Some autocratic regimes seek legitimacy through staging elections. All of them seek legitimacy through criticising the West. The war in Ukraine challenges such criticisms. Prospects for school leavers have become a far better proxy for legitimacy.

Cultivating a sophisticated and up-to-date worldview typically requires appreciating much history, economics, and the basics of international relations while dutifully tracking current events. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and how nations respond provides a surprisingly effective summary. Two simple tricks make this easier still.

Objectivity

Making sense of the world is much less elusive if we strive for the objectivity of a lab scientist. Conversely, politicians and media organisations seek to bond with their audiences through appealing to their loyalties and values. This is difficult to resist, as we are highly social animals, inclined to group around shared values. 

As judging ‘outsiders’ fosters a sense of belonging, group members can be encouraged to believe that the shared characteristics of a rival group define the people within that group. If we don’t resist such characterising, we become vulnerable to agenda-driven narratives leading to much polarisation. More curiosity and less judging makes accessing global dynamics much easier.

Observation

The second shortcut is a simple observation. Economics is central to international relations and geopolitics is central to global economic growth. Therefore, it should hardly be surprising that geopolitical analysts are correct about as frequently as investment analysts. Their skills and tools are extremely similar.

Many of the world’s top investors are wrong as frequently as they are right. But like geopolitical decision-makers, the best ones cut their losses while sticking with their winners.  

Whether Western nations are right or wrong about issues like Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction or Vladimir Putin’s intention to invade Ukraine is of modest long-term significance. Western nations deliver superior results because they have structured their portfolios, so to speak, around democratic institutions while advancing a rules-based global order.

Superior

Using criteria such as life expectancy, entertainment options, and dentistry, the life styles of average Europeans have become far superior to what the nobility from earlier generations experienced. That similar trends have been playing out across many nations in East Asia and elsewhere traces to the economic development advantages of a rules-based global order mixing with technological advances that lower communication and transport costs.

Invading Ukraine was never going to serve Russian interests. If, instead, Mr Putin supported the rules-based global order and sought to integrate his economy into global supply chains beyond supplying raw materials, Russia’s quality-of-life trajectory would be vastly more favourable. While his regime has spurned any version of valid legitimacy, as he controls his country’s news outlets and how issues are framed, he remains very popular with many Russians.

Unlike in Russia and some other authoritarian regimes, China’s government has not sought legitimacy by staging elections. Its implicit social contract, whereby political representation is sacrificed in return for rising living standards, conveyed substantial legitimacy for four decades. As this model is now wobbling, Beijing has responded by becoming ever more controlling.

Disruptive progress

Even before the internet accelerated the pace of disruptive progress, it had become clear that Marxist economic structures and practices retarded development. The last century’s battle of political ideologies also narrowed. The alliance between presidents Putin and Xi, followed by Russia invading Ukraine, shows a contest between autocracies supported by massive patronage networks versus constitutional democracies with institutions constraining the powers of duly elected officials. The performance of Russia’s army is telling.

The West and Russia form the base of a triangle, as they represent two extremes politically and economically. China’s leaders would see that country forming the top of the triangle. They believe their centralised political control is superior to seemingly chaotic Western democracies. They also see their positioning as the world’s top manufacturer and goods exporter as proof of their economic supremacy. Yet, it is getting harder to support such perceptions. 

The West’s view of itself has become hypercritical and this expresses itself in ways which China viewed as fundamental weaknesses. But as rapid-fire disruptions have become central to global economic growth, might some political chaos be useful?

Fight to the death

That the Ukrainian people have chosen to fight to the death for their freedoms has encouraged Westerners to upgrade their assessments of their governments and their capabilities. Accepting Russian domination would not have significantly altered life for most Ukrainian adults. They are fighting so Ukrainians born in this century can integrate into Europe rather than being annexed into Russia. While Westerners were suddenly confronted with the realisation that Russia is an enemy, they are slowly appreciating that China could ultimately be the greater threat to a peaceful, rules-based, global order. 

The broader shift is that Westerners are coming to see both themselves and the world more pragmatically. 

The legitimacy of today’s governments can be fairly gauged by the prospects of their school leavers over the foreseeable future, say, ten years ahead. Russia’s economic trajectory has plunged for fully avoidable reasons. China’s economic prospects have been dimming and many credible scenarios point to further declines. 

Our youth unemployment is the world’s worst and the situation continues to deteriorate. Yet the ANC has shown no interest in adopting pro-growth policies. Rather, as a result of the Ukrainian invasion creating greater fiscal space due to higher commodity prices, the ANC is likely to expand basic income grants. 

ANC elites seem to presume, not unreasonably, that they will remain the dominant political party in the national government after the 2024 election. They probably further presume that by 2029 the effects of sustaining ultra-elevated youth unemployment will create sufficient chaos to declare a state of emergency from which the Constitution never recovers.

We should better appreciate why Europeans, and other so-called “Westerners,” are choosing to reassess the legitimacy, and thus economic vibrancy, of governments reluctant to criticise Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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contributor

Shawn Hagedorn worked in banking, finance and capital markets in New York City and London before emigrating to South Africa. He holds degrees in finance, economics, and international business and his writing has appeared in a number of publications including Business Day, Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, and Politicsweb, amongst others.