia occupying a major role in world economy. We sat down with American economist and university professor Jeffrey Sachs to discuss the war in Ukraine, the end of US hegemony and the future of new cooperations.
Win-win cooperation is the future

Win-win cooperation is the future

Photo: Róbert Hegedüs
Mariann Őry 25/08/2023 08:00

The world is shifting towards a multipolar world order with China and Eurasia occupying a major role in world economy. We sat down with American economist and university professor Jeffrey Sachs to discuss the war in Ukraine, the end of US hegemony and the future of new cooperations.

What events lead to the outbreak of the war in Ukraine? Does the West bear any responsibility in this situation?


This is a war that never should have happened or would have happened if the United States had behaved better and if the US and Russia had done what they should have done from 1992 forward, which was to have a mutually respectful and cooperative relationship. Going back over thirty years, the United States promised President Gorbachev that when the Warsaw Pact was disbanded in 1990, NATO would not move one inch eastward. And that was a proper commitment by the United States and Germany, both countries making it very explicit because we needed an era of trust, demilitarisation, and economic linkages. Unfortunately, the US policymakers already in 1992 started to violate what they had promised. They started planning NATO expansion. In fact, NATO expansion all the way to Ukraine was on the planning horizon back in the early 1990s. In my view, this was the biggest mistake the United States made.




Because it meant that there would be growing mistrust between the US and Russia. Russia is a very powerful country. It is a nuclear superpower. I believe that the US undermined what could have been accomplished. All of that started well before President Putin was in power. This was not about him. This was about the US assertion of unipolarity at the end of the Cold War. This assertion was mistaken, dangerous, provocative, and arrogant. And had the US not done this, we would have a much, much safer and more cooperative world. 


The biggest and most dangerous action by the United States was the push to expand the US military alliance to Ukraine and to Georgia, effectively surrounding Russia in the Black Sea region and reducing Russia’s power decisively. In 2008, George W. Bush pushed for NATO to commit to expanding to Ukraine and to Georgia. And by then, President Putin was in the presidency, and he objected very, very strongly to this. In fact, in 2007, he gave a famous speech at the Munich Security Conference expressing extreme opposition to NATO enlargement. But the US political class did not listen.


In 2010, a president was elected in Ukraine who wisely adopted a policy of neutrality, Victor Yanukovych. This war began with the violent overthrow of Yanukovych in 2014 because it immediately led to a war in the Donbas and Russia’s claim of Crimea. From 2014 to 2015, the two Minsk agreements were reached to try to overcome the war. The United States opposed those agreements, and Ukraine did not implement them. In 2021, when President Biden came into office, Putin sent very strong admonitions to the United States to stop NATO enlargement. Biden replied that the United States would not negotiate over that issue, sending a formal response to Russia in January 2022 that it was none of Russia’s business what NATO did or where it went. Of course, that was absolutely not how Russia saw it because Russia said having the US military alliance on our 2,000-kilometre border with Ukraine is very much our business. And that is when this invasion was launched on February 24, 2022. Even that invasion, it’s quite clear, was not meant to conquer Ukraine; it was meant to force Ukraine to negotiate neutrality. And within about four weeks of the invasion, President Zelenskiy said publicly that Ukraine would accept neutrality alongside security guarantees. And on that basis, Russia and Ukraine began intensive negotiations to end the war. The United States then intervened and told Ukraine that it could not sign that agreement and still have the support of the United States, so it must fight on. And so Ukraine walked away from the negotiating table. The US increased the flow of armaments. Russia mobilised a large army in the summer of 2022. And the war has continued to escalate. 


Who seems to be winning?


There are no winners in this. Everybody is losing. Ukraine is the biggest loser, of course, in this because this is devastating for Ukraine. Europe is the next biggest loser because the economic and social consequences are enormous. The United States is losing because of spending more than 100 billion dollars and because most of the world does not agree with the US position. Most of the world wants the war to stop without NATO continuing to expand and expand. 

