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A migrant waits on the Mexican side of the border in Tijuana, Mexico. A migrant waits on the Mexican side of the border in Tijuana, Mexico, Jan. 26, 2022 (AP photo by Marco Ugarte).

A Battle Over Borders, Bolsonaro’s War Against the Amazon and More

Saturday, May 7, 2022

The war in Ukraine continues to occupy the attention of policymakers in Washington and Europe. As Russia shifts the focus of its invasion to the country’s south and east, it is becoming increasingly clear that the conflict has entered a new phase, becoming a war of attrition in which neither side seems likely to gain the upper hand anytime soon.

While the Russian offensive once again seems to have stagnated, its destructive impact has not diminished. And while stepped up deliveries of U.S. and European military aid seem to be enabling the Ukrainian armed forces to hold the line, it is uncertain they will be enough to repel Russian forces from the country altogether.

But if the granular details of the fighting understandably command policymaking and popular attention, it is also useful to pull back the lens to frame the bigger picture, because what is more broadly at stake in the war in Ukraine is the effort fix the border between two incompatible systems—the West and Russia under President Vladimir Putin.

It is hard to pin down whether the fundamental incompatibility of those two systems is a cause or effect of the war in Ukraine. Most likely it is both. Putin’s rhetoric over the years has consistently made it clear that he sees the contest with the U.S. and the West as a societal standoff. But if he has repeatedly violated the rules and norms of the post-Cold War international order over his two decades in power, he and his Western interlocutors always found ground for compromise, no matter how grudging and cynical, in order to maintain ties.


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The invasion of Ukraine represents a category difference, in that it closes the door on all possible compromise and calls into question the future of trade and cultural exchanges, and even the possibility of co-existence within a single, integrated global system. The war is Putin’s attempt to set the frontier between the two systems that must emerge at a more advantageous location for Russian interests. Wherever that line now ends up being drawn, it is likely to be durable. 

But Putin’s war of aggression is just an extreme expression of a broader reckoning in the global order. In practical terms, this reckoning also boils down to borders, which have reemerged as a focus of domestic and international politics after a period in which transnational and even postnational approaches to global challenges had gained the upper hand. This current pendulum swing is often described as a shift from globalization to deglobalization, characterized by the backlash against liberalized trade beginning in the mid-2010s. The U.S.-China trade war combined with the effects of the pandemic—which underscored the importance of strategic supply chains for critical goods while straining existing supply chains—have reinforced that trend.

The scramble right now—whether in Ukraine for Russia or in the South China Sea, Taiwan and Himalayas for China—is to fix borders in the most advantageous location for the geopolitical competitions to come. But on a deeper level, the shift underway might be better understood as a reckoning between permeability and impermeability—not just where borders will be fixed, but what will pass freely across them and who will decide. And when it comes to goods, people, information, ideas, rules and norms, the battle over borders and frontiers is also taking place at the U.S. southern border with Mexico, the waters of the Mediterranean and Aegean, and in the virtual cyber-landscapes of the internet.

The utopian visions of a borderless world from globalization’s Golden Age in the first decade and a half of the millennium were naive on two levels. They assumed that the liberalizing effects of connectivity on illiberal societies would be automatic. And they assumed that the effects of connectivity would be unidirectional.

Instead, illiberal societies—as well as socially conservative and religious societies—have found ways to resist the liberalizing effects of connectivity, whether by limiting connectivity itself, fighting back against its liberalizing effects, or undermining the liberal norms underpinning the system from within. Meanwhile, liberal societies have begun to adopt methods and approaches of the illiberal societies they expected to change, from trade protectionism and industrial policy to epistemic closure and identarian politics.

For obvious and justifiable reasons, the granular details of the war in Ukraine are commanding our attention today. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the deeper contest that is also taking place between open and closed systems, the borders between them and what will be allowed to pass through those borders. That’s what is truly at stake, and it is what the often misplaced analogies to a second Cold War elide.

Here are some recent WPR articles to help put that contest into context:

This Week’s Highlights

Bolsonaro Isn’t Letting Up in His War Against the Amazon. In a briefing Thursday, Eduardo Viola and Matias Alejandro Franchini wrote about Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s efforts to undermine environmental protections in the Amazon, making him the country’s first anti-environmental president in its post-dictatorship era.

