Author: Kishore Mahbubani, Asia Research Institute, NUS
Populations in Western countries are angry. Western elites, who are supposed to lead their societies in the right direction, are instead leading them in the wrong direction on Ukraine. There is a wiser course of action.
This wiser course of action is based on a simple principle — that the perfect is the enemy of the good. G7 countries should accept imperfect solutions that will make their people happier. That will also help the billions of poor people in the Third World who are suffering from higher food and energy prices.
Moral priority has to be given to the sufferings of the poor — the bottom 10 or 20 per cent of the world’s population.
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’.
The global poor are suffering today for three main reasons. The massive post-COVID-19 stimulus packages, especially in the United States, have unleashed global inflation. Financial Times economist Martin Wolf recently wrote that ‘the combination of fiscal and monetary policies implemented in 2020 and 2021 ignited an inflationary fire’.
The illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine, followed by massive on Russia, have led to a huge spike in energy and food prices. And despite these sanctions, the EU has paid more money for Russian gas. Since the war began on 24 February 2022, Europe has paid more than US$60 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, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who said ‘our total purchases for the month would be less than what Europe does in an afternoon’.
The Omicron strain of COVID-19 has broken through the defences of China’s zero-COVID policy. This led to massive shutdowns, including lockdowns in Shanghai since March 2022. Since China is the factory of the world, have also contributed to global inflation.
What is the rational response? To find a perfect solution? Or to accept an imperfect solution that alleviates the suffering of many people, including the people of Ukraine and the large number of poor people in the world? The West has been pushing for a perfect solution. The rest of the world would prefer to decrease their suffering with an imperfect solution.
What is the perfect solution? It is what the West is pursuing in Ukraine — the total withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine. No compromise. If the West could accomplish this, it should go for it. But the prospects of achieving this perfect solution in Ukraine are zero.
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 food 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.’
So what is the imperfect solution for Ukraine?
The first step is to call for an immediate ceasefire. Hundreds die each day that the war continues. 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 be between the West and Russia. 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, especially if we can get more countries in the world to talk to Russia.
It would be a huge strategic mistake by the West to get Indonesia, as the host of the G20 meeting on 15–16 November, to disinvite Russian President Vladmir Putin from the meeting. It would be an even bigger mistake for the West to boycott the G20 summit if Putin should attend.
There is one statistic that every Western leader should memorise and repeat each night before going to sleep — the West only comprises 12 per cent of the world’s population.
If Putin comes to Jakarta in November 2022, as he should, he will hear the views of the West and he will hear the views of the rest. Putin is not likely to listen to the West since there is zero trust between Russia and the West. But he will listen to the rest, so the West is stabbing itself in the foot by calling for Putin to be disinvited.
The West is pushing for Putin to be excluded because it is pushing for the perfect solution of trying to defeat Russia. But that is a solution that will never come about.
The West should listen to Indonesia and other non-Western members of the G20 and try to find some kind of compromise solution for Ukraine. Such a 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.
Kishore Mahbubani, a veteran diplomat, is a distinguished fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore. This is a digest of a longer article longer article published in the Straits Times.
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