by Flo Read
Thursday, 17
March 2022
Video
15:38

Samo Burja: Sanctions will divide civilisation

The Ukraine war is hastening us towards a multipolar world
by Flo Read

With Western powers increasingly assertive against Russia, it seems that we are finally witnessing the end of the unipolar world. Financially, culturally and spiritually, are we in the process of bifurcating?

Freddie Sayers sat down with Samo Burja, a sociologist and the founder of Bismarck Analysis, to look at the big-picture impact of the Ukraine war.

Western hegemony, says Burja, has an expiry date. Sanctions against Russia and anti-Russian sentiment since the start of the war in Ukraine has only made this split more imminent.

America and Europe might enjoy the illusion of influence, but it is China that holds the real power to accelerate the decoupling of East and West. By refusing to sanction Russia and perhaps even providing alternatives to the SWIFT banking system and limited services like Netflix or Facebook, China could make survival possible outside the Western sphere.

We should not count an excluded Russia out. With potential markets in Africa, Asia and South America, Russia still has the majority of the world to do business with. They might be five years behind the West, Burja admits, but whatever America invents, the rest of the world can quickly imitate.

It is only Western hubris which tells us that we have control over which way the next decade will go. Russia is an ‘anarchic’ state and Putin is a leader with few off-ramps. Sanctions have also exposed weaknesses in the Western system. What was the point of supporting the Saudi regime now that their oil reserves aren’t forthcoming? A risky precedent is being set: countries on the periphery of the Western world must choose if they are in or out.

The silver lining, if there is one, may be that competition could encourage dynamism in Western production and manufacturing if it is necessary to decouple from Chinese factories or Russian oil reserves. It could end the decadent decline we see in the West and stimulate a new age of invention.

A more pessimistic outcome, is that the West becomes increasingly illiberal as it tries to compete. Our internet is less and less free, with Western powers banning RT and Sputnik from airing unpopular opinions on the war in Ukraine. Add that to the seizure of protesters’ bank accounts in Ottawa and surveilled lockdowns of the pandemic and Western democracies are starting to seem more, not less, similar to Beijing. The spectrum of possibilities for world civilisation is wide open like it has not been for forty years.

Thanks to Samo Burja for a fascinating conversation.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
6 months ago

Outstanding interview. Thanks, Unherd.
I’ve read many articles on Unherd about the decline of the West, and I often ask how do we fix the West’s fixation with destroying its own culture and achievements. Maybe we see a glimmer of hope in Samo Burja’s interpretation of what is happening in Ukraine and beyond. Maybe we really do need enemies at the door to wake us from our long hangover.

Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
6 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

By returning focus to local manufacturing & innovation; investing in vocational & engineering education, could represent a real chance for economic progress.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
6 months ago

I only agree with about two-thirds of Samo’s analysis, but a fascinating interview, thank you. I look forward to reading articles by Samo on UnHerd with further debate.

A couple of counters I want to make to the analysis, around the impossibility of suppressing information and controlling narratives in the long term (notwithstanding the demonstrably stonking job of that that China is currently doing), the fact is this in effect turns into a race to attract global talent, and linking those two points, it will be the most ‘valuable’ talent in countries like Russia and China that it will in fact be impossible to preventing from gleaning what is really happening in the rest of the world. And this incentivises more than ever that talent strata in such countries to get out and leave for the West. There are, after all no huge queues of global migrants attempting to break *into* Russia and China. Talent, like everyone else, finds the West more conducive for the lives they want for themselves. And given that the West can pick off all the high quality tech and STEM talent from those countries, just like it has done from India, will leave those countries less able to compete in an ever more technology enabled world.

Last edited 6 months ago by Prashant Kotak
Warren T
Warren T
6 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Are you suggesting that only talented people have a Western world view, and that there are no highly talented people who want to stay in China or Russia?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
6 months ago
Reply to  Warren T

I’m just saying talent has a better chance to go where it will. Everything I know about India and Indians, tells me people there want to come to the West if they can, and not just because of the meterial prosperity but also intangibles like the fact that you can make your own path in life on your own terms, more so than where they are. I don’t know much about Russians but I have befriended many Chinese. The Chinese have a historical sense of China and what is to be Chinese, but I contend, that is all skin deep, even with the people who get all het up about that stuff. I don’t see the Chinese or Russians are so different and want anything different.

Last edited 6 months ago by Prashant Kotak
Warren T
Warren T
6 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Ok got it. Thanks.

Saul D
Saul D
6 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I think we’ve lost sight of how important freedom is to the western psyche. A welfare state is all well and good, but what’s most attractive is freedom of thought and freedom of opportunity, where children of immigrants can build billion dollar companies.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
6 months ago
Reply to  Saul D

I think only Americans can see ‘freedom’ as being predominantly a matter of forming ‘billion dollar companies’. In the UK this plays well on the neo-liberal side of the Tories (persistent since the days of Thatcher) but I would say that it has little appeal to the British as a whole. The paradox is that ‘freedom’ is already, practically, universal. Anyone in theory can do anything they want, subject only to physical restraints. What should exercise people is the moral justification of certain, bounded, limits to freedom, which is in fact the territory on which most of us walk, for most of our lives. In other words we require a firm theory of the source of valid, compelling, ‘authority’ (which requires no enforcement for the majority), which is really what is in dispute in the politics of our time. The competing sources in a ‘state’ are mainly ‘religion’ (which seems today to be coalescing more on the ‘conservative’ side), the ‘will of the people (or ‘demos’)’ (on the broader left) and otherwise ‘scientism’ and credentialism which puts a high premium on ‘intelligence’ and ‘competence’ (which is the plague of our days, as it has no external roots (apparently, though I consider it to be an unacknowledged sub-section of ‘religion’ – the mystic religion of ‘degrees achieved by the initiate’ of older days). It’s purely a a matter of local self-definition). These are not new problems. Practically every major western political thinker of the past has had to deal with them, in one form or another.

