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FP at Davos: The Return to War

FP’s Ravi Agrawal spoke with four top thinkers on the war in Ukraine and its future, live at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.

By , the executive producer of FP Live at Foreign Policy.
Foreign Policy's editor in chief Ravi Agrawal moderating a panel called "The Return to War" with four top thinkers at the World Economic Forum.
Foreign Policy's editor in chief Ravi Agrawal moderating a panel called "The Return to War" with four top thinkers at the World Economic Forum.
Foreign Policy's editor in chief Ravi Agrawal moderating a panel called "The Return to War" with four top thinkers at the World Economic Forum. World Economic Forum

DAVOS, Switzerland—On Wednesday, the third day of the World Economic Forum, Foreign Policy editor in chief Ravi Agrawal moderated a live session called “Return to War” with four top thinkers: Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow Lynn Kuok, Harvard University professor Graham Allison, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth, and King’s College London professor Lawrence Freedman.

The panel discussed how, outside of Europe, the world has not been united in its response to Russia’s war in Ukraine and talked about the implications of the conflict on geopolitics, with a particular emphasis on Europe, the United States, and China. The panelists pointed out that nuclear escalation remains a real concern and concluded that the war would most likely be prolonged, with no clear path to a resolution.

Despite the ongoing horrors of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, Roth emphasized that the biggest long-term threat to democracy is China. “Russia still is a gas station with a military,” he said. “It has zero soft power. No one wants to be like Russia. China, on the other hand, is promoting itself as a superior model, … and they have the resources to provide a real threat to democracy,” he concluded.

DAVOS, Switzerland—On Wednesday, the third day of the World Economic Forum, Foreign Policy editor in chief Ravi Agrawal moderated a live session called “Return to War” with four top thinkers: Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow Lynn Kuok, Harvard University professor Graham Allison, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth, and King’s College London professor Lawrence Freedman.

The panel discussed how, outside of Europe, the world has not been united in its response to Russia’s war in Ukraine and talked about the implications of the conflict on geopolitics, with a particular emphasis on Europe, the United States, and China. The panelists pointed out that nuclear escalation remains a real concern and concluded that the war would most likely be prolonged, with no clear path to a resolution.

Despite the ongoing horrors of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, Roth emphasized that the biggest long-term threat to democracy is China. “Russia still is a gas station with a military,” he said. “It has zero soft power. No one wants to be like Russia. China, on the other hand, is promoting itself as a superior model, … and they have the resources to provide a real threat to democracy,” he concluded.

Kuok said dividing the world into democracies and autocracies wasn’t helpful in framing the conflict in Ukraine. She said such a binary was counterproductive because it unnecessarily deepened divisions among countries and alienated potential partners in maintaining other aspects of the rule of law. Instead, Kuok told the panel that it would be more beneficial for countries to focus on what they have in common and said there was a need for a rules-based and principled order.

The panelists got into a heated discussion about how the war could possibly end. Allison said he agreed with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s controversial argument days earlier at the World Economic Forum, when he said Ukraine should cede territory to Russia to end the fighting.

“I know that this is not what Ukrainians want to hear, but I believe that even though Putin made a horrible strategic error in invading and even though Russia will be weakened for the long run, that this is a war that Putin cannot lose,” Allison told the panel.

Allison went on to describe other scenarios that could lead to a cessation of hostilities. “Either there will be facts on the ground that Putin can live with, or he will escalate the level of destruction,” Allison said, adding it was not unimaginable that Putin could escalate to a tactical nuclear strike on a military target or city in Ukraine. Allison reminded the panel that former U.S. President Harry Truman deployed two nuclear bombs to end World War II.

Freedman vehemently disagreed with Allison, saying his was a dangerous argument and that the panel—and the Western world as a whole—was getting ahead of itself by setting war aims for Ukraine based on hypothetical possibilities that have not arisen yet.

“Russia is not being attacked. There are no tanks going across border into Russia itself. Russia doesn’t face an existential threat—Ukraine faces an existential threat,” Freedman said. He argued that Putin had no reason to escalate to nuclear war just because he was embarrassed and that Putin’s interests would not be served by nuclear war.

Freedman also emphasized that the world should get accustomed to the fact that the war will take a long time to sort out. The world is a long way away from Putin being sure he is losing, he said.

Tal Alroy is the executive producer of FP Live at Foreign Policy.

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