The West thought money could tame dictators. Has Putin proved it can’t?

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and other Western powers have pursued a noble idea — that by tying themselves economically to their rivals, they might escape the dismal cycle of great-power conflicts. In that spirit, Germany encouraged gas and oil imports from Russia over the last decade even as Vladimir Putin was stepping up his aggression against neighboring states. Europe and the United States embraced trade with China, expanding ties as the Asian nation became the world’s largest exporter, including of some critical goods. For several decades, Western powers seemed satisfied that, in the words of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, the “power of money … perhaps the most dependable of all powers,” would compel nations “to prevent war wherever it threatens to break out.”

All of that now seems hopelessly naive. Putin invaded Ukraine despite unambiguous Western threats that Russia would be immediately isolated from the global economy through sanctions. China under Xi Jinping has crushed democracy and press freedom in Hong Kong, increased military threats against Taiwan, and entered a loose alliance with Russia to challenge the U.S.-led global order. Rather than moderating the ambitions of authoritarian leaders, their rising wealth — brought about in good part by foreign investment and trade — has emboldened them to challenge Western democracies head on. So has economic engagement been a catastrophic failure?

Column by WWU Ross Distinguished Visiting Professor Edward Alden