The ideological basis of the new Cold War is clear, and this time the Western powers look set to be on the losing side
The meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels and of China and Russia’s foreign ministers in Guilin brought into stark relief the ideological differences that divide the leading protagonists of the new Cold War.
The first Cold War divided the sides on issues concerning the social and economic organization of societies. One side insisted the most effective system for producing goods and delivering human happiness was free-market capitalism, the other side insisted it was state socialism. One side touted political freedom as its greatest achievement, the other side touted economic security.
The ideological divisions of today involve the organization of the international system of states. One side, led by the United States and including the United Kingdom and most member states of the EU and NATO, subscribes to something it calls the “rules-based international order.”
The other side, led by Russia and China, subscribes to “international law,” which it identifies as the principles that govern the international system of states that emerged from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War. According to the Westphalian system, every state – no matter how large or small – has exclusive sovereignty over its own territory, and no state may threaten the sovereignty of any other. The principles of this system are set out in the United Nations Charter.
The ‘rules-based international order’ group talks a lot about ‘values,’ ‘human rights’ and the promotion of democracy. Its foreign policy vision was articulated recently in the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. The US, the document urged, must “join with likeminded allies and partners to revitalize democracy the world over.” And it pledged, “We will work alongside fellow democracies across the globe to deter and defend against aggression from hostile adversaries. We will stand with our allies and partners to combat new threats aimed at our democracies, ranging from cross-border aggression, cyberattacks, disinformation, and digital authoritarianism to infrastructure and energy coercion. … We will defend and protect human rights and address discrimination, inequity, and marginalization in all its forms.”
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It is essentially a justification of perpetual interference in the internal affairs of other countries in order to cajole them to come into compliance with the desiderata of the US and its allies. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken elaborated on this theme extensively during a dialogue with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at this week’s NATO meeting, saying, “We are about both the power of our example, but also working with others, when we see them moving in the wrong direction, to try to reverse, get them to reverse laws, practices, other actions that are undermining the foundations of democracy. And again, if we’re strong and effective at home in doing that, that will go to our strength and effectiveness abroad.”
This ideological vision is worlds apart from that of the group of countries led by Russia and China. This group insists on national sovereignty, territorial integrity of all states, non-interference in one another’s internal affairs, no threats to use force, no resort to unilateral sanctions, cooperation with all states irrespective of the nature or ideological color of the governments that rule them. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put it in Guilin, “Moscow and Beijing stand for developing interstate relations on the principles of mutual respect and a balance of each other’s interests, justice, and non-interference in others’ internal affairs. We reject zero-sum political games and the illegal unilateral sanctions which our Western colleagues have been using increasingly more often. … We pointed out the destructive character of US aspiration to undermine the UN-centric international legal framework by using the military-political alliances of the Cold War period and creating similar closed alliances.”
In a joint statement, Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared, “Interference in a sovereign nation’s internal affairs under the excuse of ‘advancing democracy’ is unacceptable.”
Chinese Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi did not hesitate to spell this out to Blinken during talks in Anchorage, Alaska, stressing, “What China and the international community follow or uphold is the United Nations-centered international system and the international order underpinned by international law, not what is advocated by a small number of countries of the so-called rules-based international order.”
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The “rules-based international order” serves only the interests of the Western powers that create the rules – rules that can be made up one moment and discarded the next. As Yang explained, “I don’t think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognize that the universal values advocated by the United States or that the opinion of the United States could represent international public opinion, and those countries would not recognize that the rules made by a small number of people would serve as the basis for the international order.”
That “small number of people” who make “the rules” obviously includes NATO. And NATO, Stoltenberg announced the day before the foreign ministers’ summit, is all “about protecting the rules-based order, which is being challenged by authoritarian powers like China and Russia. So, we need to work even closer with like-minded partners around the globe. And support our neighbors with more training and capacity-building.”
As NATO envisages it, the scope for “training,” “capacity-building,” expansion, co-opting others, and invention of new missions is limitless. According to Stoltenberg, “If there’s any lesson learned both from the Balkans in the 1990s or Afghanistan or Iraq and also from Libya, then it is that prevention is better than intervention to help countries to stabilize themselves. Providing training and capacity-building is perhaps the best way NATO can help to stabilize our neighborhood. And when our neighbors are more stable, we are more secure.”
