That Cold January 20, 2025
Living in a world where Xi and even Putin still stand tall and U.S. and European interests over how to deal with Russia and China differ significantly.
- It helps to think about leaders, how they will react and what policies they will pursue over the medium term.
- Antonio Machado, the early 20th century Spanish poet, wrote that “neither tomorrow nor yesterday is written”. But focusing on a distant horizon can help us understand and act in the present.
- Forward planning does not consist of divining the future, or even the past, but rather of constructing the future – or, perhaps better yet, futures.
On that Monday, January 20, 2025, it was cold in Washington, D.C., as it tends to be at that time of year.
The cold weather was a fitting reflection of the tension that had gripped a rearming world.
A double pincer movement on globalization
That world was still embroiled in the various crises brought on by the brutal Russian war on Ukraine that had commenced on February 24, 2022.
The corona pandemic, which had commenced in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, also still had it tentacles deep into the globe. Both events were key factors in globalization having stalled and the move toward “regionalization”.
Look who is still there…
The National Mall in the heart of the American capital was packed with those wanting to attend the inauguration of the new U.S. President.
Vladimir Putin, in his customary office at the Kremlin, had his television tuned to watch and above all listen to the new occupant of the White House and the speech in which he would set out his agenda.
That was also true for Xi Jinping in Beijing. The election held on the preceding November 8, 2024, involving neither Joe Biden, who had been beset by ill-health, nor his failed Vice-President, Kamala Harris, had revealed a deeply divided country, effectively split in two.
The European duo
Only two of the political leaders of the three Western powers remained from the crisis unleashed by the 2022 war, Emanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz.
Both were glued to their TV sets, one in the Elysée Palace and the other in the Chancellery in Berlin. Like good politicians, they were not thinking about where the world was heading, but where they could steer it, or at least try to.
“We put ourselves in Biden’s hands. Just as well we ensured that the EU made some progress in geopolitical and military terms, if not on defence policy”, Macron said to Scholz by telephone.
Putin’s Pyrrhic victory
Although Putin had declared victory in Ukraine, the Russian President knew that he and his country had been left severely weakened.
His country now faced a NATO that, while it had not absorbed the rest of the invaded country, had closed ranks. The alliance had decided on forward defense, with permanent bases in the Baltic and the countries adjoining Russia, befitting a military cold war.
Ukraine and the Borrell Plan
Ukraine, or what remained of it de facto if not de jure, was still led by the indefatigable Volodymyr Zelenskiy. He is viewed as a national and international hero, victor by dint of resistance.
His badly bruised country was helped by the “Borrell Plan”, a sort of European Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of the country. Given its new neutral status, however, it lacked any real prospect of joining the EU, still less NATO.
Putin had actually survived an internal revolt (Biden had gone so far as to declare that a man like him should not rule and this, despite being immediately disowned by the White House, had strengthened Putin internally).
He had been re-elected President in March 2024, in the first round. The opposition had been muzzled, but the abstention rate had approached 50%.
Putin was already heading for a quarter of a century at the helm of the Russian Federation, and was starting to see the end looming, realizing that it could never be normal, however normality might be understood.
How China plays it Russia card
China, where Xi Jinping had been given an open-ended extension at the end of 2022, continued helping Russia out of trouble.
But Xi and the entire Chinese leadership had lost all confidence in Putin. “An incompetent”, Xi thought to himself. Xi remembered how, in the midst of the Ukraine war, Biden and the EU had asked him to intercede with Putin to put an end to hostilities, something he had formally rejected but discreetly done.
Xi had paid attention to Biden when the latter had warned him, in a constructive tone, that “China should understand its economic future is much more closely tied to the West than to Russia”. Xi saw Russia as a strategic partner, but not as an ally.
China’s own dependence
As with the fall of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union, China again felt let down by Moscow and drew its own lessons.
Xi was perfectly aware of what, apart from the nuclear arena — and there were many in Washington clamouring for new arms control agreements to include the three great powers in this regard – what would really continue to unsettle the United States.
After all, the new U.S. President had been clear on this in his election campaign. It was China’s rivalry as an economic power in all areas except global cultural prowess.
The limitations of the West
But “the West” – what a comeback that term had made – knew that it could not wage two cold wars, or maintain a hot peace on two fronts (based on permanent hybrid wars), simultaneously.
And the priority for the United States was China, the only country that could challenge its dominance.
A European split with the U.S.?
The U.S. alone trying to stand up to China was insufficient. It needed the support of the Europeans in this strategy.
Macron and Scholz were well aware of this. However, although the Europeans had long since ceased being naïve about China, there was no single European policy towards Beijing.
The two European leaders agreed on the need to retain the mixture of cooperation and competition with China. This was necessary for a whole host of reasons – overcoming the recession, securing a robust recovery of the European economy and avoiding a world split down the middle.
Rebooting the EU?
Europe, after years of crisis, needed to grow. In contrast, the U.S. economy had been less affected by the Ukraine war than Europe.
In the eyes of both Macron and Scholz, it was time to focus in earnest on the implementation of the plethora of European Commission initiatives. Designed to combat the effects of the corona pandemic – which continued in fits and starts – and the war, it was still limping along.
“We must revive the idea of European sovereignty, or at least autonomy, which was set back by the war”, the French leader said to his German counterpart, reverting to his longstanding obsession.
This task was not made any easier by the fact that NATO had recovered. It also did not help that, despite advances being made in the EU, Europe remained without any big tech titans.
Macron focussing on his legacy
Macron, who had only three years of his second and final term left as President of France, wanted to bequeath a European legacy). So he asked Scholz whether, once the Ukraine war had receded, albeit not overcome, it would not be necessary to deal with Russia in some way.
How about creating a new European architecture of security and development worthy of the name, to generate stability and trust between all parties?
Macron’s suggestion fell on very receptive ears in the German Chancellery. This, after all, was the longstanding fascination of German Social Democrats.
Another peace treaty?
So how about a post-war agreement, to give the peace treaty more meaning and thrust?
This endeavor was, of course, complicated by the fact that Putin had been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.
It also did not help that a significant part of the West’s economic and financial sanctions remained in place. After all, Putin had not yet really renounced anything, except occupying the whole of Ukraine.
As well, European purchases of Russian gas, oil and coal had fallen and would fall further with the new system adopted by the EU, something that would again benefit the United States as a net exporter of fossil fuels.
But both leaders were fascinated by one thought: If Germany and France could resolve their differences in the wake of three wars, how could progress not be made towards reconciliation with Moscow?
Particularly if it meant ensuring peace in Europe and prying Russia away from China? Enabling close relations between Russia and China had after all been one of the West’s great strategic errors. Perhaps the new U.S. President would focus more on this, the two European leaders agreed.
Then, everyone fell silent. The new US President had just begun his inauguration speech.
It helps to think about leaders, how they will react and what policies they will pursue over the medium term.
Antonio Machado wrote that “neither tomorrow nor yesterday is written”. But focusing on a distant horizon can help to understand and act in the present.
Forward planning does not consist of divining the future, or even the past, but rather constructing the future – or futures.
Macron understood this very well. He was a graduate of that school of thought.