(Published in German as Kalter Krieg an Zwei Fronten in WELT_SICHTEN, Juli-August 2018)

In the early years of the 21st Century, the world looked stable. There was economic progress. Democracy was advancing. The global order was collaborative under American leadership and the custodianship of the Washington institutions.

Fast forward to 2018 and this outlook has changed dramatically. China has not become “like us.” Russia has reverted to totalitarianism. Instead of collaborative order, we have confrontational turmoil. Autocracy has made itself assertive and confident, and is increasingly rewarded with respect. Western Europe is in the grips of the politics of anger. Democracy has been pushed on to the defensive, and democratic countries are riven by self-doubt and internal divisions. America elects Trump. Britain goes for Brexit.


“Western leaders and analysts have often projected on to China an image of their preferred imaginings, seeing it through the rose-colored glasses of the West.” So writes (in the New York Times) Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia, now the President of the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Much misunderstanding of the People’s Republic has grown out of a misunderstanding of Deng Xiaoping and his post-Maoist reforms. He was a pragmatist, but for the purpose of salvaging the regime. The state was bankrupt financially and bereft of authority. It has been thought that Deng recast the regime from being a political project, as it had been under Mao, into an economic project with the management of growth its purpose.

But he never did. His “reform and opening up” was to be exclusively economic. Politically his mission was restitution. The absolute determination then, as it is now, was and is the perpetuation of the Party regime. The PRC has been, is, and will be a political project.

In 2012, Xi Jinping came to power. Since most observers now though of the People’s Republic as an economic project, it was widely expected that Xi’s priority would be economic reform. Those expectations were, however, dashed as it turned out that Xi’s priorities were political.

During his first term, Xi has overseen a streamlining of bureaucratic command through a relentless concentration of power. He has put himself at the helm of civilian, security and military bureaucracies, eliminated the legacy of collective leadership, and elevated his own position in a person cult similar to that of Mao. Censorship, internet control, propaganda – all that is intensified, as is Party discipline, political education in schools and universities, “guidance” in literature and the arts, and more. The internal security budget is now larger and growing faster than the military budget. These “reforms” amount to a radical transformation of the regime, taking the PRC into its third stage, after those of Mao and Deng and his followers, and breaking free from Deng’s legacy of pragmatism and collective leadership.

Finally, Xi has brought ideology back in. Shortly after having become General Secretary of the Party, he took the new Politburo Standing Committee to the National Rejuvenation exhibition in Beijing’s National Museum and launched his “China Dream,” now omnipresent to give meaning to all aspects of state action, at home and abroad. In the reformed People’s Republic, Marxism has no traction. In its place, Xi has introduced a chauvinistic melody of nationalism. The “Dream” is of national greatness and prowess, down to the assertion that “each person’s future and destiny is closely linked to the future and destiny of the nation.” His closing address to the People’s Congress in Beijing on the 19th of March this year was his most undisguised celebration of national glory to date.


Russia’s behavior in the world is baffling. Neighboring countries invaded: Georgia and the Ukraine. Crimea annexed. A covert war waged in eastern Ukraine. In Syria, support for a deadly regime, its use of illegal weapons of mass destruction, including chemical poison and indiscriminate barrel bombing, condoned. Throughout Europe, financial and/or propagandistic support of right-radical parties and organizations. In Britain, propagandistic engagement on the side of Scottish independence and Brexit in that country’s two eventful referendums. In America and Europe, systematic disruption by social media and other manipulations of democratic elections.

How to account for a super-power wrecking havoc on established international laws and norms, nevermind common morality?

Putin’s Kremlin is now a very assertive regime. Gone is the confusion of his first presidential period (2000 – 2008) when, for a while, there was hope that he might be cleaning up the corruption he had inherited and dragging Russia towards a semblance of rule of law at home and collaborative engagement abroad.

What instead happened was, firstly, a kleptocratic consolidation. Some unfriendly oligarchs had their takings confiscated, some were imprisoned, many migrated abroad. Corruption was not eliminated but narrowed into a single oligarchical clan under Putin’s control.

Secondly, any hope of democratization was quashed. Russia is now an autocratic system that operates behind a thin disguise of democratic form. In the recent presidential election, there were seven candidates in addition to Putin, none of them independent, all anointed by Putin. The Kremlin is exposed to no outside controls, no effective legislature, not effective judiciary, no effective press.

Thirdly, the regime has given itself a certificate of ideological justification. Since the Kremlin’s policies are unpalatable, it is tempting to think we are dealing with a primitive regime that has no imagination beyond brute force. But that is to underestimate Putin and his circle. They are in fact pursuing a sophisticated agenda of ideas.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, what happened, as seen through Western eyes, was that Communist dictatorship collapsed. But not through Russian eyes. The Soviet Union had been monumentally successful in completing a Russian expansion that had been unfolding for centuries into an empire stretching from Central Asia to Central Europe. Overnight, that was all lost. What Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century” was not the loss of Communism but of empire.

