Written by Simon Eckert
In 1989, Francis Fukuyama famously declared that “[what] we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” (Fukuyama, 1989: 3). However, 30 years later, it seems that there are once again systematic challenges to the idea of liberal democracy, a fact that was recently acknowledged by the European Commission when it called China a “systemic rival” (European External Action Service, 2020). Whilst the rivals, China and Russia, are not competing with the European Union (EU) over the most appropriate economic system, there is clear competition brewing along lines of political stability, economic success, and military capacity. This article focuses on the meaning of these developments for the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy, arguing that it is important for European policymakers to not classify this contemporary conflict using the binary categories seen in the Cold War. This is the case because unlike the Cold War period (1) the competition is not between different economies, but different political systems, (2) the conflict surrounding disinformation and public campaigns aimed at the rival’s population introduces a novel dimension and (3) the broader global policy context has significantly altered in more recent years.
- Competition of political rather than economic systems
Even though it seems obvious that Fukuyama (1989) was wrong about the endpoint of political models, it seems far less likely that another implicit assumption of many neoconservatives like him, namely that liberal democracy would naturally be accompanied by the rise of the capitalist economic model, was also wrong. Now, about 40 years after the end of the Cold War, with the Chinese implementation of a capitalist model through the last Chinese Communist Party and the rapid transformation towards its own kind of capitalism in Russia in the 1990’s (Spohr, 2019), a clear convergence from the capitalist economic model has arisen among the world’s greatest military and economic powers. Importantly, it should not be assumed that their economic models are close to the economic models of other capitalist countries like the US, Japan, or EU Member States, since there is always a great variation in how the capitalist model can be implemented through national economic policy (Hall & Soskice, 2001). For China, it now seems clear that at least an aspect of consumerism has become part of its political-economic model (Mitter, 2021). However, as Rana Mitter (2021) has outlined, authoritarianism, global ambition, and technology do in fact complement China’s political model and should therefore not be neglected when attempting to understand the Chinese political model. Global ambition means that China, contrary to the period following the Tian-men-Massacre, seeks to promote its political and economic advantages through a global policy that is predominantly economic. Technology entails both the aspects of making use of technological surveillance to protect the authoritarian politics in China as well as promoting the Chinese high-tech sector on a global scale.
For Russia, the story is slightly different. Russia has changed its economic model from communism to a form of oligarchic capitalism since the 1990s. While there seemed to be a real chance for democracy in Russia before 2012 and Putin’s unconstitutional re-election as President, it has since become clear that this is not the case (Mommsen, 2017). This was accompanied by a re-emergence of the perception that large parts of Eastern Europe are a zone of Russian influence often channelled through the supposed duty of Russia to protect any Russian speaking person in the World – especially in Eastern Europe (Laruelle, 2015). The best manifestation of the geopolitical implications of this re-emergence is the frozen conflict between Russia and Georgia as well as the Russian Occupation of Crimea and other Territories of Ukraine in 2014 (Alison, 2014). The Ukrainian case is a striking example because it vividly illustrates that Russia’s new geopolitical ambitions often negate the previous agreed upon sovereignty of former Soviet satellites like Ukraine, as can be shown by the narrative that it would threaten Russia if Ukraine was to join NATO (which is mainly a defence treaty) or the EU (Snyder, 2019).
The conclusion that can be drawn from these observations is that a new mode of competition between Russia, China, and other Western powers has emerged since the end of the Cold War. This competition’s aim is different from the Cold War, as it is less about systemic change at the level of domestic politics of competitors and more about the influence of one’s own interests at a global policy level. And, most importantly, the competition has now turned towards one between different political models which share, at least in principle though not in detail, the same economic model of capitalism.
- The rise of disinformation
Another important aspect of competition that has significantly changed since the Cold War is the role that public relations campaigns aimed at rival populations play in the contemporary setting. It seems that the aim of the information campaigns now, unlike during the Cold War, is not primarily to convince part of the rivals’ population to work directly for the government of the rivals but rather to influence the attitudes of populations towards their governments. The most recent example of this is clear in the social media campaigns surrounding the Russian and Chinese Coronavirus Vaccines, which were directly aimed at undermining trust in EU medical authorities. In addition to these campaigns, both Russia and China have accused the EU of politicizing vaccinations and therefore being responsible for withholding vaccines that should, according to their campaigns, be deemed safe for EU citizens (European External Action Service, 2021).
For both Russia and China, these activities are not isolated, but rather part of a bigger strategy. As Timothy Snyder (2018) argues, Russia’s contemporary focus surrounds different perceptions of the common good, as opposed to economic achievements. Therefore, within Russian media and official discourse, universal values like human rights are increasingly rejected and framed as Western moral beliefs that contradict Russian culture. The rhetoric applied in this context also often involves homophobic references to attack the EU’s more progressive and socially liberal approach. Of course, this may relate to the fact that whilst Russia can compete militarily, the same cannot be said for its living standards (Snyder, 2018).
As Rama Mitter (2021) has noted, China is distinct. The Chinese government’s reference to human development over the last 30 to 40 years is essential in legitimizing the Chinese Communist Party’s regime. However, the conclusion that can be drawn from the fact that both Russia and China have increased attempts to influence how they and their rivals are opposed can be classified as a clear sign that the soft power struggle has significantly increased. The term soft power was coined by the political scientist Joseph Nye (2004) and describes how power can operate in international politics without the use of military or economic force based on the cultural and ideological attractiveness of states. This does not mean that hard power has become less important, but rather illustrates that both Russia and China see and use soft power as an additional means of progressing their foreign policy. While this was in principle already in existence during the Cold War, the digital revolution is likely to have increased the meaning of soft power since it enabled a decay of the filter functions of traditional media (Mounk, 2018).
- A changing global context
It should also be considered that analogies to the Cold War are not considering the broader global political situation in at least two respects. Firstly, with regard to most policy fields, the blocs of confrontation during the Cold War were homogenous, whilst third states were often the locations where conflict manifested, as evident in the military interventions in Vietnam and Afghanistan and the economic sanctions in Cuba (Stöver, 2011). This has, however, now changed. A major reason for this could be the rise of terrorism, a policy field in which levels of cooperation unthinkable during the Cold War are often present between states that are geopolitical rivals.
Secondly, China agrees that global warming is an issue that needs to be tackled through global coordination (BBC, 2021). Even if it remains highly questionable how serious Russia is in tackling global warming after only joining the Paris climate pact in 2019 as one of the last countries to adopt it (Sauer, 2019), it nevertheless marks another important difference. There is now, as opposed to the Cold War, a global issue, the resolution of which is only possible through enhanced cooperation at a time of increasing geopolitical rivalry. This fundamental difference to the Cold War exists despite the insecurities about the Russian stance towards climate policy and how serious Russia is about contributing to resolving the challenge of global warming.
These considerations should help the EU in its attempt to become a geopolitical actor. What is required is nothing less than the art of cooperating in a meaningful way with rivals regarding climate policy while taking clear stances on matters like democracy and human rights. Regarding the evolving nature of soft power, the EU should attempt to increase its already considerable soft power (Michalski, 2005) by cooperating more closely with other democracies like the UK, the USA, and Japan. Joe Biden’s promised Global Summit for Democracy (Deutsche Welle, 2021) could be an important first opportunity for the EU’s leaders to develop an integrated response to the new geopolitical situation in alignment with their major democratic partners.
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