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
6 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

You might be a touch over-optimistic in your assessment regarding talent. It was certainly true in the past that highly-educated people from China and India in STEM and other fields flocked to the US and once there wanted to stay. Now not so much. Fewer want to comne, and many of those that do come, surprisingly enough, want to return. Why is beyond me, but they do.

Bo Yee Fung
Bo Yee Fung
6 months ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

Perhaps they see America for what it is, now. Young people like to come here because of its ‘freedoms’ and abundance of materialistic gadgets. Other people who are less hypnotized by these may realize that this country is, at least in its current state, not necessarily where they would like their children to grow up in. I certainly have found that I prefer to be among my own people. When I was naturalized in 2008, I was very proud to be a part of this country. Now that I know more about its policies, both domestic and international, I feel betrayed. The West is morally in decline, but it still wants to lecture others, and pretends it is morally superior. Have the decency to put your own house in order first.

Peter Branagan
Peter Branagan
6 months ago

An excellent analysis of the geopolitical fallout from the Ukraine war. Even in the most optimistic scenario for the West it’s economic and military hegemony is over.

Saul D
Saul D
6 months ago

Excellent discussion. I find myself wondering what the Asian take is on the Ukrainian situation as Asia as a bloc is most likely to benefit from the fallout.

Steve Bouchard
Steve Bouchard
6 months ago

Very interesting analysis. However, the negativity of glass buildings is not universal. Being in the glass business, I love them!

Last edited 6 months ago by Steve Bouchard
Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
6 months ago

I agree 100% with Samo’s analysis. Brilliant and enlightening interview by Freddie.
In terms of the future of the West, or at least the US-led world, I think that everything hinges on the outcome of the 2022 mid-term and 2024 presidential elections, and just how much damage the democrats and Jo Biden can do in the next 2 3/4 years. In just over a year, Biden has managed to turn a thriving economy, completely self-sufficient in energy, into a woke disaster with massive inflation and an economy that is rapidly going to go down the drain burdened as it is by massive debt, debt that is incidentally held to a large extent by the Chinese who are therefore in a position to totally screw the US up at will.
The question is whether the US is in irreversible free fall, or whether it can still recover. I hope the US recovers but right now I would say it’s a 50:50 proposition. When a nominee for the Supreme Court cannot answer the question of what the meaning of “woman” is on the excuse that she is not a biologist is beyond me. Did nobody tell her that in Jo Biden’s words she was nominated because he chose to only consider black women. As for the US military it is so overextended and over-commited, and so restrained by rules of engagement and the investigation of so-called “white-rage” by General Milley that it has become a paper tiger.
Now I appreciate that right now many on Unherd, as well as in the halls of congress (on both sides of the aisle), have become exceedingly jingoistic and are beating the drums of war. But I fear that the massive sanctions imposed on Russia will severely backfire on the West, and further they make a negotiated peace settlement less rather than more likely. Even Biden warned that these would result in increased food prices in the US, and that’s just the start.

Allan Tan
Allan Tan
6 months ago

To my mind, the disjointed response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine we see from countries ranging from certain parts of the Middle East and Asia to the African continent is in part the result of the current Administration’s absolutist framing of democracy v autocracy (good v evil). This has drawn the ire of many allies or strategic partners of the US who are not democracies or liberal democracies. To coax a country, say, in Asia that is flirting with democracy to move to full democracy, surely the better approach must be to encourage rather than demonise or wag your finger at it, especially since the US isn’t the perfect example of a liberal democracy itself. Calling the invasion a fight for the liberty of the free world also leaves quite a few countries cold, as while many African, Asian, and Middle Eastern nations respect sovereignty, they are, however, much more concerned with development than the fuzzy ideology of liberty. While the invasion cannot in any way be justified, I do fear that globalisation could now go into reverse or an anarchic state of players doing their own thing, and developing systems that bypass international systems that we’ve known for so long. A less absolutist or Manichean way of framing, for example, the competition with China, actually gives space for countries who are not democracies or less than liberal democracies to breathe, and not feel that they’ve been disowned by the US who once courted them. To me, this will help the US maintain its influence much better than the extreme hawkish stance it adopts these days. For one, it may help repair some of the rifts that we see between, say, the US and Saudi, or the muted response from Asia (other than Japan and South Korea) over the issue of sanctions. Also, these countries might be more amenable to standing with the US on areas of security or competition, if they’re not made to feel like an “outsider” in today’s globalised world. Bringing manufacturing back to the US is no doubt a longer-term strategy that needs to be implemented, but that would take years, and in the meantime, rather than engage in more unnecessary conflicts by defining the world so narrowly as “us – liberal democracies” versus “them -autocracies and that include anyone who’s not a liberal democracy”, use the time to nurture homegrown manufacturing bases. For people such as myself who’ve grown up in the current “world order”, whether or not it’s been robustly fair for all, it has by and large worked, and you cannot deny the benefits that have ensued for nations small and large around the world. An alternative that we’ve not known or lived out in is scary.