Today’s Internet is buzzing with two circulating images: first, that of Xi and Putin sitting almost knee-to-knee, gesturing naturally and obviously comfortable with each other; second, a official state photograph of France’s Macron and EU’s Ursala, sitting at a Chinese-blue, fabric-covered table with an odd little garden in the middle, perhaps a snide reference to Borell’s European garden.
The twenty feet, or so, of distance between the three leaders sends a clear message to anyone looking at these photographic images that trust between them was gone, irretrievably so. Frankly, it reminded me of my divorce. I remember sitting at a long table, surrounded by lawyers, advocates, more lawyers, negotiators, appraisers, reams of papers and a judge-like figure. I was about as far away from my X as possible — he was, in fact, zooming his testimony on a screen. The point is this: Xi’s get-together was really a divorce between China and the West. Xi didn’t forward any diplomatic initiatives. He ended them.
Xi accomplished what he had set out to do at this meeting. He snubbed Western leaders, put them in their place as among equals and clearly indicated that they can no longer pontificate to the ROW (rest of the world) or demand that other leaders do their bidding. Obviously, the West is still influential, but not as the sole power in the world. The West is a player, even a big one, but it is not THE only player. As the failed war in the Ukraine lumbered on, unipolarity abruptly ended. Humbled, Western powers must now acknowledge BRICS and the ROW.
Xi’s real message to Macron and Ursala was this — know your place! The three of them sat, perfectly triangulated in distance from each other, stiff and formal. There seemed not to be an opportunity for behind the scenes back-patting, intimate conversing, or snuggling toward a closer relationship. Trust between them had been broken. There was no trust because trust, in its deepest essence, isn’t predicated on need but on character.
Trust requires trust-worthiness.
These images, if nothing else, represent a lack of trust as well as a lack of trust-worthiness. The West had proven itself untrustworthy in the eyes of China, Russia and many other countries.
“The West is not in a position to give instructions to China, and even more so does not have the authority to throw the responsibility on it,” said Chinese Ambassador to Russia, Zhang Hanhui.
“These negotiations can only be based on taking into account Russian legitimate interests, legitimate concerns,- our concerns – were arrogantly ignored with disdain[from Western colleagues] and with the words: ‘What NATO is doing with Ukraine is not your business,‘” said Lavrov earlier. Lavrov was not at this meeting.
“We will never tolerate the US pointing the finger, or even coercing and putting pressure on our relationship with Russia,” said China’s Wang Wenbin
Even staged photo-ops of this event that showed Macron’s characteristic hyena-smile also revealed the aura of tension between them. Ursala didn’t display her usual middle-schoolish, giggling, popular-girl behavior. She was reserved. Cowed, even. Macron looked sheepish and desperate.
China came out on top. It set the terms by pushing away these representatives of Western power. Xi neither promised to meet Zelensky (why bother?) or to reign in Putin whom he seems to genuinely like. He gave nothing, as far as anyone knows, but sat like a sober-faced panda, definitely in charge, relishing the momentary frisson of putting his playground tormenters in their rightful places, that is, below him in the international prestige/power hierarchy.
If Macron had been trying to divert French eyes from his failed domestic policies to his international importance as a negotiator, his gambit failed. He looked emaciated and rejected, as do all European leaders these days. Oh, how the mighty have fallen!
With a whimper.