As Europe disappears, Eurasia coheres. The supercontinent is becoming one fluid, comprehensible unit of trade and conflict, … every crisis from Central Europe to the ethnic Han Chinese heartland is now interlinked. There is one singular battle space.—Robert D. Kaplan, Marco Polo’s World (2018)
In a talk given at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Washington DC, two months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Robert D. Kaplan asked why our present-day world seems to be characterised by “permanent crisis.” Why do many of us think of our world today as more chaotic than it was during the Cold War? There have been insurrections, uprisings and wars throughout history, spanning Europe, Africa and the Middle East. “But for some reason,” Kaplan argues, “we think of all of those happening in separate places, as on separate planets … During the second World War, the Pacific theatre was light years away from the European theatre … Even during a World War, which somewhat united the world in one crisis, there was still a concept of different geographical theatres.”
Today, technology has collapsed distance to the extent that many speak of the great Eurasian landmass as one single, integrated theatre. Today’s world, then, is both smaller and more dangerous than it was in the past. Hypersonic and ballistic missiles are capable of crossing the globe within minutes. Cyber-attacks can compromise security in America, Russia or China from hundreds of thousands of miles away, without a shot being fired. Moreover, for the first time in history, we have truly interconnected financial markets, such that a shock in one part of the global financial system can affect people worldwide. The world is integrating into a single, comprehensive system. And because it’s a system “that encompasses the whole planet,” argues Kaplan, “we’re always in a crisis somewhere or another, so that it’s like a permanent crisis.”
Economist Thomas L. Friedman has described what he calls “ten flattening events” that have connected our previously disparate world. He argues that an integrated world in which goods, services and liberal ideas can easily cross borders is a new stage in the evolution of human society. This flat state of affairs is also uncomfortable for authoritarian regimes, which rely on control of information to maintain their stability. The free flow of ideas from the west led to the collapse of the Leninist regimes of Eastern Europe and of the Soviet Union and almost resulted in the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party in 1989.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb has described the west as “multicephalous”: characterised by networked systems in which power is dispersed within and across multiple nodes. He contrasts the western countries with “monocephalous” states like China and Russia, which rely on rigid, top-down centralisation and total control in order to maintain their internal coherence and unity. Such states have faced a predicament since ending their self-imposed isolation from the west. Integration into the western system poses an inherent danger to their political regimes, as the democratisation of wealth and information undermine state control. Yet to remain prosperous these states need access to the west’s capital markets and technology. So, rather than shutting out the outside world, as they did during the Cold War, both China and Russia have tried to manage the destabilising effects of integration by controlling domestic information flows.
China’s Great Firewall isolates its 1.4 billion citizens from networked connection with the rest of the world, preventing the influx of ideas about history, political models and human rights that would undermine the CCP narrative upon which the legitimacy of the regime is based. Until the invasion of Ukraine, Russia under Putin had been a far freer information space than China. But since the invasion, over 2,000 websites have been blocked, including most western social media companies. As the gap widens between the reality of the war in Ukraine and the Russian state-sanctioned narrative on what is happening there, the pressure increases on the Russian state to close its citizens off from the outside world.
As Kevin Rudd writes in The Avoidable War,
America, with its simultaneous embodiment of political and religious liberty, a powerful and innovative economy, and a strong military is fundamentally problematic for party ideologists. This is because it offers a powerful countercase to the core arguments underpinning China’s authoritarian-capitalist model: that state direction and ideological control are essential preconditions for both national greatness and individual prosperity.
Since Xi Jinping announced that it’s time for China to move “closer to centre stage in the world,” the CCP has looked to export its “China model”: a state-centric and authoritarian alternative to liberal democracy. By “welcom[ing] African countries aboard the express train of China’s development,” the CCP hopes to showcase the superiority of its development model, even when applied to countries very different from China, and, as Rudd writes, “contribute to China’s global ideological ambition of delegitimizing liberal-democratic capitalism—and boost the CCP’s ideological legitimacy, both at home and abroad.” This is not the offensive Maoist strategy of fomenting global revolutions, but a defensive approach aimed at carving out breathing space for the Communist Party within the global system.
Yet the CCP’s foreign policy strategy could have direct effects on the west. Beijing wants to determine the technological standards of the future, which it views as a key component of its pushback against the entrenched liberal norms and values of the international system. China would like to influence the institutional norms of the World Wide Web itself. China’s proposed alternative, the New IP, developed by a team of Chinese engineers at the UN’s International Telecommunication Union, would overturn the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), a technical standard that has developed organically in the west—in which the internet is viewed as an open and neutral carrier of information unrestrained by borders—and replace it with a centralised top-down design that would allow state-controlled internet services to limit individual users’ access to the internet. The design would include what Huawei engineers have called a “shut-up command,” which would allow the central domain to cut off communication between individual devices and the entire network. If the ITU were to legitimise the New IP as a standard model, writes Rudd,
It would allow state internet operators to choose between an open Western World Wide Web and a state-controlled network spearheaded by Beijing and built by Chinese telecom companies. Under this Chinese internet governance model, every government would have the technical ability to more easily define the boundaries and rules of its national internet. This represents a competing normative ideal for the future of the internet that China has promoted as cyber sovereignty.
As one UK delegate told the Financial Times after the 2019 ITU meeting,
Below the surface, there is a huge battle going on over what the internet will look like … You’ve got these two competing visions: one which is very free and open and … one which is much more controlled and regulated by governments.
Russian foreign policy over the past decade has followed the same logic as that of Beijing. Yet whilst Beijing tries to undermine the legitimacy of the liberal system, it also has a positive story to tell about China, both at home and abroad, presenting a “China dream” and a plausible—albeit Orwellian—alternative governance model.
Russia, however, has no positive narrative to share about itself, nor does it have an attractive offer to make to the world. In challenging the west, it generally has nothing to say about Russian values, nor does it claim that Russia has “made greater contributions to mankind” than the west has (to paraphrase Xi Jinping). It simply seeks to tarnish the west’s image and use conspiracy theories and disinformation to sow discord. Russia’s soft power strategy is to make the western system appear chaotic, and therefore unattractive to Russians. The Russian alternative to the western global system—a return to the nineteenth-century organising principle of “spheres of influence”—has failed to win support even in Russia’s own neighbourhood, let alone in the world at large. The military build-up to Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 was an attempt to blackmail NATO and the United States into granting what Russia believed was its rightful inheritance; dominion over its former imperial lands.
This is an outdated way of seeing the world. Nowadays, as Robert Kagan has recently written, spheres of influence
are not granted to one great power by other great powers; they are not inherited, nor are they created by geography or history or “tradition.” They are acquired by economic, political, and military power. They come and go as the distribution of power in the international system fluctuates.
Before Russia annexed Crimea and funded separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, over 90% of Ukrainians polled had a positive attitude towards Russia. Despite this, the Maidan protests demonstrated that Ukrainians believed that they would achieve a better future for themselves and their country by joining the west. Indeed, even before the 2022 attempt at regime change, nearly 60% of Ukrainians still had a positive attitude towards Russia. Yet economically and politically, they had no interest in growing closer to Russia. Rather than reflecting on why it has been unable to attract its neighbours into its sphere, the Putin regime has retreated into conspiracy theories to rationalise its failures, and fantasies about the “Russian world” and the “historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” A primetime Russian TV anchor recently asked, “Why do we need a world if Russia is not in it?” These are the posturings of a state unable to come to terms with the reality of its place as a mediocre player in the integrated world system.
As Kaplan reminds us in his talk, we should always “keep in mind how fragile a thing like civilization is.” Few people in late 1920s Germany could have predicted the character the nation would adopt by the 1930s, and few people in 1914 or 1915 could have predicted what would happen to Russia a few years later. In 2012, few people in Ukraine could have envisioned the atrocities of Bucha and Mariupol. Yet, in this instance, the west should have known better.
Post-World War II Germany has an identity built on the values of international collaboration and a rejection of “spheres of influence” thinking. Yet it is Germany’s reliance on Russian oil that has probably most emboldened Putin. After Russia’s 2014 occupation of Ukraine, Germany increased its dependence on Russian energy from 40 to 64%. Less than one year after a Russian Buk shot down an MH17 passenger aircraft, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew members, Germany signed an agreement with Russia greenlighting Nord Stream 2. The day before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the German government said that they would not stop NS2. As Edward Luttwak has written, it is a bitter paradox for the post-pacifist German establishment that Putin might not have invaded had there been clear signs about what the response from Germany would be.
Given the ineffectiveness of the European response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we should be deeply apprehensive about what Europe will do if China invades Taiwan. Europe is a spectacularly insular place. Its multinational European project tricks Europeans into believing that Europe reflects the world, and that the rest of the world is essentially like Europe. This led European leaders to fail to anticipate the actions of the Putin regime, and they appear to be making the same mistake with regard to the CCP. The CCP explicitly reserves the right to take military action against Taiwan. Given that Taiwan has no intention of voluntarily joining China, this conflict will soon break out if the west doesn’t take the steps to deter Xi Jinping that it failed to take with Putin.
As horrible as the war has been for Ukrainians, it would pale in comparison to a successful Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Taiwan is a critical node in the western network and its fall to the CCP would lead to a very different world. It would increase China’s leverage in the Indo-Pacific, isolate Japan and delegitimise America as a viable guarantor of sovereignty. It would take us a step closer to a world system organised around principles acceptable to the CCP. We cannot let that happen.