Russian aggression is a neat distraction from the West’s real problem: the fraying at the edges of the liberal economic order

Tangible threats like Russia are easier to acknowledge to than intangible ones like gradual economic collapse

Real or imagined? The threats you can see aren't always the most dangerous

The London office of investment bank Berenberg this week drew attention to a marked trend that’s becoming evident on the geopolitical risk index compiled by two members of the Federal Reserve Board, Dario Caldara and Matteo Iacoviella.

The trend highlighted by a comprehensive analysis of the use of words associated with crisis and political risk in the world’s leading newspapers shows that perceptions of risk have been on the rise for at least four years.

That predates President Trump’s inauguration by more than three years, and Brexit by two years, and points in general to a perception that something more deep-seated is at work.

What that might be remains open to question, since the precise conclusions to be drawn from such data are highly debatable.

But what might be posited is that the advent of Mr Trump and the clear margin of the Brexit vote were more a reaction to an already existing perception of rising risk, rather than the causes of it, as so many liberal narratives would have it.

In the background, of course, simmers the civil war in Syria, where the parties have been in active conflict since 2011. There’s also been ongoing tension with China over the Spratly Islands and the war against the supposed caliphate of Isis.

But what’s noticeable about the date in the latest uptick, the biggest since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, is that it ties in quite well with Vladimir Putin’s renewed flexing of Russia’s muscles.

In March 2014, Russia annexed the Crimea. Then in the summer, a passenger jet plane was shot down over the skies of Ukraine. An under-reported low-level conflict is ongoing across the ethnic divide in Ukraine, and as the world’s press has widely reported, Russia is active in Syria, has been suspected of engaging in large-scale cyber-warfare against the Western democracies, and according to the public narrative has on two occasions at least poisoned enemies of the regime resident on foreign soil.

Tension between the West and Russia goes back at least to the days of the Great Game, when the British Empire faced off against Czarist Russia for influence across Central Asia  down into Persia. The rapprochement during the World Wars was always frosty, and was swift enough to end as the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain went up.

With the country’s open-hearted embrace of capitalism in the 1990s, there did seem to be more of a chance of a more genuine meeting of minds, but a weakened Russia out to make new friends felt threatened by the eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union. What purpose did it serve, other than attempting to undermine Russia?

Once the economy stabilised after the Yeltsin era and a new strong man had emerged in the shape of Putin, it was perhaps inevitable that the old enemy would attempt to strike back.

This narrative is understood in the West, and is clearly showing up in the editorials and articles of the major newspapers. But how pertinent it is really to predicting where the crises of tomorrow will come from remains open to question.

Russian self interest rarely spreads far from is immediate frontiers. If Syria is to be regarded as an exception to this rule, it’s nevertheless true to say that Syria has been in the Russian sphere of influence almost as long as the Israelis have been in the American. Russian behaviour, if unwelcome and sometimes illegal, is largely predictable.

And if that’s true, then two conclusions can be drawn about the geopolitical risk index. One is that, following Donald Rumsfeld’s well-hewn phrase it’s the known knowns that are easiest to get into a lather about. The other is more subtle.

Because if the Russian risk is actually relatively predictable, and has been for more than a century, what else might be at work behind the spectacular headlines about poisonings, invasions and terrorism?

Could it be that the real fear that’s stalking the pages of the world’s press isn’t to do with men with guns at all, but is rather to do with the fraying at the edges of the post-war economic order?

China is seen as the great disrupter in this regard, particularly by Mr Trump, and there is a lot of truth in this analysis. After the communist revolution in 1948, China played little part in creating the global prosperity that the world has enjoyed in general since 1945. Its vested interests run less deep, and its willingness to disrupt norms is correspondingly the greater.

But what’s perhaps most alarming for commentators and politicians in the west is that this gradual disintegration of the western liberal order is likely to happen incrementally, and as such will be much harder both to prevent and to analyse.

Much easier to address Russia’s authoritarian behaviour and its bullying of neighbours than the slow decline of an eighty-year old system. No analysis of newspaper article keywords will even come close to measuring that. 





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