For the past thirty years the Western strategy towards Russia and China was to try and incorporate them into the global, liberal, democratic order by developing deep economic ties with the two countries. That strategy has failed. Russia and China became richer, but they also became more authoritarian, imperialistic, and anti-Western. They are now using the West’s interdependence with their economies as a weapon, attempting to coerce their democratic trading partners. China and Russia seem ready for a new period of intense and aggressive rivalry with the West. The question is, is the West prepared for it, asks Aaron Friedberg.
Vladimir Putin may not be a sentimental man, but he evidently has a special affinity for anniversaries. So, as his Soviet forebears might have said, it is probably “no accident” that the Russian dictator chose the closing days of 2021, exactly thirty years after the demise of the Soviet Union, to set in motion his plans for finally conquering all of Ukraine.
Putin has famously described the fragmentation of the Soviet empire as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.” In the West, by contrast, these events were seen to mark the end of over four decades of ideological conflict and geopolitical tension and the start of a new, more hopeful phase of peace, prosperity, and stability. Whatever else it may accomplish, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has buried these dreams once and for all and brought the post-Cold War era to a bloody and conclusive close.
Among its other effects, the Soviet Union’s collapse and the fall of Communist regimes in its former satellites convinced many in the West that a liberalizing wave was sweeping the world. Democratic politics and market economics had proven their superiority to all other institutional forms and their further spread was being driven forward by seemingly irresistible technological forces. All that remained was for the liberal democracies to hasten things along through sustained diplomatic, societal, and, above all, economic engagement with their former rivals. Needless to say, things have not gone according to plan.
Starting in the early '90s the explicit aim of Western policy towards both Russia and China was to eventually transform them into liberal, democratic, status quo powers.
Starting in the early 1990s the explicit aim of U.S. and wider Western policy towards both Russia and China was to transform them eventually into liberal, democratic, status quo powers. As they joined an increasingly integrated global economy, it was assumed that both countries would face overwhelming pressure to fully liberalize their own economies, reducing the power of the state and expanding the role of the market. Economic growth, in turn, would give rise to an expanding middle class, a segment of society whose members have historically been among the strongest advocates and defenders of democratizing political reforms. In time the two Eurasian giants would enter what some political scientists referred to as the “democratic zone of peace,” a community of like-minded nations in which disputes would be resolved through negotiation and compromise rather than the threat or use of force. Even before this transformation was complete, however, leaders in both Moscow and Beijing would come to see that their nations’ interests were best served by accepting the rules and norms of a U.S.-led international system. Engagement would help Russia and China grow richer and stronger faster than they could otherwise have done. But it would also change them in ways that made their newfound power unthreatening to the interests and values of the established democracies.
This strategy for incorporating Russia and China into a truly global, liberal order has now clearly failed.
China never bought the West’s strategy
From the start, China’s Communist Party rulers saw engagement as a potential trap, a clever strategem designed to fuel demands for political reform (or what they described as “bourgeois liberalization”), ultimately easing them out of power through a process of “peaceful evolution.” As seen from Beijing, the prevailing international order into which China was now being warmly welcomed reflected the power and served the interests of the United States and its democratic allies, and it was based on principles, especially the notion of universal human rights, that were inimical to those on which the CCP regime was built.
Far from becoming a satisfied, status quo power, China now openly declares its desire to alter key aspects of the existing international order, both in Asia and beyond.
In response, as I describe in my new book, Getting China Wrong, China’s leaders devised a counter-strategy that would allow them to reap the substantial benefits of engagement without weakening their grip on domestic political power. Towards this end, since the early 1990s, the Party has deployed varying mixtures of repression, cooptation, and ideological indoctrination to stifle dissent and secure the loyalty, or at least the passive acquiescence, of the Chinese people. CCP planners have been willing at times to make greater use of market forces to improve efficiency and fuel growth. But they have been careful always to keep “the bird in the cage,” as one of the early architects of China’s reforms put it, preserving their control over all economic actors and subordinating the market to the political needs of the Party.
As regards foreign policy: throughout the 1990s and into the first decade of the twenty-first century, China generally followed Deng Xiaoping’s advice that it should turn an accommodating face to the West, “hiding capabilities” while “biding time.” As their sense of their relative power has grown, however, the nation’s leaders have become more assertive, and even aggressive. Far from becoming a satisfied, status quo power, China now openly declares its desire to alter key aspects of the existing international order, both in Asia and beyond.
Even before the turn of the century Russia was already on a slide towards authoritarianism.
The weaponization of interdependence
Unlike their counterparts in Beijing, in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War Russia’s new rulers sincerely embraced engagement with the West and sought to achieve a rapid transition from Communist totalitarianism to liberal democratic capitalism. But things quickly went astray. The abrupt abandonment of price controls and other instruments of central planning, and the sudden privatization of state-owned assets, resulted in inflation, unemployment, unchecked corruption, and a massive concentration of wealth in the hands of a few unscrupulous and well-connected oligarchs. Rising discontent and weak, poorly designed political institutions produced deadlock which was broken eventually by force, the adoption of a new constitution that put more power in the hands of the executive, and the beginning of a process that gave government increasing control over the news media. Even before the turn of the century Russia was already on a slide towards authoritarianism. Putin accelerated the trend, bringing the oligarchs to heel, redistributing their riches among his cronies and reasserting the state’s role in the economy, intimidating, exiling and sometimes murdering opponents, and silencing dissenting voices in politics, business, and the press.
Having benefited greatly from their integration into global markets, both Russia and China have become increasingly aggressive in their efforts to “weaponize interdependence”.
Like his Chinese allies, Putin fears the subversive effects of liberal ideals and has sought to justify his increasingly harsh rule by conjuring up foreign threats and using anti-Western rhetoric to mobilize domestic support. Like China, Russia aims to weaken the U.S.-led alliances by which it feels encircled, to alter the status quo along its borders, and to challenge an international order based on what Beijing describes as the “so-called universal values” of the West. Having benefited greatly from their integration into global markets, both Russia and China have become increasingly aggressive in their efforts to “weaponize interdependence,” using economic threats and inducements to try to coerce their democratic trading partners. Both have engaged in military buildups and displays of power meant to intimidate their neighbors and, since 2014, Russia has gone considerably further, biting off portions of Ukrainian territory before seeking to destroy it as an independent entity. At least for the moment, Xi Jinping has contented himself with merely threatening to do the same to Taiwan.
Xi and his strategists have reached a conclusion that many Western leaders are still reluctant to accept: after thirty years of superficial great power peace, a new period of open and intense rivalry has begun.
A new era of conflict
Despite Beijing’s claims of neutrality and half-hearted attempts to distance itself from Russia’s barbarous actions in Ukraine, it has become painfully obvious that China has no intention of turning against its most important strategic partner. To the contrary, as the conflict drags on, Xi will likely feel compelled to do more to prop up the man he has described as his “best friend,” even if this means a further deterioration in China’s relations with the West.
Xi and his strategists have reached a conclusion that many Western leaders are still reluctant to accept: after thirty years of superficial great power peace, a new period of open and intense rivalry has begun. Like those that preceded it in the twentieth century, this one will again pit an axis of Eurasian authoritarians against a global coalition of democracies in Asia, Europe, and North America. Two questions remain: First, are those countries now willing to pay the costs of substantially disentangling their economies from Russia’s and China’s, thereby reducing their vulnerability to coercion? And, second, can they can mobilize their vast resources and coordinate their efforts quickly enough to deter further aggression?
What is happening in Ukraine is a terrible human tragedy. But if it impels the democracies to abandon their illusions and stirs them into action, it may help to prevent even worse disasters yet to come.