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There’s a realignment of power emerging between Russia, China and the west

The Guardian logo The Guardian 22/03/2023 Rafael Behr
Photograph: Dmitry Serebryakov/AP © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Dmitry Serebryakov/AP

Once again the world is divided into competing spheres of eastern and western power, but is it a new cold war or reheated leftovers from the last one? The answer is a bit of both. For Vladimir Putin, the superpower rivalry of the 20th century never ended, although in economic and military terms there was a clear winner and it wasn’t the Soviet Union. Russia’s president is determined to reverse that humiliation, in the national imagination, at least. In other realms, the trajectory is further decline.

Russia can still make a global nuisance of itself. A nuclear-armed rogue state with an appetite for territorial expansion can’t be ignored. But parity with the US is a distant memory for the Kremlin. For China it is a destination on the near horizon.

That difference is the essential context for Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow this week. Kremlin propaganda depicts the summit as consolidation of a partnership. That is a fiction for bruised Russian egos. The Chinese president is not Putin’s friend, he is a patron taking homage from a client.

Related: Xi Jinping says China ready to ‘stand guard over world order’ on Moscow visit

The invasion of Ukraine was an epic blunder. Before it, Putin had options. He had hedging positions with the west; influence bought with gas. Now he is an indicted war criminal running a glorified petrol station for countries that don’t care about western sanctions, with a side hustle in leasing mercenaries to warlords.

It’s a living. Putin is not as isolated as the US and the EU think he should be. Moscow’s warped retelling of the Ukraine war as a product of Nato aggression has purchase on opinion in the global south, especially in places where western military arrogance is a familiar affliction. For others, the whole thing is a parochial European feud with no obvious moral imperative to take sides.

That makes a pool of customers for Russian trade, not durable alliances, still less a coherent model of economic and political development to rival liberal democracy.

Even in its stagnant ideological dotage, the Soviet Union claimed to represent something loftier than one country’s interests. Communism was a global creed. Putinism has no such claim. It is a banal hybrid of kleptocracy and bloodthirsty nationalism. That isn’t to say it lacks overseas fans. The Russian president’s fretting over gender fluidity as an emasculating toxin that debilitates the west gets a receptive audience from the far right in the US and Europe. The Kremlin amplifies its influence by pumping disinformation into western digital debates and dirty money into election campaigns.

That makes Putin a troll king for people who feel embittered by the prevalence of social liberalism in their own countries. But there is nothing in Russia that might be described as a template for government. Plunder of natural resources, suffocation of dissent and scapegoating of minorities has made the country weaker and poorer.

Related: How Xi Jinping plans to use his meeting with war crimes suspect Vladimir Putin | Observer editorial

Here too the difference with China is significant. The Chinese Communist party has coupled dictatorship with industrial dynamism in ways that were deemed impossible by triumphant democrats at the end of the cold war. The theory was that the transition from Marxist economics would require the end of state monopoly control. That would empower a privately wealthy middle class who would then demand property rights, the rule of law and political liberty. Democracy and capitalism were an inseparable bundle.

Also, the borderless internet was going to make top-down state control of individual business technically impossible. That was all a froth of complacency. A generation after the Tiananmen Square massacre, you can’t read about it on Chinese web browsers. Meanwhile, western consumers go crazy for TikTok, headquartered in Beijing.

Maybe the reckoning has only been deferred. An unexpected eruption of anti-lockdown protests late last year showed how little we really know about tensions beneath the facade of Communist party control. A burst real-estate bubble, causing a sudden economic contraction, refuted a central myth in Xi’s doctrine – that autocrats make the best economic managers.

The argument is that leaders in democracies pander to capricious voters, demanding instant gratification, while the immovable ruler plans for a longer strategic timeline.

It never works that way. Silencing dissent deprives dictators of the data they need to know when their judgments are wrong. Underlings are afraid to flag up flaws in the plan. Mistakes are compounded and covered up. Domestic discontent that can’t be crushed is diverted by whipping up a patriotic fervour against foreigners, setting the country on a path to war. Despots are predictable that way.

But there is an ugly truth in the diagnosis of fickleness in electoral politics. No one watching Britain from the outside thinks the problem in recent years has been a surfeit of strategic wisdom in government.

That isn’t an argument against democracy but a reminder of the difference between democrats and populists. The latter exploit impatience. They peddle simple solutions to complex problems. Anyone who queries the method is denounced as an agent of decline endorsing a rotten status quo, or a traitor intent on thwarting national renaissance. Sound familiar?

It is a vicious circle: the populist wins a mandate to do the impossible and predictably fails, compounding a public perception that democratic politics can’t deliver the radical change people crave, which is a recipe for more populism.

The threat is all the more acute when the economic model that has underpinned democracy is also failing. British wages have been stagnant or falling in real terms since 2008. The 20th century promise that children would grow up to enjoy higher living standards than their parents is broken. Liberal democracy offers social advancement through merit and hard work. The only reliable conveyors now are inheritance and luck.

That is a breach of the implicit ballot-box contract. Permission to govern is awarded by election, but faith in elections gets corroded if voting doesn’t make things better over several cycles.

That isn’t a problem for Putin or Xi. Dictators have their methods for dealing with popular disillusionment. But for democrats, a stubborn economic malaise is more existentially threatening than any example set in Moscow or Beijing. There is no demonstrably better model out there, but the resilience of western societies needs more than just a complacent expectation that all rivals implode sooner or later.

In this new era that looks superficially like a second cold war, the threat doesn’t come from some other power bloc. It resides in our own failure to grapple with complex problems, and populist recoil into simplicity, frivolity and denial.

  • Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist


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