Bipolarity Is Back

The belief in the automatic triumph of the liberal world order has not only left the West unprepared to fight a long and grinding civilizational struggle. It has also actively harmed it.

We are 30 years out since the end of the Cold War, almost 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States, 12 years since the Russian invasion of Georgia, and six years since Russia’s seizure of Crimea. During this time period, we have seen significant changes in the overall power distribution in Europe, Eurasia, the Indo-Pacific, and globally—changes that have been captured in the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy. The United States and its NATO allies are now gearing up for an era of “great power competition,” with Russia and China, identified as the principal powers seeking, respectively, to revise and replace the existing global power distribution dominated by the United States.

A new bipolarity is fast emerging from the political wreckage of the post-Cold War decades, one that will likely prove more enduring and intractable than its Cold War predecessor. We are tracking for a world of two all-encompassing systems where ideological and cultural polarization between the West and the East will drive the confrontation even more than the rapidly shifting economic and military balances. This nascent systemic bipolarity could end up being more enduring than its Cold War predecessor, for its ideological underpinning will be embedded in a foundational civilizational difference. The immediate drivers are at their core ideological, two mutually exclusive visions of how to organize society: on the one hand, an increasingly disaggregated liberal democracy and, on the other, an increasingly consolidated Chinese brand of commercial communism, both steeped in historically incompatible cultures.

As Washington (and to some extent Europe) awakens to the threat posed by China and Russia, the conversation about great power competition still largely evolves around economics and hard military security issues. What is missing from the global realignment is a clear articulation of ends—what we envision as the outcome in this context, and what vision our adversaries bring to the table. In contrast to the Cold War, most of the current analysis has treated the ideological and cultural underpinnings of the current round of state-on-state competition as muted, if not altogether absent. It is as if, especially in the case of China, we have been unwilling to articulate the fundamentals of what we are up against. This is even more striking given the growing consensus that China’s threat to the United States is urgent. As a colleague recently quipped, while Russia’s actions in the global system are comparable to that of a sudden storm, the challenge posed by China is more akin to climate change, insofar as Beijing has the potential to remake the very fundamentals of the international system.

How we see ourselves is not how our adversaries see us, and perhaps more importantly, how we see them is not how they see themselves. When it comes to Russia and China, we have been laboring under a core misconception: that economic modernization would lead to a greater demand for political participation of the kind we find familiar; and that this, in turn, would yield a kind of universal global culture that at its most basic would be at least recognizably “quasi-Western.” The key theory that underpins this worldview, simply put, is that institutions ultimately trump culture. The bold post-Cold War liberal claims—that history had been conquered by economics and institutions, and that culture, in turn, adapts—stand some comparison to the ideological certitude of Marxist revolutionaries of the early 20th century who believed they had unlocked the inner workings of human progress.

In the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the goal of “state-building”—which involved laying the institutional foundations for representative democratic government—has been seen as a self-evidently desirable strategic end state. That these projects have foundered has been acknowledged among more introspective analysts, but even among them, the goal itself has rarely come into question. From a wider perspective, our misadventures in state-building have been costly but ultimately affordable blunders and distractions. But our certainty in the inevitable triumph of liberalism has cost us dearly in our dealings with China, and to a certain extent Russia as well. Since the end of the Cold War, the Chinese have benefitted from decades of unfettered access to American technology and research, while Russia has leveraged America’s preoccupation with counterterrorism to reclaim its sphere of privileged interest along its periphery. Until recently neither was questioned on strategic grounds, since the direction of history was properly understood.

But the ideology was more than just strategically harmful. It provided a set of palatable self-delusions that have hurt us much more profoundly. “Globalization” was a tidy way to explain away concessions on technology and knowledge transfer made to Beijing for the sake of the balance sheet. Short-horizon money-making was given a patina of virtue since it was thought to be fueling systemic modernization. Corporate greed was allowed to masquerade as a respectable ideology. We are now reaping the rewards of this self-delusion. The de-industrialization of America, with the attendant breakdown of our traditional societal bonds, is but the most glaring and politically salient example. Unlike the not insignificant costs surrounding failed state-building, however, these cannot simply be written off. We have been significantly weakened as a society.

The unity of the West is under stress and at risk of dissolving not just because of competing economic interests when it comes China and Russia—whether this concerns technology, manufacturing, or energy—but also because our elites are increasingly bereft of the ideological conviction that Western heritage and our future are in need of defending, especially now, when the beliefs of our adversaries are challenging them directly. The current round of great power competition lacks the fundamental “why?” beyond the most obvious economic and military power considerations. A generation ago, we would not have had trouble answering such a question.

Yes, some of the fracturing of the Western consensus is due to increasingly divergent views about what our adversaries represent: The United States looks at China and Russia through a security lens, while Europe sees predominantly an economic opportunity in China and an attenuated and manageable threat in Russia. Bringing these two views into alignment will be a short-term challenge for the Transatlantic community. But this task pales next to the imperative to restore a larger commitment to our shared cultural patrimony and the values that have emerged from it.

What gives China and Russia the staying power to compete against the West is their own confident historicity—something Europe has lacked for decades, and something that the United States began to shed at the beginning of the century, in part due to the failed interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in part due to the blow of the global financial crisis. Putin’s Russia sees its revisionist reassertion of great power claims in Eurasia to be quintessentially compensatory—a vengeful empire “robbed” by the West of its place in the sun. China’s ideological fervor is manifest in its nationalism as a fundamental corrective aimed at adjusting its historical trajectory.

The Chinese communists’ claimed prerogative to be the “people’s savior” is particularly instructive. It offers China a path to national redemption which the West’s diffident postmodern elites dare not entertain. The belief in the West—that cross border connectivity made possible by the digital age would homogenize and universalize not just economies, but also the most deeply held assumptions about what constitutes national pride, national culture, and national interest—is coming up empty. Meanwhile, the communists’ insular cultural claim to legitimacy soldiers on.

As the dust from the globalist era begins to settle, the resilience of Western societies is not a given. Confronted with angry Russian great power revisionism and confident Chinese economic, military, and cultural imperialism, will the United States and Europe find enough common ground and residual self-confidence to pull together yet again in defense of the values we claim to share? The fundamental shift in the coming years has to be one of setting aside the relativized institutionalism of the post-Cold War era and anchoring our policy choices in the clearly identified cultural value set that differentiates the West from its adversaries.

Published on: January 17, 2020Andrew A. Michta is the dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. Views expressed here are his own.