In response, he has started the process of rebuilding the lost empire. That will obviously not be achieved in his lifetime, but he is restoring purpose to Russia and securing his position in history as the great leader who set the job in motion.

The Putin ideology starts from a vision that goes by the name of “Eurasia.” In that vision, “Russia” is a spiritual empire of historical-religious origin, an empire of virtue. The physical empire may have collapsed, but its spiritual legitimacy survives irrespective of the momentary coincidence of national borders. This, for example, is why the Ukraine cannot be independent and European, because that is not what it is, because it is inescapably a part of spiritual Russia. This empire is “Eurasian,” meaning of Eastern rather than Atlantic mooring.

The second component of the ideology is enmity: Russia has enemies who will her ill: Atlantic Europe, the European Union, America, liberalism, democracy. That world-view was confirmed, as seen from Moskva, by western policies in response to the fall of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev accepted imperial disintegration in Eastern Europe and German reunification in return for a promise from America and Germany that NATO would not expand eastwards. This promise was broken when the ex-Warsaw Pact nations and the Baltic republics were brought into NATO, or so it was seen in Moskva. The European embrace of the Ukraine was a continuation of that betrayal. Putin’s Russia is convinced that the Americans and Europeans will never afford her respect and never recognize her as an equal partner in collaboration.

From these ideas come the convictions that Russia has something to fight for, that the empire of virtue has the right to fight and to choose the means, and that since it has enemies it has no choice but to fight.

Why has Russia chosen to fight its war with consistently dirty means? The Russian state has behind it an unsophisticated economy and a population with a poor standard of education and health. Putin’s dilemma: big in ambition but small in power. As a result, writes the historian Timothy Snyder in his just published The Road to Unfreedom, “the essence of Russia’s foreign policy is strategic relativism: Russia cannot be stronger, so it must make others weaker.”

The politics of influence

Russia and China have in common that they are ideologically committed and determined authoritarian regimes. Both entertain strategies of foreign policy that go beyond the normal pursuit of national interest to reach deep into the influencing of the cultures and policies of adversaries. While Moscow in this respect is a spoiler, Beijing’s aim is to build and protect respect for its model of governance.

The full ambition of Beijing’s strategy of influence has been elucidated by the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin in a report entitled Authoritarian Advance: Responding to China’s Growing Political Influence in Europe. This is the first in-depth study available on the detailed nature of Beijing’s influence policy, in this case in faraway Europe.

“China’s rapidly increasing political influencing efforts in Europe and the self-confident promotion of its authoritarian ideals pose a significant challenge to liberal democracy as well as Europe’s values and interests. While Beijing’s efforts have received much less scrutiny than the efforts of Putin’s Russia, Europe neglects China’s increasing influence at its own peril. Drawing on its economic strength and a Chinese Communist Party apparatus that is geared towards strategically building stocks of influence across the globe, Beijing’s political influencing efforts in Europe are bound to be much more consequential in the medium- to long-term future than those of the Kremlin. China commands a comprehensive and flexible influencing toolset, ranging from the overt to the covert, primarily deployed across three arenas: political and economic elites, media and public opinion, and civil society and academia. European states increasingly tend to adjust their policies in fits of ‘preemptive obedience’ to curry favor with the Chinese side. Political elites within the European Union and in the European neighborhood have started to embrace Chinese rhetoric and interests, including where they contradict national and/or European interests. EU unity has suffered from Chinese divide and rule tactics, especially where the protection and projection of liberal values and human rights are concerned. Beijing also benefits from the ‘services’ of willing enablers among European political and professional classes who are happy to promote Chinese values and interests.”

The democratic response

The stability of the early years of the 21st century has been displaced by a new Cold War, now on two fronts. Russia is setting itself on a course of neo-imperialism. China is intent on regaining its position of “Middle Kingdom” dominance in the world. Both are pursuing their aims with the confident determination that is enabled by the backing of nationalistic ideologies.

There is such a thing as the free world where citizens enjoy liberty of expression and information, the protection of rule of law, and mutual trust. This world needs to stand up to the authoritarian advance. The democracies need to come together and find their voice up against assertive autocracy. But that coming together is not happening. America is withdrawing from international solidarity and leadership. The European Union is unable, unity being undermined by economic sluggishness, populism and Brexit. The confidence and determination that is conspicuous on the authoritarian side is equally conspicuous in its absence on the democratic side.

It is easy to say that we in the free world should stand firm in defence of our values and to suggest ways in which this should be done. But if the European Union and America are unwilling or unable, where is inspiration and leadership to come from? Who in the world will now defend liberty? It would seem that before we can rise to the challenge from the authoritarian super-powers, we on our side need, first, to recognize the fact of that challenge and then, second, to look to ourselves and get our own democratic house in order.

One thought on “COLD WAR ON TWO FRONTS

  1. Terrific summary, especially in pointing out that the Chinese government has never abandoned its political agenda, and that it is a greater threat in the long run than Russia is. As you have pointed out before, the west needs to have a unified response, which currently seems impossible.


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