Taking a Breath to Avoid a New Cold War

With both China and Russia newly empowered by Donald Trump’s evacuation of American leadership, writes Jeremy Kinsman, Canada needs to help coax both back onto the axis of global cooperation. Wikipedia photo


While much of the world’s attention is monopolized by the geopolitical shiny object of Donald Trump, the two players who warrant equally careful consideration are Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, whose evolving countries have more in common than many Western caricatures capture. Veteran Canadian diplomat Jeremy Kinsman deftly lays out their crucial similarities and differences, and how the West can move past suspicion to collaboration.


Jeremy Kinsman 

Each February, heavy-hitters in international security from both sides of the Atlantic, mostly ex-cold warriors and the guardians of foreign policy conventional wisdom—once dubbed “the blob” by former Obama advisor Ben Rhodes—convene at Munich’s venerable Hotel Bayerischer Hof to rake over trends and threats.

After 9/11, concern veered to the long war with jihadists, and chaos in the Middle East. But now the blob’s angst is reverting to the old foes of the Euro-Atlantic order: a resentful and reawakened post-Soviet Russia; and a spectacularly risen China, embarked on a transformational competition for global power.

Worry over Russia and China is deepened by anguish over the evacuation of American leadership.

Vice President Mike Pence’s talking points put America forward as the staunch leader of the “free world.” Traditional allies, bruised by Trump’s lying, disruption, and defection from defining international cooperation agreements, sat in stony dismissive silence. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who, despite having booked retirement for 2021, remains the West’s leadership voice, stood up for the essential vision and practice of global cooperation that Trump’s proxies were trashing. Like-minded democracies including Canada are game for her defence of multilateralism and democracy, to push back against populist nationalism. 

For Americans, Russia and China are the main adversaries. Though very different, they share some attitudes, notably a coolness to liberal internationalism that reflects resentment that their own interests and revived stature get sparse recognition under U.S.-made rules set decades ago without their influence.

Both exploit competition for global primacy as U.S. domination recedes. In the late 1940s, the U.S. accounted for 50 per cent of the world’s GDP. Today, it is about 22 per cent, nearly equaled by China’s GDP, which has multiplied 80 times since reforms began in 1978. 

Russia is not in China’s economic league, but has certainly made a comeback as an international security spoiler.

Of course, the U.S. remains the dominant military force by metrics of hard power assets deployed over multiple strategic platforms around the world. But such hard power is undercut by cheaper and arguably more powerful cyberweaponry that both Russia and China have adroitly deployed at a fraction of the cost.

Strategic competition is increasingly defined by vastly accelerated 5-G computing capabilities driving the next generation of technological advance. By means fair and arguably unfair, China has caught up enough to challenge American tech primacy. 

Backed up by economic and political leverage, the U.S. government proselytizes against the security risks of letting major Chinese telecom competitor Huawei consolidate footholds in western and developing economies.

A negative view of China’s rivalry may be the only policy thrust both U.S. political parties agree on. Anti-Russian sentiment rides even higher, though with highly partisan slants because of a split in appraising Russia’s influence on the 2016 election. Far from ducking their adversarial roles, Chinese and Russian leaders vaunt them at home, as popular payback for dismissive treatment by the West in the past.

A communications war has prompted phobic narratives to take hold. Scholars and commentators who search for objective truth and understanding amid competing historical narratives, perceptions, and national purposes have been derided even in Canada, as agents of (Russian or Chinese) influence.

We need to recover perspective through a more balanced understanding of respective histories and to develop strategic relationships that can advance the rules of the road, within which wrongdoing on human rights and intimidation of neighbours can be challenged without a megaphone.

Historically, Russia and China experienced seismic communist revolutions that produced totalitarian nightmares, and differing counter-revolutions. Russia’s counter-revolution in the 1980s and 90s was unprecedented in the scale and complexity of the task of displacing 70 years of police state control with the openness of glasnost. Gorbachev’s moral choice was to reform the country’s political structures as a first priority, before restructuring the economy.

Reformers undid the communist system but under-estimated the challenge of developing democratic norms and behaviour. The Russian economy contracted by a third—more than the U.S. economy did in the 1930s Great Depression—aggravated by clueless advice on austerity and privatization and inadequate support from the West, ultimately depleting Russian public support for reformers. 

