More On: Vladimir Putin
Joe Biden is warned by Vladimir Putin that imposing further sanctions on Russia over Ukraine would be a mistake
The present difficulties in eastern Europe indicate more than simply Kremlin mischief-making—they reflect the first fruits of a new international order that spans the immensity from Beijing to Berlin.
Unlike the historical liberal status quo, with its origins in classical civilisation and the Enlightenment, this developing alternative draws from a mélange of German geopolitics, the tradition of Chinese emperors, the Mongols, and Orthodox Russian authoritarianism. The new Eurasian ascendancy includes Russia and its growing number of reclaimed satellites, as well as China, the world's foremost dictatorship and manufacturing hub. But it also now threatens to encompass Germany, a scenario that would bring a militarily powerful and resource-rich state into alliance with the world’s second and fourth biggest economies.
Although the Germans have not yet abandoned their links to liberal democracy, the new Eurasian alliance offers a magnetic pull, and shares a mutual dislike for Anglo-Saxon liberalism. When energy shortages are being caused by regulations, Russia is an important source of gas for Europe, and that supply will be further increased by the Nord Stream 2 project, while China has become Germany's biggest export market. Even if the rules of democracy are strictly adhered to, money, power, and a healthy dose of anti-American revanchism will ultimately prevail.
The rising Eurasian century has ushered in a springtime for tyrants who turn not to John Locke or James Madison for inspiration, but to despotic Eastern and Islamic ancestors like the Ottomans, Imperial China, and the Tsars. Even in Europe, democracy, according to a Freedom House assessment, is at a generational low. A "hybrid regime" is one in which democratic standards like elections are combined with authoritarian regulations in neighboring Eurasian nations.
During his lifetime, political scientist Samuel Huntington predicted that the West's treatment of competing nations and efforts to reconstruct "the international community" to suit its own interests would trigger a period of geopolitical animosity. Particularly in China, there has been a growing desire to reclaim the once-dominant perch that the Confucian culture once had. As late as the 17th century, China was not only more populated and wealthier than Europe, but also boasted an industrial infrastructure that was, at the very least, Europe’s equal.
Liberal capitalism toppled that order, as Europe’s share of world GDP climbed from 17.8 to 33 percent between 1500 and 1913, while China’s part decreased from 25 to eight percent. Compared to China and India, Western Europe's per capita GDP was seven times higher in 1913, while the per capita GDP of the United States was nine times higher.
Reversing this condition of things has been a fundamental priority of China’s authorities ever since. Having expanded its economy under the pragmatic ideas of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” brought in by Deng Xiaoping, China climbed from a small fraction of world GDP in 1980 to 13 percent in 2010. More than two-thirds of the population is expected to be involved by 2026. Once awestruck by the West, Huntington now sees Asian nations as having a "superior culture" mentality that gives them the upper hand. For this reason, they would form alliances with countries such as Russia and the Islamic nations of Pakistan and Iran in order to lessen their reliance on old capitalist powers.
Now the uncontested leader of Eurasia, China accomplished its re-emergence without accepting individual political and property rights—the lodestars of Western liberalism formerly regarded to be vital preconditions to national prosperity and growth. Today, China is no more likely to become a constitutional democracy than it was under the Mongols or their 14th-century Ming predecessors. Model autocracy instead, based on semi-permanent caste privileges and a technologically advanced social control regime. Rather than protecting users' privacy, it enacts more invasive methods of imposing a stringent censorship regime. “If the US has long strived to make the globe safe for democracy,” argues one observer, “China’s leaders seek a world that is safe for authoritarianism.”
Russia’s Eurasian commitment bears equally deep roots. The early 20th-century historian George Vernadsky connected them to years of Mongol control, and then to the Empire’s march towards the Pacific, something that the late Russian historian Nicholas Riasanovksy equated in its significance to the westward colonisation of North America. “Scratch a Russian,” the 18th-century French philosopher Joseph de Maistre observed, “and you injure a Tatar.”
This Asiatic association has long been rejected by the country’s governing elites, who in Tsarist times, plodded along in French. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Western influence began to reemerge. But in Putin’s Russia, Vernadsky’s beliefs from the 1920s are once again in favour. Historian Richard Pipes has noticed that, despite being sidelined in recent decades, “a sort of cult of Vernadsky has developed in Russia.” As the late Russian historian and Vernadsky biographer Nikolai Bolkhovitinov pointed out, Vernadsky, once a popular "whipping child" for his transgressions from Marxist orthodoxy, is now the subject of "nearly boundless lauding. "1
Revenge is essential to Russia's move into Eurasia, just as it is in China. Taking advantage of the current state of affairs in the West, Russia is looking to retake, with Beijing's help, control of its former peripheral territories, such as Central Asian republics, Belarus, and even portions of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that his country's objective is to duplicate Stalin's and the Tsars' geographical gains.
History, therefore, acts not only as prologue but as epilogue. Integration with the West, which was once a goal, is becoming less and less realistic. The likelihood of any long-term “grand bargain” with Moscow now looks, in the words of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “pure utopia.” Russians now are not likely to reject Putin’s expansionist ambition. Most people, according to a study conducted by the nonpartisan Levada Center, attribute the Ukraine conflict to either Ukrainians, the United States, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
In some aspects, the ideology of the contemporary Russian state is becoming a non-hereditary modern variant of the Tsarist one—militarized, domestically regulated, and expansionist. Pope Francis is attempting to awaken Catholicism to a more global perspective, while the Orthodox Church continues to promote the state's nationalist zeal and authoritarian authority, just as it did during the Tsars. Although not quite as effective as China’s state corporatist model, Russia has also split from liberal economics by concentrating wealth in the hands of people closest to the Kremlin. These oligarchs are frequently former officials who profit from “give-aways” of Russian state assets to chosen corporate elites at auctions manipulated and controlled by the bidders.
The third component of the Eurasian jigsaw is also the most complicated, contentious, and the most potentially determinative. Germany and Russia have had, to put it mildly, a complicated relationship. As early as the 11th century, Germans were engaging with Russia, and during the Romanovs, a number of Russian princes married into German aristocratic houses. In the years before the First World War, Russians commonly turned to Germany for knowledge. Catherine the Great, who was German, enticed her ethnic brethren to Russia to utilize their business and work ethic. In fact, Germany was the first Western nation to recognize the Bolshevik government even after the 1917 Revolution had taken place in Russia. German industrial know-how was mainly swapped for Russian natural resources throughout the 1920s and 1930s, just as it is now.
German intellectuals, including those of those close to Hitler, favored a long-term alliance with Russia and East Asia. The geopolitical thinker Karl Haushofer, who trained Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, was among the architects of “lebensraum,” the goal of expanding German hegemony to the east. His wife, though, was half-Jewish, and he did not accept the vulgar, and ultimately self-defeating, prejudice of the Nazis. Instead, he supported an alliance of the “three great peoples of the future”—Germans, Russians, and Japanese, then the growing power in Asia. Together, he claimed, they might break the “stranglehold of the Anglo-Saxons.” The German invasion of Russia, which led to the downfall of the Nazi state, had a significant impact on his stature.
Even now, German public retains a relatively optimistic image of Russia. In keeping with popular home mood, Germany was one of the few Western nations to preserve tight relations with Russia during the 2014 invasion of Crimea. Amazingly, the majority of Germans said they wanted to find some kind of "middle ground" between the United States and Russia. By 2018, Germans were telling pollsters that they trusted Russia and China more than America, and by 2019, two-thirds of Germans favoured deeper relations with Russia.
Those connections have strengthened even as substantial evidence has surfaced of Russian intervention in Germany’s own elections. The German business community's "Russia understanders" do not want their lucrative commerce with Russia and its satellites in "the near abroad" disrupted. Kay-Achim Schönbach, chief of the German Navy, recently had to retire for declaring that Russia is a natural ally, a stance apparently adopted by members of the now-ruling Social Democratic Party.
More crucially, a former SPD Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, currently serves as President of Nord Stream 2’s board of directors. An facilitator par excellence, he characterized his pal Vladimir Putin as a “flawless Democrat” in 2004. Concerns about human rights, however valid, pale in comparison to the benefits the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline will bring to Europe's economy. A Polish deputy foreign minister likened the pipeline to the tragic Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement, which led to Poland's division and the deaths of millions of its inhabitants. Szymon Szynkowski vel Sk Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainian president, said that "a big geopolitical win for the Russian Federation and a new rearrangement of areas of influence" are inevitable outcomes of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project.
Like China, Germany desires Russia’s resources. For Berlin's high-end products, the Chinese markets are essential. Berlin's industrial sector is faltering, but it is still strong. German firms are busy establishing new petrochemical and other high-end industries in the Middle Kingdom, a strategy which has caused them to “open the door” and “throw away the key.” The effect has been that the German government, generally anxious to demonstrate its concern for human rights, has soft-peddled China’s horrific record in this field.
Germany’s Eurasian shift implies the increasing uncoupling of the nation from Anglo-American entanglements. The refusal to provide lethal aid to Ukraine is couched in the rhetoric of German guilt, but Deutschland seems to have few qualms about selling advanced weaponry to less democratic regimes like Hungary, a country savaged by Germany during the Second World War, as well as to Qatar, Egypt, and Algeria. The acceptance of tyrants like Putin and Xi on the world stage shows a deeper longing for a restoration of order, be it green, corporate, or nationalist, and a turning away from the dreaded Anglo-Americans, who after all had the guts to rescue them from National Socialism and then Communism.
The notion of a Eurasian century constitutes an unsettling new chapter in the liberal system. Although it has found "useful fools" among Western elites, they are eager to keep deindustrializing and destroying the morale of their own communities at a quick pace, As post-nationalist corporate elites demand for a “great reset,” high energy costs, and the headlong push to “net zero,” manufacturing will continue to transfer to China, fueled by ever-more valuable Russian energy and German knowledge.
The West may be nothing more than a vacation resort for wealthy Chinese and Russian billionaires by 2060, when China is expected to strive to lessen its carbon impact. To paraphrase the Tsars, Hohenzollerns, and Ming emperors, who extended their empires without much regard for liberalism, the globe will be molded in the same way. Surveillance technology that would have pleased Hitler, Stalin, or Mao might ensure a more orderly society.
The authoritarian model, mastered in China and Russia, is now spreading, not only in Central Asia but also in South America, portions of Europe, and notably Africa, where there are currently an estimated one million Chinese residents. Many individuals in these nations derive their political inspiration, not from the example of New York or London or even Tokyo, but from the “Beijing consensus.” Military development in China and Russia, while remaining stagnant in the United States and other Western countries, is expected to continue this trend.
More significant yet may be the philosophical problem. As we are concentrated on the Ukrainian problem, we are seeing the largest attack on liberal ideals since the end of the Cold War, but we have little left self-confidence with which to fight ourselves. The West has to wake up to the issue. The Eurasian ascendency offers the potential of a new and radically authoritarian global order. If this tendency is to be halted, we must begin to look at how we are damaging our economic and political future, and helping to establish, if unwittingly, a new Eurasian century.