A New Superpower?

Mar 19th, 2022 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

The war in Ukraine has upset the world order resulting in the rethinking of past assumptions and perceptions.  To provide the context for this observation, let’s go back to the opening of the Chinese Winter Olympics in early February:  Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a high-profile summit meeting in which they pledged friendship and solidarity.  At the end of their meeting, they issued a joint manifesto.  Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security, summarizes the salient parts of this manifesto:

  • The world they sought would be ordered quite differently than in the past; China and Russia would cooperate with “no limits” to assume their rightful places in this new order.  They would forge an “international relations of a new type,” multipolar and no longer dominated by the United States.  Hence, there would be no further NATO enlargement, be no color revolutions, no globe-spanning US missile defense, no American nuclear weapons deployed around the world. Beijing and Moscow world resist interference of the US to “incite contradictions, differences and confrontation.”
  • Putin and Xi hope to fracture Western unity, especially NATO, to stop the alliance’s expansions, and reverse its eastern military deployments.  “Russia would regain an expansive sphere of influence that would at once guarantee its security needs and recognize its longstanding imperial claims.  After a long period of post-Cold War decline and humiliation, [Russia] would be strong and respected again—a great power treated as such.”
  • In the new order, no one would pressure China or Russia on human rights or interfere in their internal affairs.  Democracy itself would be redefined and subject to no universal standard.  “It is only up to the people of the country to decide whether their State is a democratic one.”  Russia and China together would oppose both “any form of independence for Taiwan” and the formation of alliances opposed to Beijing in Asia.

This manifesto reflects the world Putin and Xi want but the Ukraine war Putin launched has had the exact opposite effect.  Before the invasion, “Western countries widely viewed Russia as a resentful, revisionist power, led by a president who was unhappy with his country’s global position but pragmatic and opportunistic.  Moscow’s unprovoked war of aggression changed this perception overnight.  American and European leaders now see Russia as a clear and present danger, not just to Ukraine but potentially to other neighbors and even to NATO territory.”  Neutrality in Europe is waning; witness that both Finland and Sweden are considering NATO membership and that Switzerland has joined in the strategy of sanctions against Russia.  Putin has produced a NATO that is larger, more unified, better armed and with military deployments placed closer to Russia.  Fontaine concludes, “The world that Mr. Putin launched this war to create is very different from the world that is emerging.  By invading Ukraine, he has weakened Russia rather than strengthened it.  He has achieved not the absorption of Ukraine into Russia but the enduring enmity of their peoples.  He has initiated not a successful challenge to the West but rather a war that has spurred its members to take action.”

In this emerging Chinese-Russian “Alliance,” Russia’s self-identity needs to be understood.  For Putin, the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a catastrophic loss, one creating a feeling of helplessness and a shattered identity.  “Who are we now?  Do we matter anymore?”  As David Brooks so accurately observes, “Putin turned this identity crisis in a humiliation story . . . We are the innocent victims.  They—America, the Westerners, the cool kinds at Davos—did this to us.  Like other identity politicians around the world, he promoted status resentment to soothe the wounds of trauma, the fears of inferiority.  In the first years, he rebuilt the Russian identity.”  In the words of historian Thomas Meaney, Putin became a “civilizational leader” with a “more civilizational understanding of Russia’s place in the world, one based on ‘Eastern’ values: the Orthodox Church, patriarchal chauvinism, anti-homosexual edicts, as well as a nation of greater ethnic Russian identity whose ancient wellspring is inconveniently Kyiv, Ukraine.”

However, Putin’s vision of Russia as a civilizational leader is in shambles.  Europe offers the prime example of Putin’s blunder.  As columnist German Lopez argues, “Europe’s assertive response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has presented a possibility that was hard to imagine a month ago: the European Union as a superpower that can alter the global order, promoting liberal democratic values worldwide.  Before the war, the EU focused largely on economic growth.  It resisted calls, particularly from the US, to increase tis military spending and become more self-sufficient at defending Europe.  Vladimir Putin’s invasion drove European countries to be more aggressive.  They imposed tough sanctions . . . and are working to cut off trade from Russia.  They have sent weapons and other aid to Ukraine.  Several moved to increase military spending and EU leaders met in France . . . to coordinate their efforts.” Europe’s new commitments could help counter the global democratic backslide of the past 15 or so years. Democracies’ failure to stand up for themselves partly enabled that shift. But a tougher Europe, as well as other countries’ fierce response to Russia’s invasion, shows that democracies are still willing to wield power to counter autocratic governments.

“Democratic nations and people are sending a united message to Putin that democracy matters, and authoritarians cannot act with impunity, and that’s powerful,” said Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, which tracks the state of democracy around the world. “The E.U.’s response to Russia’s invasion was another unifying step — one that could push Europe from its passive role to an influential democratic force around the world. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine suddenly forced the continent’s leaders to confront the prospect that their stance was failing one of the foundational goals of the E.U.: to prevent war in Europe.” In what sounds like a paradox, the E.U. might need greater military power to deter more war. “Peace was taken for granted,” Jana Puglierin, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me. That’s no longer the case,” she added. Over the longer run, a revitalized Europe could help renew a wounded global order led by a democratic West. As the world’s second-largest economy, Europe could also leverage its wealth to counter threats to itself or to democracy abroad — with sanctions, financial investments and trade policy.  “A big unanswered question remains: Will Europe’s new assertiveness last? Europeans are facing a refugee crisis and rising food and gas prices as a result of the war and the sanctions imposed on Russia. That could fuel a backlash against politicians who have aggressively backed Ukraine — and cut short the path that Europe is on now.”

See Richard Fontaine in the Wall Street Journal (12-13 March 2022); David Brooks in the New York Times (11 March 2022); Thomas Meaney in the New York Times (13 March 2022); German Lopez in www.newyorktimes.com  (13 March 2022).

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