Ukraine and the West’s quest for a perfect solution

Ukraine and the West’s quest for a perfect solution, The Straits Times, 1 July 2022, SPH-ID : 47112238

Travel is back!

I say this with confidence because I have been to Europe on
three separate trips (Davos in May, Venice and Zurich in June). And just before Davos, I was in the United States for three weeks. It was difficult to get seats on flights (and, by the way, this column was written on SQ345 from Zurich to Singapore).

Why do I say all this? Having visited both the US and Europe in
recent weeks, I can say with some confidence that the West is a
deeply troubled place. The populations are angry. And the
best-educated Western elites, who are supposed to lead their societies in the right direction, are instead leading them in the wrong direction. As a friend of the West, I would like to suggest a wiser course of action.

This wiser course of action is based on a simple principle: the
perfect is the enemy of the good. The West should accept imperfect solutions which will make their people happier. Equally
importantly, it will also help the billions of poor people in the Third World who are suffering from higher food and energy prices.

Here, I would also like to inject an important point from moral
philosophy. At the end of the day, we have to give moral priority to
the sufferings of the poor, the bottom 10 or 20 per cent of the
world’s population. Indeed, it would be cruel and callous to
ignore their sufferings.

This is why the greatest American political philosopher of recent
times, John Rawls, emphasised that the most just society was the one that took care of the bottom 10 per cent. As he outlined in his seminal work, A Theory Of Justice, any social or economic inequalities, if they are to satisfy the principles of justice, “are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society”.

THREE CRITICAL FACTORS

And why are the very poor suffering? It’s the result of three
critical factors.

First, the massive stimulus packages post-Covid-19, especially
in the US, have unleashed global inflation. As Martin Wolf wrote in the Financial Times, “The combination of fiscal and
monetary policies implemented in 2020 and 2021 ignited an
inflationary fire”.

Second, the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine, followed by
the massive Western sanctions on Russia, have led to a massive spike in energy prices.

Ironically, despite (or perhaps, because of) these sanctions, the
European Union, has paid more money for Russian gas. Since the
war began on Feb 24 this year, the Europeans have paid more than
US$60 billion (S$83 billion) for Russian oil and gas, while
complaining that India and China were buying too much Russian oil This led to the now famous quip from the Indian Foreign Minister, Dr S. Jaishankar, who said “our total purchases for the month would be less than what Europe does in an afternoon”

Third. the Omicron virus, a tricky virus, has broken through
the defences of China’s zero-Covid policy. This led to massive
shutdowns including in Shanghai from March. Since China is the
factory of the world, supply shocks have also contributed to global
inflation. In short, we have had an almost perfect storm.

In short, we have had an almost perfect storm. What
should be the rational response? To find a perfect
solution? Or to accept an imperfect solution that
alleviates the sufferings of many people, including the
people of Ukraine and the massive number of poor
people in the world? The West has been pushing for
a perfect solution. The rest of the world would prefer to
see their sufferings decrease from an imperfect solution.

What should be the rational response? To find a perfect
solution? Or to accept an imperfect solution that alleviates
the sufferings of many people, including the people of Ukraine
and the massive number of poor people in the world?
The West has been pushing for a perfect solution. The rest of the
world would prefer to see their sufferings decrease from an
imperfect solution What’s the perfect solution?
This is what the West is pursuing in Ukraine: total withdrawal of
Russian forces from Ukraine. No compromise.

Certainly, if the West could accomplish it, it should go for it.
But what are the prospects of the West achieving this perfect
solution in Ukraine? The answer is zero.

In short, the apparently rational West is pursuing an impossible
solution. And in the process, the people of Ukraine are suffering.
And, equally importantly, the Western search for a perfect
solution is causing enormous suffering for a massive number of
poor people.

World Trade Organisation (WTO) director-general Ngozi
Okonjo-Iweala said: “The war in Ukraine has created immense
human suffering, but it has also damaged the global economy at a
critical juncture. Its impact will be felt around the world, particularly in low-income countries, where accounts for a large fraction of household spending… Smaller supplies and higher prices for food mean that the world’s poor could be forced to do without.

CALL A CEASEFIRE

So what is the imperfect solution for Ukraine?
The first step is to call for an immediate ceasefire. Why? Each
day that the war continues hundreds are dying. Plus, if
Ukraine is going to feed the world again in 2023, it needs to get
fertiliser so its farmers can start planting in 2022. More food in
2023 equals less suffering for the global poor.

The second step is to start talking to Russia. There should be
two levels of talks. The first should be between Ukraine and Russia. The second should between the West and Russia. And what would be the outcome of these two steps? Ukrainian lives would be saved And the whole world would breathe a sigh of relief.
Then comes the hard slog, Given the huge chasm between Western and Russian positions on Ukraine there will be no immediate long-term solution. But we’re more likely to get one if talks begin And we’re more likely to get one if we can get more countries in the world to talk to Russia

This is why it’s a huge strategic mistake by the west to get
Indonesia, as the host of the G-20 meeting on Nov 15-16, to disinvite President Putin from this meeting. And it would be an even bigger mistake for the West to boycott this G-20 meeting if Mr Putin attends.

There’s one statistic that every Western leader should memorise
and repeat each night before going to sleep: the West comprises 12 per cent of the world’s population. The rest make up 88 per cent.

If Mr Putin comes to Jakarta in November, as he should, he will
hear the views of the West. And he will hear the views of the rest. Mr Putin is not likely to listen to the West since there’s zero trust
between Russia and the West. But he wiIl listen to the rest. The West is therefore stabbing itself in the foot by calling for Mr Putin to be disinvited.

And why is the West pushing for Mr Putin to be excluded? Here we come back to the main theme of his essay: because the West is
pushing for the perfect solution of trying to defeat Russia. But this
perfect solution will never come about.

Hence, the West should listen to Indonesia and all the non-Western members of the G-20 (who electively represent 88 percent
of the world’s population) and try to find some kind of a compromise solution for Ukraine. Such a compromise solution will save the lives of Ukrainians. And it will alleviate the sufferings of the hundreds of millions of poor people in the world.
In short, the pragmatic solution is also the ethical solution.

1 July 2022

Kishore Mahbubani, a veteran diplomat, is a distinguished fellow at
the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore.

Source: The Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Permission required for reproduction”.

https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/byinvitation-ukraine-and-the-wests-quest-for-a-perfect-solution

 

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