Photo: Róbert Hegedüs

Most countries of the world do not align with the US position and do not support the sanctions against Russia either. Is this a sign that the world is shifting from a unipolar to a multipolar order? 


There’s no question that we’re in a major geotectonic shift. In other words, geopolitics and the world economy are changing dramatically even without this war. The rise of China is a decisive event in modern world history because China has returned to being a major part of the world economy after more than a century in which it was greatly weakened by the European imperial powers, the United States and Japan. From 1839 when Britain invaded China in the first opium war, up until the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China experienced one devastating blow after another. This was what they called the century of humiliation. But what it was, was more than 100 years of a terrible economic, social, military, and political crisis. In 1949, China became independent as the People’s Republic of China, determined never again to fall under imperial domination and not to let any imperial powers divide China again. And this is one of the reasons why the issue of Taiwan is so sensitive.


It’s not only China, of course, because Southeast Asia, the ASEAN countries are experiencing significant economic and technological development and improvement of education levels and health levels. And with a lag of roughly 15 to 20 years, India is now becoming a very fast-growing region of the world, a country that’s even more populous than China. So Eurasia has long been home to the vast majority of humanity. And Eurasia, beyond the European Union, is a very significant part of the world economy and world population. And more and more, Eurasia is seeing this region as an integrated region, where China, India, Western Asia, Turkey, the Gulf region, and Europe should be integrated together. 


The US views the world as the US should lead, and everybody else should follow, and those that don’t follow are bad players. But what we see from the war in Ukraine is that most of the world doesn’t want to follow US leadership. I think most of the world would like to get along with the United States but not to have the US as the self-declared leader and maker of the rules. Most of the world wants to have broadly based economic development and prosperity, normal relations with neighbours, not blocs that are opposed to each other. Especially the developing world, which after all, is still roughly seven-eighths of humanity, wants to catch up in economic living standards and fears that the US approach divides the world rather than enables a world economy in which all countries can thrive. So this means that there are multiple perspectives that are taking shape right now. One is an integrated Eurasia, which uses digital technologies, fast transport, intercity rail, and ocean shipping to integrate this vast region of the world where the large majority of the world’s population lives. Another vision is that the non-west, which is largely the developing countries, low-income and middle-income countries, finally had the chance to catch up with the North Atlantic countries, that is, the US, Canada, UK, and European Union that have largely led economic development for the last two centuries. And the US still has its illusion, but I think fast disappearing, that it is somehow the global leader because you can’t be the global leader if most of the world doesn’t want to follow. And that is the main lesson that the United States is learning from this war.


It’s certainly an important difference that while the US wants to export liberal democracy, China doesn’t want to export socialism with Chinese characteristics. So probably, the future is more for those kinds of cooperations and integrations which are less ideological and more pragmatic.


When we speak about the US, we shouldn’t think of this as the American people but as a small elite political class because most of the people are not asked at all about any of this, so their views don’t matter. This is a small group in the United States, mainly financial, military and political elites. Their view is not necessarily even about exporting democracy; it is largely about American power, the view that America should be the world leader, that this is what is safe for the United States. There is, of course, some ideological claim that this is about spreading democracy, but I don’t think we should take this very literally because the US has dealt with all kinds of countries and has overthrown many democracies and installed many dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. It’s mostly interested in governments that are supportive of US leadership. That’s the defining element of American foreign policy. Certainly, China has no interest in being led by the United States. Neither has India or Russia. They’re not against peaceful cooperation with the United States, but they don’t want a system in which the US dictates the rules or who is in power and who is not. 


Photo: Róbert Hegedüs

Where is Europe in this setting?