  • Since taking office in January 2019, Bolsonaro has promoted deforestation in the Amazon for the sake of economic development, criticized the 2015 Paris Agreement to which Brazil is signatory and used nationalist rhetoric to vehemently reject European criticism of his handling of the massive Amazon wildfires in 2019. And in what could potentially be his last year in office, Bolsonaro is pushing Brazil’s legislature to enact three major pieces of anti-environmental legislation that would weaken the law governing environmental licensing in Brazil, allow mining in Indigenous territories and establish a new land regularization framework that could fuel more illegal land grabs in the Amazon.
  • As Eduardo and Matias note, the most visible result of Bolsonaro’s assault on environmental protections in Brazil has been increased deforestation in the Amazon. Bolsonaro’s approach to developing the Amazon, rather than preserving it, grows out of a theology of progress in relation to nature that is supported by Pentecostal evangelical missions in the Amazon aimed at converting Indigenous communities. A range of interest groups benefit from deforestation and the lack of state presence in the Amazon to engage in illegal activities, including logging, cattle-raising, small- and medium-scale mining, trafficking of protected species, and trafficking of drugs, weapons and people.  
  • Bolsonaro’s weakening of environmental protections have set the stage for a range of social tensions and conflicts, particularly between the environmental movement and the different actors involved in deforestation. Another major focus of confrontation and conflict has been around Indigenous communities and territories. A high-profile example of the impact of encroachment involves goldminers that have penetrated more deeply into the Yanomami territories located in the northwest part of the Brazilian Amazon, contaminating water, promoting alcoholism and prostitution, committing rape and causing suicide rates among the Yanomami to rise. 
  • The fate of the three anti-environmental bills that Bolsonaro is currently pushing for will depend on the result of October’s presidential election. If Bolsonaro wins another term in office, the legislation might be passed into law and his war on the environment would continue. But if former President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva’s center-left coalition wins, the new government would likely reverse at least part of the harm done by Bolsonaro in terms of environmental protection, particularly regarding deforestation, even if broader progress might be hobbled by fiscal constraints. But whatever comes next would be better for the Amazon than Bolsonaro.

The War in Ukraine Will Complicate U.S.-China Relations Even More. In a briefing Tuesday, Ali Wyne wrote about the impact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will have on U.S. foreign policy toward China as well as on Washington’s broader strategic outlook.

  • Ali writes that the war will likely undercut U.S. short-term efforts to rebalance its focus to the Asia-Pacific and strategic competition with China, ironically because Ukrainian forces have performed far better than expected in holding off the Russian invasion. The longer the current war of attrition continues, the more military support the West is likely to provide and the more wanton and indiscriminate destruction Russian forces are likely to unleash. That raises the chances that NATO and Russian forces will come into direct conflict, whether through inadvertent escalation or deliberate choice.
  • In the medium and long term, U.S. efforts to rebalance its strategic focus to Asia and the competition with China will depend at least in part on the resolution of the current crisis in Ukraine. In one scenario, an extended standoff that risked an armed confrontation between NATO and Russia would strain Washington’s available military and diplomatic resources. An alternate scenario would see Russia’s aggression facilitate a U.S. rebalance to Asia if European countries undertake sweeping investments to provide for their own military defense and expand them over time, thus requiring fewer forward-deployed U.S. troops and assets.
  • If the eventual effect of Russia’s invasion on the U.S. rebalance is difficult to assess, Ali writes that the China-Russia strategic partnership will almost certainly deepen, given the deep levels of distrust between the U.S. and China, the mutual grievances that Beijing and Moscow express regarding the conduct of U.S. foreign policy and the configuration of the postwar order, and the fact that Russia is the only major power with which China has an improving relationship. But if Beijing sees little to be gained by distancing itself from Moscow, Russia will become a more problematic and less valuable partner for China the longer the war lasts. 
  • Russia’s invasion constitutes an inflection point for U.S. foreign policy, with regard to China but also more broadly. It will likely lead to a further deterioration of relations between the U.S. and China, as well as between Brussels and Beijing should China maintain its close ties with Russia. But whatever course Washington takes, Ali concludes, it should not allow Moscow and Beijing to dictate its foreign policy. Rather it must strive to formulate a foreign policy that endures no matter what actions its competitors take. 

This Week’s Most-Read Story

Whenever Jokowi Leaves Office, Indonesia’s Democracy Will Be Worse Off. And in this week’s top story by pageviews, Joshua Kurlantzick looked at the disappointing reform record of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, amid rumors that Jokowi, as he is known, will attempt to postpone presidential elections scheduled for 2024 to extend his term.

Even if Jokowi does not attempt an outright power grab, just raising the idea of extending the president’s term in office has further damaged Indonesia’s already shaky democracy. And it comes at the same time when Indonesian politicians are considering a reform that would empower a kind of national super-legislature, the MPR, which could then be used to select the president in the future, essentially ending direct-suffrage presidential elections. Whenever he ends up leaving office, Jokowi will be leaving Indonesia’s democracy in its worst shape in years.

What’s On Tap

And coming up next week, we’ve got:

  • A column by Stewart Patrick on the dangers that overexploitation of the ocean’s resources poses to human survival.
  • A briefing by José Aylwin on the challenges facing Chilean President Gabriel Boric’s plans to establish a new relationship between the state and the country’s marginalized Indigenous peoples.
  • A briefing by Fuad Shahbazov on the problems facing Europe’s efforts to increase its gas supplies from Algeria.
  • And an in-depth article by Kanika Gupta on how the Taliban takeover and international sanctions have affected efforts to remove landmines left over from the war in Afghanistan.

Judah Grunstein is the editor-in-chief of World Politics Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @Judah_Grunstein.

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