Soviet statehood collapsed. A superpower of 500 million, of whom only 50 per cent were Russian, was replaced by 15 ethno-centric republics, stranding 20 million Russians outside the Russian Republic. The relatively peaceful break-up indicated the extent of alienation from the Soviet communist regime, and the strength of revived ethnic nationalism.

That Gorbachev ended the Cold War and ideological competition is not regretted in Russia. But the thought that Russians were the “losers” and Americans the “winners” remains a bitter pill, deepened by belief that NATO countries (with the exception of Germany) discounted the interests of Russians, seeming to consign them to a “failing state” international outbox.

In 2000, disappointment, exhaustion from chaotic “reforms” and increasing violence enabled Putin’s inaugural bargain with Russians to set aside civic dispute in return for security and stability. He subtracted newly-acquired democratic space but administered a popular stabilizing economic recovery. 

China’s overall reform priority had been the opposite of Russia’s moral but unmanageable choice of politics before economics. When Deng Xiaoping unleashed economic reforms in 1978 he kept the reins of political control tightly in the hands of the Communist Party, and further tightened them after the Tiananmen protests in 1989. China’s subsequent, unprecedented economic rise lifted more than half a billion citizens out of poverty. Now, both economies face problems. Economically, Russia is overly dependent on natural resources. China has massive debt. Growth is slowing in both as the welfare needs of aging populations swell. In both countries, wide income disparities galvanize the toxic issue of unfairness, sharpened by the perception of widespread corruption, though XI has launched a popular if selective anti-corruption drive.

Politically, the triumphalism of both Putin and Xi is more muted. They both invoke worry about internal stability, referencing past violent upheaval to justify tightening controls on dissent, rationalizing that freedoms still exist to a degree unthinkable under totalitarian communism. 

But suppression of dissent on open media risks resentment over abuse of power. In both Russia and China, disaffection from professional and urban elites is joined by local protests from citizens frustrated with top-down over-centralization, official corruption, and environmental degradation. Russia still does polling: Putin’s approval rating has dropped into the 30s. Both concoct or amplify external threats to boost nationalistic support, appealing to collective memory of historic vulnerability to invasion to rationalize the need for neutralized buffer zones.  

Their respective global ambitions are different in scale. Russia wants the respect and influence due a great country. China’s grander, epochal vision includes recovering the historic position as a regional hegemon that preceded what it considers the anomaly of European and then American pre-eminence of the mere last few hundred years. Both refuse to go along with a self-awarded U.S. exclusivity on the international use of force. They are vibrantly hostile to perceived interference and criticism from “hypocritical” democracies they accuse of “missionary” subversion of sovereign rights, including via “colour revolutions” they see as Western-sponsored attempts to weaken them. As nationalists, their view of institutionalized globalism is wary of political bias favouring Western competitors. But they work to enhance their rewards from the system, and reject the American notion they have been “free riders.” 

Overall, China’s challenge to American primacy is the greatest geopolitical drama of our age. Though advanced primarily through economics, its military dimension centres on its aggressive claim of a vast territorial sea off its 3,000-mile southern coastline adjacent to vital shipping lanes, buttressed by military deployments meant to deny American access to waters the U.S. Navy has considered since 1945 to be akin to a vast “American lake.”

Both countries seem over-extended by risky moves—Russian election interference and the Skripal affair; China’s political hostage-taking over the Huawei drama and intimidation of overseas diasporas. Confidence levels may be jarred. Putin and Xi might be chuffed by a recent Gallup world poll showing both are more trusted internationally than the U.S. But they have to factor in the costs of growing public animosity in Europe and North America. Can we foresee some moderation? If so, how does the internationalist West engage with them? 

We need candid discussion with and about Russia and China. They know the score and know they aren’t making the gains they were a few years ago. While both sought advantageous transactional deals with the U.S., they basically rely on an interdependent and predictably stable world institutional system, which is our aim as well. We need to lower the temperature and hope for the moderation of phobic and defensive public opinion on all sides.

Canada’s recent loss of productive relationships with both Russia and China is their loss, ours, and the international community’s since there are no solutions to multiple international stalemates without Russian and Chinese cooperation, including the conflict with Ukraine. So, when the blob returns to Munich next February, and in discussion everywhere between now and then, the dominant challenges will be how to mute the nationalist static now in the world’s ears, and how to coax the world community, including Russia and China, back onto the axis of essential global cooperation.  


Contributing writer Jeremy Kinsman is a former Canadian ambassador to Russia, the U.K. and the EU. He is affiliated with University of California, Berkeley.