Europe strangely has completely sided with the United States, and almost all of the rhetoric in the media and politics has been to maintain a narrative set by the United States that this is a war caused only by Russia, only by one person who wants to create an empire that it has nothing to do with the United States, this was unprovoked and so on. It’s surprising to me that Europeans say this because they should know better. A few do know better. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán certainly knows better. I think many others know better as well, but they don’t say it either because they feel that they have sided with the US - so don’t antagonise the boss -or that they’re going along because others are going along. This whole situation is dangerous for Europe, and Europe as a group should be negotiating with Russia and Ukraine directly over a suitable European security arrangement that is not the same thing as NATO. The creation of OSCE was a very good idea and is even more important now. Russia should be part of the European security arrangements and the European economy. This vast country with natural resources and eleven time zones is a great bridge between East Asia and the West of Eurasia. It should be seen in the European Union as a necessary partner for a healthy, peaceful, environmentally sustainable world. But it’s not seen that way right now. The United States has set a different narrative, and most European politicians are following it.


This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). How do you think this initiative is reshaping the world order?

This is a very important initiative. It is building 21st-century infrastructure (rail, fibre, power, and other infrastructure) to interconnect Eurasia. China is providing a major global public good through its sponsorship, organisation, and financing of the Belt and Road Initiative. Around 150 countries have signed up to BRI.  


How beneficial is BRI for the participating countries?


BRI is very beneficial, but the strength of BRI depends on choosing the right kinds of investments. The best BRI investments promote 5G digital connectivity, zero-carbon energy, and “green” transport and industry. BRI should always be the “Sustainable Belt and Road Initiative,” or SBRI.


How different is China’s approach towards building alliances different to that of the USA?


The US has aimed to be a global hegemon. It invested in hundreds of overseas military bases. It has fought many wars and engaged in dozens of covert and overt “regime change” operations to topple foreign governments. These actions have enmeshed the US in costly, wasteful, and destructive wars, the most recent of which is the Ukraine War, a war that was caused by the misguided US intention to enlarge NATO to Ukraine and Georgia.

China’s approach is diplomatic, financial, and technological to build a 21st-century interconnected world economy based on advanced technologies. Of course, China’s economy will benefit enormously from this approach since China is the world’s low-cost provider of advanced infrastructure. But the rest of the world will benefit as well. 

China’s approach is a win-win approach.  In my view, it is not based on hegemony but on cooperation, mutual respect, and globalisation of the economy in a multipolar world. 


Iran has recently become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and Belarus is set to join next year. What does this show, and how does it influence the regional status quo?


The rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, recently brokered by China, is a huge step forward for regional and global peace. It has made possible the expansion of the SCO to include Iran. In general, the SCO is building an integrated Eurasian economy and diplomatic and security process. I very much hope that Europe will join the effort at Eurasian interconnectedness and peaceful cooperation. If Europe and China cooperate, world peace and sustainable development will be greatly advanced. 


Hungary’s government argues for connectivity instead of building blocs. Does Hungary have a good chance to maintain its room of manoeuvre?


The concept that the Hungarian government puts forward of connectivity is absolutely the right concept, first of all. It’s the one that is going to lead to peace and prosperity, not only for Hungary but broadly. So it is not only a Hungarian idea; it’s the right idea for Europe and its neighbours in Western Asia. Hungary happens to have a geographic location being in the centre of Europe and, along the Danube, close to the former Soviet Union, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean. It can play a great connecting role. I hope it’s not only Hungary doing it because it is a good lesson for Brussels as well. Maybe one of the problems is that the EU headquarters and NATO headquarters are both together in Brussels. I think in Brussels, a lot of people have lost sight of the fact that the EU and NATO should be two completely different things. Equating the European Union and NATO is a big mistake geopolitically, socially and economically for Europe. Those in Brussels need to get out and see Budapest, Istanbul, Moscow, Kyiv, Beijing or Mumbai to understand we’re in a bigger world now. We need those interconnections. We should not hunker down in a divided world where military alliances define who one deals with and who one fights. Now we have an open war in Europe, and we are at risk of open war in East Asia because of the US and China confrontation. The US is pushing for NATO, even to expand to East Asia, and this is a completely terrible idea, especially for Europe. Does Europe want to be caught in a US-China war? Of course not. We should have a multipolar world where we’re not ranking countries, where we’re just having peaceful relations among different parts of the world. So connectivity is the right answer.

The author is managing editor at Eurasia

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