War, beyond being just a struggle for territory, is a process. Long-running wars, in particular, have the potential to transform geopolitics, and this is playing out in Putin’s war in Ukraine. Sanctions initially intended to isolate Russia have created a bifurcated world where the G7 nations have shunned the slavic state, while other nations are left with difficult decisions about whether and on what terms they may choose to trade with it.
If we expect to stem the slow drift of states into the anti-G7 sphere, the West needs to articulate a vision for the future that draws global support for progressive democracy.
With each passing day, countries are increasingly finding ways to trade that are insulated from the risk of Western sanctions. Discussions about BRICS-bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) banking have been going on for at least 10 years, but it took Putin’s war and the advent of Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDC’s) to accelerate its development.
And other countries, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, are now getting into the act as well. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have joined Project mBridge, a settlement exchange that uses CBDCs for inter-country exchange, and is meant to bypass the SWIFT payment network and its role in enforcing Western sanctions.
Taken to scale via network effects, this could pose a serious risk to the hegemony currently enjoyed by the United States and the dollar. Countries participating in this alternate reality could buy and sell oil and other commodities amongst themselves without any need to hold dollars and without fear of G7 sanctions. While most analysts dismiss near-term risks to the dollar, it is difficult to project how emergent banking networks may evolve.
But history offers us some clues. Putin is increasingly networked with authoritarian leaders around the world, and indeed this network is converging on the bargain typically offered by such strongmen: the promise of simple solutions to complex problems. Simply join our network, they say, and we will usher in a new global order together — a multi-polar world free of oppression by the “golden billion,” a personal obsession of Putin’s and just one of several narratives he has deployed to lure support for his worldview.
Other deceptions have been deployed as well. Putin’s idea of “noocracy” is portrayed as a bold new vision for global governance rooted in cooperation and sustainable development. However, far from the egalitarian, enlightened “noosphere” concept originally developed by Vladimir Verndadsky and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Putin’s concept is more of a meritocratic, technocratic “rule by the wise” — where Putin and his pals are “the wise.” No thanks.
Putin and his allies Aleksandr Dugin and Steve Bannon have misrepresented and caricatured liberal-democratic values as bankrupt, extreme, and ineffectual. Coordinated and relentless information warfare has paraded cherry-picked straw-men such as false accusations of “grooming,” panic over participation of transgender people in sports, and false claims that children are being taught Critical Race Theory in order to make them hate the United States. These bogus claims have become stand-ins for the majority of Americans’ actual, much more moderate and nuanced beliefs. And we fall for the trap by defending these extreme and odd arguments, thus appearing to confirm the false pretenses of the attacks.
Even as Putin’s anti-G7 “golden billion” rhetoric is built on a raft of lies, populations around the world can choose from a smorgasbord of narratives like “Kyivan Rus” unity between Ukraine and Russia, or Eurasian destiny, or Noospheric woo, or a “Thucydides Trap” inevitability to US-China conflict, to justify their alignment against the Western project.
The West is not only failing to communicate a positive vision for the future, there is scant evidence that there even is such a vision. The most visible goal of NATO’s engagement in Ukraine is merely to rewind things to a pre-invasion state, ejecting Russia from the country.
While that goal is correct and should be non-negotiable, observers could be forgiven for thinking that the only “big idea” the West is defending in Ukraine is that of state sovereignty — an idea which was first articulated in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia, (nearly 400 years ago). The implication is that prior to the invasion of Ukraine, the global order was just fine, and it is only Putin’s aggression that was aberrant.
But that argument is poor: growing inequality, corruption and capture of government, and dysfunction within international organizations like the United Nations provide ample evidence that the status quo is less than robust. Organizations like the World Economic Forum provide critics a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and fears of domination by shadowy globalists. And there is growing receptivity to the false argument that NATO expansionism forced Russia’s hand and that there is now a moral obligation to protect civilians by bringing hostilities to an end.
While the West has the moral high ground, hubris is not itself a strategy. Despite the fact that pluralistic democracies have a better vision for the world, by failing to look ahead to what 2050 or 2100 might look like for democracies, we have left open a vacuum for those who might articulate their own vision for the future.
Putin thinks about the future in terms of a multi-polar world. Musk quotes the Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, saying “the earth is the cradle of humanity, but we cannot stay in the cradle forever,” admonishing us to become a multi-planetary species. The West, meanwhile, wrings its hands about climate change, bashing billionaires, worshiping celebrities, and engaging in politics that has all the gravitas of a TV wrestling match.
But rather than adopt the kind of Western defeatism offered by Putin apologists like John Mearsheimer or Jeffrey Sachs, this is the time to stand up and defend Western values. We are not the extremist America-hating “woke” caricatures Dugin and friends claim we are. We stand for empathy, fairness, equality, opportunity, and free enterprise. We see the promise and genius of our Western democracies while we acknowledge our history and failings. We seek a world where everyone can live in dignity.
That vision is worth defending, and it’s about time that the United States and our allies embark on a full-on information offensive to win over hearts and minds around the world. Some have said, tongue-in-cheek, we need “more Top Gun 2,” and exporting culture and the image of military power has long been a strength.
But we are called now to go deeper. Beyond just propaganda, we need to decide what pluralistic democracies wish to become. Until we offer the world a compelling vision of the future — one that a majority of people around the world are willing to fight for — and do a competent job of showing it to them, we should not be surprised that authoritarians are able to corral support for their projects. And history has shown us again and again how that is likely to end.
Dave Troy is an investigative journalist focused on exposing threats to democracy. Based in Baltimore, his background as a technologist with an interest in studying online extremism affords him a unique perspective. His work has appeared at MoMA in New York, and he is a fellow with New America Foundation’s Future Frontlines. Dave writes regularly about information warfare, history, and politics. He is the host of the podcast Dave Troy Presents, and speaks regularly at conferences on disinformation, extremism, and information warfare. Contact information is available at davetroy.com.