Clash of Civilizations in Kazakhstan

The Astana Club is now firmly established as an indispensable annual East-West gathering in the Heartland. This year’s forum, taking place at minus 32 degrees Celsius in the Kazakh capital, could not have been scheduled at a more incandescent geopolitical inflexion point.

Several round tables set to examine the full spectrum of the “megacycle of turmoil” we’re all immersed in – generating massive challenges to an ever-integrating Eurasia, home to ¾ of the world’s population and over 60% of global GDP.

The Star Wars-style round table gathered a mix of assorted Atlanticists, mostly American and British, and Eurasia-wide specialists from China, Russia, India, Turkiye and Azerbaijan. Now let’s get straight into the action.

When it comes to “where are we now and where are we heading”, it was hard to bypass Western nonsense such as Russia acquiring lebensraum and the Thucydides Trap. Additionally, the table was not exactly reconciling the fact that amidst the whole “de-globalization” hype, Singapore remains so attractive to Western elites, when it remains a de facto autocracy.

The always entertaining Edward Luttwak, who advised and continues to advise everyone and his neighbor in the US Deep State, coined landmarks such as “turbo-capitalism”, imprinted the notion of geoeconomics, and raises cows in the Bolivian jungle, once again developed his Chinese obsession. He was adamant: the UN Security Council is a waste of time; “all the countries near China are anti-China” – which is demonstrably false; and “there’s no symmetry between US and China.”

When discussing “the world on the edge of the abyss”, Charles Kupchan from the Council on Foreign Relations, by videoconference, mused on the “strategic defeat” of Russia before calling for a “stop in the bloodshed” – when there were never such calls before the much-lauded, and botched, Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Zhao Long from the Shanghai Institute for International Studies preferred to focus on China’s “strategic patience”, a holistic approach – as well as China as one of the major victims of the proxy war in Ukraine. Zhao Huasheng of Fudan University added that a “doorstep war” only adds to “doorstep insecurity.”

On the threat of fragmentation of the world economy, Sergey Afontsev of the Russian Academy of Sciences stressed how Moscow re-structured foreign trade in less than 6 months, and how the whole mechanism of oil exports to India was put in place in only a few months.

A key thread in all discussions was the “securitization of everything” – and how this dangerous interdependency only exacerbates security risks. Evan Feigenbaum of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace proposes that we are deep into a clash between economic integration and security fragmentation.

A Reality Check on Sanctions

Damjan Krnjevic-Miskovic of the ADA University in Baku made an excellent presentation on the slowly but surely interconnection of Greater Central Asia and Afghanistan – focusing on connectivity across what is in effect the Silk Road space.

A continental bridge is in effect – with China building railways to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan.

The advantages of the multimodal Middle Corridor – or Trans-Caspian, linking China to Europe via Central Asia, the Caspian and the South Caucasus – are bound to overlap with the International North South Transportation Corridor (INSTC), whose main players are Russia, Iran and India.

That will ideally allow the synergistic integration of the South Caucasus, West Asia, Central Asia and South Asia, congregating key actors from the SCO to BRI, and with Afghanistan as a pivot: the whole space, Krnjevic-Miskovic stressed, is “on the cusp of becoming an autonomous actor in the international order.”

A “reality check” on sanctions sparked a debate on the weaponization of the US dollar, with Afontsev re-examining Russia’s restructuring of foreign trade and its success in terms of macro-economic stability and “not allowing internal pressures to rise”. Consequences: Moscow managed to “rally Russian citizens against the West”, and there was “increased supply of labor force to the Russian Federation.”

Zhou Bo, with whom I had fascinating exchanges on the sidelines of the forum, re-emphasized that for the Americans, the friendship between neighbors China and Russia “has to be limited”.
Amidst all the de-coupling and de-risking racket, Bo remarked, the Americans still cling to the fiction of persuading China not to work against the West – when Beijing never harbored such intention. China most of all prides itself of being a member of the Global South, focused on BRICS expansion: a non-Western organization committed to trading in national currencies.

In the end, said Bo, what we have for instance in the South China Sea is continuous US provocations making the PLA ever stronger.

In a quite lively debate on AI, Thomas Cellucci, a key advisor on science and technology commercialization to the Bush II and Obama administrations, emphasized “ethical AI”; transparency in AI algos; and most of all, that science and technology should not be involved in politics.

Zhou Bo for his part emphasized American restrictions on Chinese AI – even as Tsinghua University is working jointly with Brookings on research about military AI and crucial aspects of nuclear command and control. As for the EU, Bo correctly stressed how it’s more interested in “regulating AI” than “creating AI”.

I moderated a debate on the “era of blockalization” – which in the end was quite productive, as there were only two expert presentations: by James Lindsay from the Council on Foreign Relations, and once again Zhou Bo. That left plenty of time for the floor. Essentially, there was a certain agreement WWIII is not around the corner – yet; a bipolar G-2 between the US and China will be resisted by all means by Washington; and the road will be long for the yuan to displace the US dollar across Eurasia.

There may have been two problematic issues at this year’s Astana Club: not enough discussion specifically focused on the Heartland and the Central Asian “stans”; and not enough discussion on the consequences of EAEU/BRICS soon coming up with a viable road map for de-dollarization in trade across Eurasia.

Tensions Finally Come to the Surface

The – final – plenary session focused on “a new formula for peace” – and was opened by Kazakhstan’s First President Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose memoirs have just been published in Russian (and soon in English).

Nazarbayev took care to remind everyone of a crucial point: he was responsible for de-nuclearizing Kazakhstan, dismantling what was at the time the fourth-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, then transferred to Russia by 1995.

He stressed “the collapse of the former world order”; renewed his support for sustainable development; and praised Eurasia’s “most radical transformation in 100 years”.

That set the stage for the final debate. Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero made a passionate plea for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. And legendary Russian journalist Vladimir Pozner, almost 90 years old, who among other things was the host of a popular political TV show on Channel One for 14 years, offered his interpretation of the conflict in Ukraine.

And that’s when the barely contained tension bubbling underneath the forum finally exploded. The catalyst had to be Ukraine.

An Atlanticist disrespected Pozner with a cheap ad hominem attack. I was forced to intervene – in front of everyone. The ensuing debate was stark: on one side, two Russians and myself. On the other side, Anglo-American supremacy.

That only confirmed, once again, that the ongoing American/NATO cosmic humiliation in the proxy war in Ukraine will be for Atlanticists a never to be healed sore wound. The merit goes for the Astana Club to make it, once again, quite graphic, amidst a mostly civil debate on all the aspects of our current, toxic geopolitical predicament.
And no, we did not find a “new formula for peace.”

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