National Interest, February 7th, 2016
The news this week that the US defence budget will increase dramatically to face challenges in Asia and Europe, is unsurprising. In many ways, one could argue that it marks the beginning of a new deterrence strategy by the United States, reacting to the rise of Chinese and Russian military assertiveness: force will be matched by force. Moscow or Beijing will be warned off from picking off the smaller and less-capable members and allies of the West. Latvia will not become a new Ukraine; Chinese bullying in the South China Sea will remain just that, bullying. However, it is clear that there is much more than simply the “rise of the rest” as was previously thought. The Litvinenko Inquiry findings, released by the British government in late January reveal the more sinister side of the Putin regime to the general public.
There seems to be a new age of silent competition and geopolitics taking place. It is riddled with grand ambitions and has grand stakes. In one corner is a fractured West, one-time victor of the Cold War, now exhausted by 15 years of inconclusive wars with Islamic fundamentalism; in the other, a confident array of new authoritarians, enriched and empowered by their gradual acceptance of Western economics over inefficient state-control. For many, the stakes of the new geopolitics are long-term and vague, though there is growing awareness that the future of global governance and architecture is at stake. Will such architecture be truly pluralistic or merely carry the trappings of democracy in the style favored by new authoritarian regimes?
For some, the stakes are immediate and real. Ukrainians who desired European style pluralism know this. Voters in Taiwan’s vibrant democracy – on display this month in historic elections – know this. Their fate under Chinese control might be glimpsed in the quiet death of Hong Kong-style democracy over the past two years. The new age is a competition of ideas with neo-authoritarian states, but it is unlikely to resemble the Cold War. It is not even likely to be openly-acknowledged. However, it is a real competition and its weapons are disinformation, dodgy referendums, and de-legitimization campaigns against the members of the West and its values. Its new soldiers are “little gray men”, legions of 50-Cent Bloggists, (many of whom, no doubt, will comment on this article, below) and the organs of state propaganda – Russia Today and CCTV – pretending to be media. The new battle fields are the periphery of the West, inside the Western left, in cyberspace, and in the minds of Western populations. So, how did it come to this?
Both new authoritarian states lost the battle of ideas in the Cold War – to the chagrin of their hardliners. China lost it in Tiananmen Square in 1989, while Moscow lost it in front of the Russian Parliament in 1991. Unlike the type of global re-ordering that takes place after actual wars (when victorious states can occupy and re-order the domestic systems of the losing side) the end of proxy wars is far more uncertain. Certainly, the West sought to influence domestic battles from afar, through aid packages and legions of development consultants, and inviting greater people-to-people links with the West – especially through higher education. But ultimately, they failed to persuade key constituents in both states to adapt political liberalism alongside economic reforms.
Instead, key constituences inside Russia and China have spent the past 15 years balancing economic reform with internal reorganization and repression. Ultimately, this domestic re-ordering was won by co-opting the security services and military, and by appealing to the wider population through neo-nationalist propaganda and the promise of economic goods. As with their pre-1991 predecessors, the new authoritarians view western liberal democracy and free-market capitalism with a mixture of skepticism and hostility. Demanding political multilateralism from “American hegemony” abroad, Beijing and Moscow have at the same time undermined and destroyed political opposition at home. At no time since the end of the Cold War has political power in either capital been so centralized around by a single leader.
How is the West to deal with this new era of silent competition? The West cannot resort to Cold War-style containment strategies to keep Russian and Chinese assertiveness at bay. Their economies are simply far too integrated and it would be impossible to de-link without serious damage to the global economy. There are also strong arguments about how continued engagement may help with fostering political liberalism and rights discourse within those societies. In addition, the world’s problems are simply too great for the West to attempt to resolve without the new authoritarians. A viable political resolution to the Syrian Civil War – and the large numbers of refugees destabilizing Western Europe – is ultimately to be found in Moscow not in London. Putin knows this. Iran, climate change, and North Korea are all areas where the West must cooperate with Russia and China. So what can the West do?
First, the West must begin to realize that the new authoritarians are in fact authoritarian. Knowing that shifts how policymakers treat them at the social and media level. Second, we must begin a wider discussion on how to counter the ambitions of the new authoritarians: what can be done to maintain coherence and cohesion in the face of their geopolitical ambitions? The new game is from afar and yet takes place in our living rooms, it’s about undermining rather than directly attacking, and it goes after the weak and dispossessed. It floods Youtube with conspiracy theories, whenever Russian interests are at stake – as with the downing of MH17 over the Ukraine. Its greatest conduit seems to be through de-legitimization campaigns – as run through Snowden – and through the so-called ‘new media’. Why do Western states continue to allow the tools of state propaganda – Russia Today, Press TV, and the CCTV – to operate freely in the West? Why do they accept that their own media will be repressed in those states? Certainly, a free press is important to the values of the West, but those familiar with those agencies would be hard pressed to argue that they are “free”. Their political control is too strong. They are merely government agencies in the trappings of Western media.
While the new competition is in the realm of ideas, it is clear that the hard power of the West still acts as a deterrent to mis-adventurism. The new budget is a step in the right direction, and will reassure states on the front line – such as Poland, the Baltics, Japan, and states in the South China Sea. However, Europe and American allies in Asia must match that determination. The fact that liberal democracy did not arise in Russia and China over the past 15 years is perhaps one of the great tragedies of the 21st century. It indicates that in fact, history is not yet over. Somehow, one senses that the future of the liberal order rests on how we frame this coming era and what counter-strategies we employ to defend core Western values. As the supposed Chinese curse has it, “May you live in interesting times.” We certainly do.