This is no apology for the devastation, bloodshed, and chaos that NATO has caused during the past 30 years. The problem is not too much NATO, but too little. Under color of searching for “stability,” NATO is entitled to do anything, no matter how much instability it creates along the way.
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It isn’t interested in national interests or national sovereignty. National sovereignty works one way: there is an absolute, unconditional right to join NATO, but there is no comparable right not to. Stoltenberg declared that no one is permitted to object to NATO’s expansion into its neighborhood. “It’s not for any nation, outside NATO and the aspirant country, to decide whether a country becomes a member of NATO or not. It’s a sovereign right of every nation, including Georgia, of course, or Ukraine, or Bosnia and Herzegovina, to choose their own path. And then it’s for those countries that are applying for membership and the NATO allies – and only them, and no one else, no one from the outside – to interfere in that democratic process.”
Needless to say, the US, for example, would not agree that a Russo-Mexican military alliance is no one’s business other than that of Mexico and Russia.
The NATO powers’ approach to the world is to impose sanctions the moment they come across anything they don’t like. On the eve of the Anchorage summit, the US imposed sanctions on 24 Chinese officials it accused of “undermining” Hong Kong’s “autonomy.” On the eve of the NATO summit, the US and the EU imposed sanctions on Chinese officials they accused of being involved in “genocide and crimes against humanity” against the Uighurs. On the very same day, the EU imposed sanctions on two Russians it accused of “repressions … directed against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons” in Chechnya.
Russia and China, however, do not threaten, force, or resort to sanctions in lieu of diplomacy. Neither seeks to coerce other countries into joining formal or informal military alliances. Their championing of the principles enshrined in the UN Charter is winning adherents. Earlier this month, the two countries, joined by others, issued a statement on behalf of the newly formed “Group of Friends in Defense of the Charter of the United Nations.” According to this statement, the UN Charter “has a renewed and even more important value and relevance … while providing a platform for, among others, promoting the prevalence of legality over the use of force, and for both discussing and coordinating possible joint initiatives for fostering the respect to the purposes and principles enshrined in the UN Charter.”
Seventeen countries are already members of this group. There is an open invitation for others to join, and many will undoubtedly do so. The national sovereignty principles enshrined in the charter are obviously appealing to the part of the world not firmly integrated within the Western system of alliances.
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The different approaches of the two blocs towards the internal affairs of other countries were on display during the UN Security Council debates on the military takeover in Myanmar. The US and the UK, eager to use the Myanmar crisis to target China, sought to push the Security Council into issuing a statement or adopting a resolution labeling the military takeover a “coup” and threatening sanctions. Russia and China would have none of it. They successfully insisted that any statement not go beyond condemnation of “violence against peaceful protesters” and “support for the democratic transition.” Significantly, Russia and China’s stance was supported by current Security Council members India and Vietnam. The US, UK, and EU, predictably, went ahead with their own unilateral sanctions.
During this new Cold War, China and Russia have gone out of their way to help out countries that have been the victims of Western-inspired unilateral sanctions. When the Trump administration announced it was reinstating sanctions against Iran, Russia immediately announced that it would continue trading in Iran’s crude oil, refining and selling it to third countries. Russia also helped Iran evade sanctions by linking its banking system to Iran’s. China has purchased and helped transport Iran’s oil. Russia and China have also both assisted Venezuela: Russian oil giant Rosneft helped market Venezuelan crude, while China has imported it. Moreover, Russia and China have continued to provide Venezuela with food and medicine.
This is only the beginning. China’s recently launched digital yuan threatens not only the pre-eminence of the US dollar as the global trading currency, but also the utility of sanctions as a means of coercing recalcitrant states. Even if the US were to try to push China out of the SWIFT system – the network banks use to transfer payments internationally – China would still be able to use the digital yuan in cross-border transactions. Moreover, Russia now has its own alternative to SWIFT. Using sanctions to coerce others may soon lose its efficacy for the Western powers.
The ideological basis of the new Cold War is becoming ever clearer daily. However, unlike in the first Cold War, the Western powers are likely to find themselves on the losing side.
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