Four men against the storm

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 6 Dec 2022

Abdel-Moneim Said analyses the positions of the four leaders in the eye of the storm.


Three weeks remain to the end of the year. Around this time, writers are asked to give their predictions for the new year. The more cautious ones will opt for an expression like “crossroads”, since there are usually several forks in the road and time will eventually determine which mankind chooses. Some might suggest that the invisible hand of fate plays a hand, but the truth is that people make choices. 

Some weeks ago in this space I discussed the contest between wisdom and folly in terms of the decision-making power of world leaders and how whichever prevails will set the course for the future. The balance between the two is difficult to assess in view of the intersections of a broad array of diverse and frequently conflicting factors and trends. But such is the onus that falls on political analysts, and it becomes all the more difficult when you consider that the choices made by politicians and political leaders are often in the end informed less by the intellect than by being in the thrall of power, the hold of history, or the lure of baser instincts such as money or sex. 

In his latest book, Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, former US security adviser and secretary of state Henry Kissinger categorises world leaders into two classes: “statesmen” and “prophets”. The former tries to maximise the possible, the latter takes the ideal as an imperative and tries to impose it on the possible. The former factors in capacities, feasibility, available tools and costs; the latter has his sights set on the grandeur and, sometimes, the sanctity of the task. One is grounded in reality; the other is obsessed with the honour and glory of the mission. 

Turning now to the current state of the internal order, the global order (the two are not the same thing), and planetary order, since the earth itself has recently emerged as another transnational actor, there are four leaders who stand at the crossroads of history, facing a complex storm that started with a seemingly insignificant virus, spread into a pandemic and was further aggravated by a war that no one had anticipated or imagined, namely the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The cumulative result has been international economic havoc. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin is at the crux of the revision of the international order as it had stood since the end of the Cold War. He openly defied NATO and then launched the earth-shaking invasion of Ukraine. In the ten months since the war began, the world has changed in every way, except the way Putin wants. Ukraine has not surrendered, NATO has not backed down, the Russian occupation has shrunk from 20 to 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory, and Sweden and Finland have joined NATO. The human toll has been enormous, yet now Russia has rolled up its sleeves with a view to destroying Ukraine as opposed to welcoming it back to the motherland. 

Last week, Moscow announced that it would not attend the Russian-US strategic arms reduction talks set to be held in Cairo on 29 November. It indicated that Washington sought only to harm Russia and would probably use the occasion as a trap to this end. The call for a meeting followed President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s appeal, at the COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, for an end to the war and start of negotiations, after President Biden’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali. The point was to start bilateral talks on a matter of critical importance to international security and undoubtedly in the interest of both sides. The talks could pave the way to dialogue on other crucial issues, not least the war in Ukraine. In stopping the process before it began, Russia opted to stay the course of venting its spleen on Ukraine, destroying it more than it already has, in the hope that this would shift the balance to enable Russia to return to the negotiating table with its head held high. 

Ukrainian President Zelensky took the success of his counteroffensive and the liberation of Kherson as his cue to up Ukrainian demands to the maximum. He now insists on the complete Russian withdrawal from all of Ukrainian territory including Crimea, reparations, and prosecuting Russian commanders for war crimes. The position overlooks the fact that Russia is a nuclear power that has been able to weather international sanctions, and that the Ukrainian resistance relies on Western economic and military aid. After ten months, the West can no longer afford to sustain the same levels of support in view of various economic and political factors, such as the shift to the right in many countries and the growing opposition to an open chequebook for aid to Ukraine. 

President Biden appears to be the Western leader most aware to the fact that Western sanctions against Russia failed to compel Russia to withdraw. No less importantly, his division of the world into “democrats” and “autocrats” precipitated a crisis over Taiwan, leading to a military blockade of the island and the resignation of its president who called for full independence from China. Had wisdom not prevailed in Washington and Beijing, making it possible for their presidents to meet on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Bali, the Taiwan crisis could have escalated into another Ukraine. The diplomatic success gave Biden an additional boost since the Congressional midterms and now, despite signs of age, he appears set on running for a second term, especially if the Republican opponent ends up being Donald Trump. So, at least for the moment, his priorities are to improve relations and regulate competition with China, and to bring Zelensky down to earth with the assurance that Putin can not last long and Russia will be forced to bow its head among world powers. 

President Xi Jinping appears to be the most levelheaded of the four world leaders. When imposing the blockade on Taiwan, he knew it would be temporary until Washington returned to the solid foundations of US-Sino relations which are based on US president Nixon’s recognition of “One China.”  He also knew, by dint of China’s own experience, that Russia is not a candidate for a similar path to rapid development and to technological superiority in a global market where the US dollar still holds sway. President Jinping’s plans are to increase Chinese nuclear capacities to 1,500 nuclear warheads, to bring China back on track to a seven per cent growth rate, and to expand Chinese international cooperation, starting with the Arab countries, home to the most important energy resources. 

The world might not be ready for a tripolar order, since Russia is not ready. But it might be more stable with a bipolar order, an American-Chinese one this time. 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: