As President Putin’s medievally brutal invasion of Ukraine plunges the world into geopolitical chaos, it has to be asked why, in spite of the embrace of Western capitalism by Russia and China, the world now appears to have entered a Second Cold War. What broke the ice last time around?
In 1971 the great sinologist John King Fairbanks observed that in the decades after 1950, ‘Washington sent more men to the moon than to China.’ After the fall of China to Chairman Mao, American and Chinese diplomats did not speak for a generation.
Thus in 1969, when the US Ambassador to Poland, Walter Stoessel, button-holed his startled Chinese counterpart at a Yugoslav fashion show in Warsaw, in order to request face-to-face talks, the startled diplomat fled. It was the unlikeliest start to the greatest diplomatic gambit of the 20th Century. It ended with Henry Kissinger’s secret flight to Beijing to negotiate rapprochement with Zhou Enlai, Chairman Mao’s deputy, followed by President Nixon’s visit to China.
The historic reconciliation was enabled by the agreement that Taiwan and China were ‘One China’, a fudge that has sustained peace in Asia ever since. It was the highwater mark of post-war Realpolitik. Kissinger discovered that China’s communist leaders were, like him, ‘cold practitioners of power politics’
Nixon, Kissinger, Zhou Enlai, Brezhnev and Mao were not the only practitioners of Realpolitik in the post war era. In Europe
Nixon and Kissinger ignored the West’s abhorrence of socialist policies that had produced the Great Leap Forward, an atrocity that had starved 30m Chinese to death in the 1950s. In the 70s and 80s the West’s leaders put moral issues aside in favour of the pursuit of pragmatic geopolitical solutions; for them the imperative was to enable a world of peace and stability.
Western European leaders of the era were realists too. In the 1960s and 70s figures such as German Chancellor Willy Brandt and Pope Paul VI pursued Ostpolitik. They reached out to find a means of living with the Soviet Union. Likewise, President De Gaulle advised that the Chinese should not be left ‘isolated in their rage’; it echoed Nixon assertion in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1967, that ‘we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations.’
Russia’s leader, Leonid Brezhnev, was also a practitioner of Realpolitik. While Kissinger was making up with China, he was also talking to Russia about Strategic Arms Limitation [SALT], which ended in 1972 with a treaty limiting the number of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles [ICBM].
In the 1980’s President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher showed that Realpolitik was not a passive philosophy. They both believed in combining constructive diplomatic engagement with vigorous military policies; Reagan scared the Soviets half to death when he announced his ‘Star Wars’ programme.
However, Reagan and Thatcher were open to talks with ideological opponents. Thatcher’s political realism was encapsulated by her assertion that ‘It pays to know the enemy – not least because at some time you may have the opportunity to turn him into a friend.’ In a BBC interview in 1984 she famously declared ‘I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.’
Given the universal failure of socialist Lenin-Marxist and Maoist economics in the 1980s and the adoption of the capitalist economic model by the West’s erstwhile ideological enemies, why is it that the world is again being ripped asunder by Russia in the West and China in the East?
The answer is that over the last decade Russia and China have again become ideologically entrenched. This time the divide with the world’s liberal democracies has moved from economics and governance, to just governance. Economic growth superior to that of the West has given Russia and China a renewed confidence in their autocratic political systems. Meanwhile they have witnessed a West that is flailing economically and socially. Their new leaders, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping no longer feel the need to compromise with the West.
Russia and China’s abandonment of Realpolitik over the last twenty years has been matched in Europe and America. With the defeat of the Soviet Union it was hubristically assumed by many in the West that the triumph of liberal economics would lead to liberal democracy. After all that is what happened in the former totalitarian states of South Korea and Taiwan.
President Bill Clinton, in the absence of Cold War enemies faced a geopolitical blank page. His chosen foreign policy was imbued with an aggressive ‘Wilsonian’ moralism that sought to entrench America’s superior cultural and economic presence. In this he was guided by his National Security Advisor, Anthony Lake, author of Confronting Backlast States , who advocated a morality led foreign policy that sought ‘to neutralise, contain, and… transform these backlash states.’
Clinton’s moralistic foreign policy was continued by George W. Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’ and taken a stage further by the virtue signalling Barack Obama. In 2014 Henry Kissinger, in an article probably aimed at Obama, warned that ‘the United States needs to avoid treating Russia as an aberrant to be patiently taught rules of conduct established by Washington.’
The triumph of moralism over realism in the West’s foreign policy was most evident in the eastward expansion of NATO. In the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union, western leaders such as Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Secretary of State George Baker and Prime Minister John Major had all made verbal commitments not to expand NATO. Given that Russian leaders Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin had all floated the idea of wanting to join NATO, Europe’s failure to respond to this suggestion inevitably led Russia to take the view that they were still considered an enemy of the West.
Reflecting the West’s increasingly ‘winner takes all’ approach to geopolitics, in 1999 Clinton brought Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into NATO 1999. Over the next twenty years, eleven more countries were brought into the alliance. Worst of all from Russia’s viewpoint the 2008 Bucharest Declaration invited Ukraine, its ‘sister’ country and Georgia to apply for NATO membership.
Barack Obama, ever the moralist, hoped that his successor, Donald Trump, would ‘not simply take a realpolitik approach’ to dealing with Russia. Trump, by instinct rather than intellect, was a pragmatic operator. It showed in his attempt to engage with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Un. However, any chance of establishing a rapprochement with Putin was scuppered by the Democratic Party and its media lackey’s long running and fallacious narrative that Trump was in cahoots with the Russians during his presidential campaign.
The West’s expansionist complacency and the abandonment of a Realpolitik approach, which would have allowed Russia its own geopolitical ‘space’ and dignity, exacerbated an already absent spirit of compromise in Ukrainian politics. Instead of persuading the pro-Russian and pro-European parties to seek a consensual way forward, the West encouraged the Maidan Revolution which overthrew President Yanukovych’s pro-Russian government.
Foolishly the new pro-Western Ukrainian government took revenge on Russia by immediately banning the use of Russian as a second official language and signing an enhanced trade arrangement with the European Union. Ukraine had poked Putin in the eye. The Ukrainian government, oblivious to the rights of minorities, claimed righteousness. But being in the right is one thing, being sensible is another. It behoves the leaders of countries that sleep next to elephants to behave with caution. Ukraine is now paying the price for its recklessness.
The Ukrainian trade deal was a clear case of overreach by the EU, especially since Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Germany had failed so dismally to sustain an adequate level of military expenditure or energy security. NATO expansionism was combined with weak military and energy security policies – the opposite of the Realpolitik approach to geopolitics.
The invasion of Ukraine has virtually guaranteed a state of war for the foreseeable future. This global divide is likely to worsen when the second shoe drops - namely the takeover of Taiwan by China within the next decade. This has been promised by Chairman Xi by 2032; one of the lessons of the last week is that authoritarian dictators should be taken at their word.
Until the leaders of the superpowers, East and West, abandon ideological and moral absolutism in favour of the pragmatism of Realpolitik the outlook for global stability looks bleak. Instability will remain until new leaders recognise that, in a successful diplomatic engagement, both sides need to accept disappointment. That is called comprise; sadly, compromise is not a characteristic of the current zeitgeist.
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