Russia’s war on Ukraine has affected most countries one way or another, even Chile. While not directly related, the invasion and especially Germany’s response to it hold profound lessons for Chile’s foreign policy generally and engagement with China in particular.
Reactions to the invasion were measured initially, but escalated steadily, as they should. Much is made of Russia’s security interests, but especially the tankie left ignores the fears countries like Finland or Romania have. Nothing short of Russia’s isolation is acceptable. An extreme situation – created needlessly by Russia – justifies an extreme response.
The severe sanctions slapped on Russia will bite over time. Having worked toward this invasion for years, Russia has built a fortress economy that’s not exposed as much. Still, a status quo ante, including intercultural exchanges and mutual investments, is untenable for years to come.
Germany played a crucial role in the sanctions, and Chilean foreign-policy makers, especially the idealistic liberal internationalists that are about to complement the economistic liberal internationalists, should heed the lessons in relation to China.
Since 1945 West Germany has been a steadfast ally of the US. It has benefitted from Marshall Fund resources and the nuclear umbrella, which enabled it to spend on social security and reconstruction. Yet, leadership understood that geography also demands accommodation with the Soviet Union, which was also decisive in defeating the Nazi scourge.
For East Germany, the Soviet Union was a ‘brother nation.’ Both countries aimed to create agrarian workers’ states. Moscow established amicable, if hierarchical relations with its former enemy and much of these bonds persisted after the Berlin Wall fell. As result, reunited Germany was fond of Russia for cultural and historical reasons, which developed into economic interdependency. German production was powered by Russian gas.
Soon a myriad of forums, often headed by former politicians, emerged to facilitate investment and intercultural exchange. Russian authoritarianism was seen in Germany as an internal matter and did not even become a reason for concern when Russia helped Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to bomb civilians and cynically fuel mass migration to Europe.
The cake eaters
But Germany also remained a loyal subordinate to Washington. While not always agreeing on everything, German national interests were so much in line with the US’ interests in Europe that it became host to military bases and nuclear weapons.
Germany worked hard serve the whims of both Moscow and Washington, and was rewarded with energy and investments.
But now Germany has, after some hesitation, supported Russia’s cutting off from the SWIFT payment system, it has canceled the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and backed other sanctions. Germany will also spend over 2% of GDP on its military in response to the invasion.
The significance of these developments can’t be overstated.
Sub-optimal military spending was social consensus for decades for historical reasons, but also to prevent Washington asking for favors and to assure Moscow. Nord Stream 2 was vital for cost effective energy security, and SWIFT handled German-Russian gas payments.
Now, Russia’s behavior has forced Germany to abandon long established pillars of binational relations. The price is steep, and Chile should take note because it is far more dependent on another superpower than Germany is on Russia.
Hubris or skill
Chile has sold China a chunk of its energy system that is large enough to allow Beijing to dominate energy distribution. Chile also depends on Chinese investments in mining and infrastructure. It’s cross-party consensus that China’s authoritarianism and claims on Taiwan are internal issues.
But Chile’s armed forces are also an arm of the US military. The US congress needs to approve equipment sales and hence has large influence over the state’s basic supposedly sovereign function. US capital is also vital in mining and retail, including food distribution.
Politicians celebrate this situation, in which both superpowers are apparently being served and rewards in the form of investment and military prestige are materializing. Chile got its cake and is eating it.
The balance was achieved by adhering to the rather authoritarian concept of ‘insertion into the global economy,’ which assumes that ‘globalization’ is an autonomous process that’s always beneficial. Pushing this concept, foreign policy elites hide that globalization involves policymaking and hence politics, which, however, isn’t democratically justified, since globalization is seen as apolitical and resistance is futile and criticism foolish.
Things have worked out, so the public didn’t notice. But China, like Russia, has cultivated rather than processed historical grievances, not only regarding Taiwan. This small country is as vital for China’s identity and nationalism, which will harden as part of China’s increasingly assertive globalization politics. Not long until Beijing will talk about national security in relation to Taiwan. Such a scenario isn’t inevitable, but it must figure in plans well-paid analysts at Teatinos 180 create.
In such a scenario, Nato’s response to China will be at least as severe as to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – but Chile will pay a much higher price. Yet, not supporting such a response will damage Chilean relations with Taiwan’s allies, all of them economic powerhouses, which would equally exact costs.
It was relatively easy for Chile to condemn Russia’s aggression, but Putin’s cultivating of Argentina’s and Brazil’s leaders just before the invasion has shown that feigning respect pays off. Argentina and Brazil did not sign the condemnation of the invasion by the Organization of American States. Chilean officials have been similarly cultivated for years in China.
Local foreign-policy makers see interdependence, including trade, as always beneficial. They think basics, such as power as determinant of sovereignty, don’t apply anymore.
But ignoring this reality and keep increasing dependence on China would be irresponsible. This doesn’t mean to cut ties, just to take precautions. China, like Russia, is taking precautions too, but aimed at shielding its economy from sanctions.
Evidently, war can never be discarded, not even in Europe, certainly not in Asia.
Having a cake and eating it seems to have served Chile well, but the case of German-Russian relations shows that cake is a luxury product once the bombs fall.
Christian is Managing Editor at Chile Today, where he curates the foreign policy blog Teatinos One/Eighty. Christian is also Lead Editor of E-International Relations, co-editor of an open access textbook on International Relations Theory and Director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI).