Though the Cold War ended over two decades ago, the international dynamics of the era remain relatively unaltered. Certainly, there has been an unmistakable détente on all sides, Russia has undergone a change in management, and China continues to methodically shed its Maoist past in pursuit of what appears to be a more capitalist future.
Nevertheless, as the recent conflict in Ukraine has highlighted, there remains lingering tensions between the traditional West and the new Russian Federation. Whether in Ukraine where world leaders are squabbling over the future status of an ultimately infirm state or in Syria where US and Russian weaponry are being used to arm opposite sides of a civil war, Western-Russian relations have been characterized by the same “balance of power” politics that permeated the entire Cold War.
Much of this can be attributed to Putin, Russia’s elective dictator, whose own collectivist, nationalistic ideology still causes him to interpret world affairs as a battle between the West and Russia. This ideology has led him to believe that he must play the role of an antagonist on the world stage lest Russia lose its influence and the West “win.” Thus, he has aligned himself with a number of disreputable dictatorships and theocracies (unsurprisingly, much of the old Soviet bloc) to stave off what he views as western advancements against Russia (the West, of course, did the same during the Cold War). The dictator’s own appalling record toward individual rights has caused the US and its European allies to be all the more wary of Russia’s new leadership.
The West, for its part, has done little to improve the situation. Rather than seizing upon the collapse of the USSR as an opportunity to begin integrating Russia into the international community, Western powers have behaved so erratically and so detrimentally to their own interests that their actions may easily be construed as nothing but attempts to stifle Russian influence in favor of their own. Why else, the average Russian may ask, would the West invade Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein? Or arm terrorists to depose al-Assad in Syria? In such cases, the West’s professed support for individual rights seems nothing more than a façade used to justify their actions, rather than a real conviction worthy of consideration.
Western-Russian relations have consequently deteriorated, culminating in the Russian invasion of Ukraine after a pro-Western revolution ousted a pro-Russian government. The claim that the revolution advanced the individual rights of Ukrainians ceased to be convincing to a Russian nation to which the concept of “individual rights” is still quite alien anyway. Refusing to suffer a “defeat” in his own back yard, Putin invaded – using the same rhetoric and jargon about “self-determination” frequently cited by the West for “democratic” movements.
For now, the relationship has iced over. It will take time to thaw, and possibly even a post-Putin Russia to truly reboot relations to a point that the West can correct the errors it has made in the 1990s and 2000s. Then, though hopefully earlier, the two blocs can begin to engage on areas of mutual interest and concern – expanding trade and Islamic totalitarianism being two of the most obvious.
However, where the West has failed with Russia, it need not fail with China. All that was true of Russia following the Cold War – a liberalization of politics, the reduction of state influence, an expansion of individual rights, and an increased willingness to cooperate on the international level – is true of modern China. It is not a free state, and its people still suffer many abuses from their single-party state. Even so, China has shown a willingness to reform in recent years, moving towards increasingly freer governance – if not in politics, at least in daily life, akin to (but not nearly as free as) Singapore. Such reforms should be applauded by the international community, and China should be encouraged to continue down the increasingly liberal path it is on.
And yet, at least in the United States, politicians seem to clamor over one another to completely sever US-Chinese relations, particularly on the issue of trade. After all, who can forget the sparring match between Obama and Romney in the 2012 presidential debates over who had the least number of investments in Chinese firms or in US businesses offshore outsourcing to China? In addition, Republicans and union-backed Democrats frequently call for increased trade restrictions on Chinese goods. Essentially, as with Putin on political matters, so too with US politicians on economic matters, viewing Chinese economic growth as some sort of threat to US prosperity.
Such talk is neither constructive diplomatically nor sensible economically (let alone permissible morally). It only displays to the Chinese the utter shallowness of US politicians’ support for free market principles. It sends the message, not of, “Join us in our prosperity,” but of, “Go away – we don’t want your business or your friendship.” If that trend continues, China’s only natural response will be to look elsewhere for lasting economic and diplomatic relationships – such as Russia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
And China should not be aligned with such nations. China only shields such nations from international punition through the UN Security Council because the Chinese have a lingering fear that the West may try to undermine them diplomatically (not unlike Putin’s Russia), not because they are particularly fond of the belligerent madman across their border or of Islamic totalitarianism (from which China has also suffered attacks). Instead, Western officials should make the case that addressing such issues is not beneficial merely to the West, but that the nation of China has a shared interest with North America and Europe in cooperation and coordination against such threats.
If there are points of contention between the West and China, they can and should be addressed. For instance, the issue of China’s flagrant violations of intellectual property rights should be confronted, but with a valuable, positive alternative (such as free trade) in exchange for the protection of intellectual property. As always, the West should remain supportive of a republican government in China, but in the meantime, this support should not prevent progress where it can be made, nor do itself injury by antagonizing China into halting (or worse, reversing) the progress that has already been made.
Whether the tenor of US politics will permit such a relationship with China or not is dubious. Both the right and the left seem quite content with using China as an uncontroversial political punching bag. Forty years since Nixon opened up US relations with China in the 1970s, China is no longer the China of Mao. Today’s China is, like many things on the world stage, in a state of flux. Whether things swing in favor of individual rights and capitalism is ultimately up to the Chinese, but there is much that Western nations can do to encourage such a shift. For the time being, they have failed to do the same with Russia. The results are self-evident.
If the world is to truly move beyond the Cold War, the West must lead the way in leaving behind Cold War diplomacy. It must engage in self-interested endeavors internationally, not the erratic nation-building that has only confused and frustrated non-Western powers and ultimately injured Western interests. It must dispense with the notion that “mutually assured destruction” is the guiding doctrine of the day, and it should instead look for a policy of mutually beneficial trade, protection, freedom, and peace.
 It is on the issue of Islamic totalitarianism that the West has particularly failed to engage Russia – a state quite familiar with its dangers and currently combatting it on Russian soil. Rather than reach out to Russia to achieve some sort of cooperation on the greatest Islamic totalitarian threat in the world – the Islamic Republic of Iran – the West has methodically evaded the issue, more often painting it as a matter of “nuclear proliferation” and starting largely unrelated wars in places like Iraq. Instead, Russia has come to view the Islamic Republic of Iran as an “anti-Western” outpost, worth at least partially shielding for that reason alone.