The West’s Radar Screens Are Tuned to Find Russian Bears and Very Little Else

This week brought news that will alter the global balance of power and the arc of world history, but few Americans will ever hear it because few American news editors will have the imagination to report on it. The United Nations reports that soon—next year, most likely—India will overtake China as the world’s most populous country. Both countries will have roughly 1.4 billion inhabitants, compared to just 330 million in the United States.

There are several reasons why this headline should fill Americans with equal parts awe and dread. One is that America, and the West more generally, are currently engaged in a bitter proxy war with Russia. Western media and security infrastructure are therefore predictably fixated on addressing threats, both real and imagined, that emanate from the regime of Vladimir Putin.

The simple fact, however, is that Russia has a population of just 147 million. Its economy, even measured according to the more generous purchasing power parity (PPP) methodology, is less than 20 percent the size of America’s. 

If one were to compare Russia to the combined population, wealth, and industrial resources of NATO, Russia is a pipsqueak. No surprise, then, that the Russian military is struggling to wrestle even a minor power like Ukraine into submission.

The first lesson here is that the only way Russia could ever win a conflict with NATO would be if NATO countries were too cowardly to fight back (a depressingly realistic prospect). The second lesson is that Russia is completely incapable of sustaining the role of long-term strategic rival to any of the world’s current first-rate powers, including the United States. Russia is a loose cannon, yes, but it is an obsolete, undersized, poorly aimed cannon, more likely to explode in Putin’s face than in ours.

The pusillanimity of the Western elite in the face of China’s rise, and despite China’s brazen disrespect for international law and global norms, is  by now well known. Joe Biden’s mumbled assurances to Taiwan aside, there is little evidence that any Western country has the moxie to upbraid China verbally, much less to take the hard-headed decisions that would be necessary to contain China militarily, diplomatically, and economically. 

Are we ready, then, to tackle the Chinese dragon, should it rear its ugly head in the mid-21st century? Not remotely.

What’s more disheartening, however, is that India has plotted a similar ascent, and Western academics, corporate leaders, journalists, and politicians have barely noticed. 

India’s progress since the early 1990s has been extraordinary, increasing the per capita income of Indians in PPP terms roughly eightfold. India’s GDP is now around $12 trillion, half that of the United States and climbing quickly. India, moreover, is a functioning democracy with a history of conflict with Communist China—seemingly, therefore, an ideal candidate for an alliance with the West aimed at containing future Chinese aggression. 

India, however, has seen little reason to hitch its wagon to the West’s fading star. In fact, as NATO’s proxy war in Ukraine has dragged on, India has actually strengthened its economic ties with Russia—sensing that there is money to be made in the short term. There is also no discernible Western appetite for butting heads, beyond the current fashion for arms shipments and virtue signaling vis-à-vis Ukraine. India seems to realize that the West’s bark is vastly worse than its bite.

This leaves the United States in a depressingly isolated and steadily weakening position. Two rising great powers, China and India, and one decaying 20th century superpower, Russia, are circling coyly around one another, trying to decide the constellation of forces, friendships, and feuds that will decide the fate of the world in the 21st century. The West, meanwhile, mired in its ossified, Cold War mentality, seems hell-bent on projecting its own dwindling might into Eastern Europe, so it can contain an expected Russian armored thrust into Central Europe that seemed plausible in 1949, but looks, to any rational observer, downright fanciful in 2022.

Or, to put it another way, we in the West seem determined to stick our heads in the sand, as the world moves further and further beyond us, and as new powers rise and flex their muscles, some of which we barely recognize, and none of which our bumbling schoolchildren could find on a map.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, as the West fades into self-imposed irrelevance, the world might actually be better off. That’s because at least a few of the powers and leaders that usurp us might have the good sense to see the world for what it is, instead of what the Western ruling elite wishes it to be.

About Nicholas L. Waddy

Nicholas L. Waddy, an associate professor of history at SUNY Alfred, blogs at www.waddyisright.com.

Photo: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

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