“There are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen,” wrote Lenin. The great changes in direction in history are usually not appreciated at the time that they acquire points of inflection, because the daily lives of most of the inhabitants of the globe do not change radically. However, observed retrospectively, those moments are crucial. Everything indicates that the invasion of Ukraine points toward one of those instances, with enormous implications for the future of the world.
Paramount breaking points, such as the end of the Second World War, the collapse of the USSR, the constitution of the European Union or the distancing of China with respect to the West, above all since the 2008 financial crisis, are all inflection points that altered the way the world functions, in some cases dramatically.
The invasion of Ukraine marks another moment of transition. While some of the components of the “new future” had already started taking shape, such as the artificial islands that China had been building in the South China Sea for eventually converting it into an interior “lake”, the direct confrontation ensuing between the West and Russia inaugurates a new era. Primarily, it announces the end of the “holiday from history,” as George Will once wrote. The notion that it is possible for one nation to abstract itself from the interests of the powers assuming that everyone plays according to the same rules appears to have ended. Geopolitics is back.
Though it took some time for this to consolidate, little bits and pieces that were coming together along the way are suggestive. After the end of the Cold War, economic decisions gained preeminence and all nations dedicated themselves to competing by attracting investors to generate new sources of economic growth and development for their countries. Fukuyama penned his famous article entitled “The End of History” a notion that became a mantra for companies and governments: the capitalistic system had won, and the whole world became “flat” according to Thomas Friedman, which was taken to mean that there was no distinction between Germany and Zambia with respect to the localization of an investment. In the meanwhile, Samuel Huntington, Fukuyama’s teacher and a more profound and cautious observer, argued that cultural and political differences would not disappear because of their entertaining similar economic criteria, but the so-called “Davos world” nonetheless became the dominant dogma.
In retrospect, the rise to power of a pack of “strongmen” around the world throughout the last decade announced a change in that model, which, beyond their specific attributes or defects, signaled the appearance of leaders responding to novel sociopolitical realities in countries as a diverse as Brazil, the U.S., Hungary, Turkey, China and Mexico. When the Mexican president argues that economic decisions take a back seat to political ones, the message crystal clear: to hell with the Davos model. For citizens and entrepreneurs that implies a government much less concerned with development and geared to subordination and control.
These circumstances reveal a very clear trend, that which Huntington had identified and which, now, with Ukraine, promises to convert itself into a new geopolitical reality. The U.S. government has always been prone to making decisions that ignore its commercial commitments: its size and nature leads it to suppose that the whole world must fall into step. A recent sample of this is the subsidy for electric cars, which disincentivizes investments in Mexico (and Canada), and is proof that economic rationality has been subordinated to political factors. For Mexico this is scarcely the first sign of what could come about the day that its main growth engine, the American economy, starts to act flexing its muscle as the powerful nation that it is, just as Trump did, in small scale, with respect to immigration.
The return of zones of influence will not be a repetition of what existed during the Cold War, but it will change the way nations relate to each other. The information economy and the era of artificial intelligence change the nature of political and economic activity while there are various burgeoning powers, such as India, which have the capacity to limit the impact of the two or three new zones of influence (U.S., China and Russia) that will foreseeably come into being. In the historical experience, zones of influence imply the preeminence of powers with the capacity to exercise control or some degree of discipline over the nations of a determined region. In the digital era and with real factors of power permanently on the radar, such as the competition between China and the U.S. in diverse demarcations, a new schema of this nature will surely imply greater conflict than that which characterized the Cold War era.
On the other hand, the greatest protection that a nation can achieve in the face of this new reality lies in the obvious: in the strength of its own development, only possible within the context of a government with clarity of direction and a society with no major divisions. The absence of these conditions signals the complicated future that awaits Mexicans.