Chatham House chief: Europe's war woes, China's confidence and India's rise

Only Washington and Beijing can resolve Ukraine crisis, think tank's new director Bronwen Maddox tells The National

A Russian soldier fires an anti-tank missile in Ukraine. Western powers are 'ambivalent' about the conflict, said Bronwen Maddox, director of Chatham House think tank in London. AP
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The reward of being an international think tank boss is to examine and argue the world’s most pressing issues from all angles.

When Bronwen Maddox, the new director of Chatham House, is questioned on the growing global threats her answers provide a challenge to western thinking.

On Ukraine, the western powers are deep down “ambivalent” in that they do not want Russia to win but nor do they want a war on their doorstep in Europe.

She also reflects much of the globe’s disquiet over Europe’s hypocrisy – perhaps even racism – for its hefty support of Ukrainians at war, while non-white country conflicts remain largely ignored.

Although the war is an immediate concern, the near future is raises serious questions, with Chinese officials relentlessly telling Ms Maddox that their authoritarian system is the one that will endure.

Western democracies have to prove themselves, she argues, after the confidence-sapping blows of the financial crash and ill-advised wars.

But while post-Brexit Britain is in a quagmire, it still has the ability to lead where others will follow – as Ukraine has demonstrated, Ms Maddox said.

The shock waves of “a blazing war on the eastern edge of Europe instigated by a country that just marched into another one” remain strong, particularly as a path to ending the conflict remain unclear.

Ukraine doubt

“The world is looking for an exit from Ukraine but it’s not going to be easy,” Ms Maddox told The National. “There is genuine ambivalence in Europe, to some extent in the US as well, which doesn't want Putin to win, but does not like foreign conflict either.”

Despite the imposition of sanctions and estimated casualties exceeding 200,000, support for Mr Putin in Russia “has surprising strength”, as well as “a degree of admiration” from former US president Donald Trump, she said.

Hosting Cop28 shows that the UAE is a player in world affairs, says Bronwen Maddox, director of Chatham House think tank. Photo: Getty Images / Chatham House

While Kyiv might succeed in its coming counter-offensive, ultimately the war will not be resolved without both the involvement of China and the US, she believes.

“It's going to be hard to get Russia locked into concessions without China playing a role, so it really just comes down to China and the US.”

She added that both Saudi Arabia and Turkey could also “play some part” in negotiations

Ms Maddox, a former newspaper foreign editor, also views Ukraine through the lens of countries beyond Europe.

“Their view is ‘you're just doing this out of self-interest and racism … that you like Europeans and you don’t like the rest of world’.”

She argued that the point “does need to be answered” by the West on why it has ignored more distant conflicts.

Cop28 communications

The UAE hosting the UN Cop28 climate change conference at the end of the year is of importance, especially when it offers a forum in which the world’s two major rival powers can still communicate on a key issue, she said.

“The thing that is always good about Cop is that it preserves the zone in which the US and China can talk about climate, even if other things are getting really sour.

Keeping that as one area of communication and common realisation of the seriousness confronting the world is certainly worth something.”

Furthermore, Cop summits are something that the world “is beginning to take it seriously,” following Cop27 in Egypt last year.

She added that hosting the event in the Emirates demonstrated that the country was a player in world affairs.

China’s way

The confidence in their authoritarian system of government of population control compared to the West’s was such that Chinese diplomats and officials “explicitly” now told the Chatham House boss that “ours is better”.

“Officials have told me ‘we regard ourselves as a different way of organising relations between people and a better way’,” Ms Maddox said.

She added that the Chinese argued “morally, economically, politically, we are going to survive”, while the West does not have a political system “that can make sacrifices for the long term good of the country”.

Ms Maddox said Cop28 in the UAE will provide a forum where China and the US can talk. Reuters

She admitted that the West’s post-Cold War conceit believing that there was growing popularity for its system had suffered “some pretty big setbacks to that model of liberal democracy” that included “big financial crashes” and in Iraq and Afghanistan “two wars that did not go to plan”.

The best way countries such as American and Britain could make their case was “by success at home” demonstrating how a country can deal with ageing population and high debt.

“But it's easy to write off the West, and people have done it many times before,” said Ms Maddox, pointing out that democracies still produced great achievements – such as the internet.

Speaking in her modest office that overlooks St James’ Square in central London, she told The National that Britain needed to win back “a reputation for being a reliable country, good rule of law, good government, and good innovation”, following the debacle of the governments of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

“It's been quite a bruising time and this goes back to Brexit,” she said, but then contends there “are some benefits to Brexit with different alliances that can be formed”.

India power

While the US and China dominate geopolitics, India is emerging as a significant democratic power that will impact on the world order.

“This is a big year for India, becoming the most populous nation while not wanting to align itself with the US and Europe over Ukraine but not close to China either,” said Ms Maddox.

“It’s carefully picking its own way through all these conflicts. We have to wait and see how they want to position themselves and also how they handle their own internal democracy, which is causing a lot of concern.”

It has been argued that India should be invited to join the G8 group of countries, but Ms Maddox suggested the country should host the G20 summit first before the idea is developed.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Ms Maddox said India is 'carefully picking its own way' through the world's conflicts. EPA

AI outcomes

Like many leading thinkers, the Chatham House director is both deeply concerned about Artificial Intelligence – but also intrigued by its possibilities.

“The threats are more that people will use it to do terrible things than it uses itself do terrible things to us,” Ms Maddox said.

“That it gets baked into weapons systems or is used for something very hard to control.”

People were “rattled” by the impact of AI “precisely because the leaders of companies that invested in it are sounding the alarm”.

But with AI now well established it would be a “struggle to stop it” and Ms Maddox suggested its many possible applications could also prove “immensely beneficial” for the world.

Updated: May 28, 2023, 9:34 AM