As my co-author and I suggested in our book, America’s power is waning. This is consistent with the historical fate of all empires, mainly because empire is not a sustainable system. As events in Syria over the past two years have shown, Washington’s uni-polar moment is over. This is not to say that the U.S. isn’t still very powerful in many respects or that its demise is complete. The collapse or disintegration of an empire is a process and exactly how long it takes and the details of how it plays out are difficult to predict.
As the disintegration of the U.S.’s unipolar power occurs, a void will develop (indeed is developing) and some other power or combination of powers will inevitably move to fill the void. As it stands, it appears that the void will likely be filled by something that resembles a multi-polar world with Eurasia taking the lead role. China, set to be the leading economy within the next 10 years – indeed is already the leading economy with respect to some measures – has developed an alliance with Russia and is taking steps to implement its One Belt One Road initiative, also known as the New Silk Road, that envisions a cooperative economic network throughout Eurasia that covers at least all of the territory of the old Silk Road.
The success of this project requires the ability to defend oneself from aggressive competitors who are stuck in a zero-sum mentality of geopolitics (i.e. Washington and allies/client states that it can continue to coerce into doing its bidding). It also requires the finesse to prevent and/or subdue any ethnic, cultural or religious divisions within various states or potential conflicts between states that could be stirred up or exploited by aggressive (and desperate) outside powers. Russia’s military technology and diplomatic skill complement China’s economic power in terms of helping the Eurasian project to succeed, which will in turn, benefit Russia’s economy and security.
In this post I want to take a closer look at some aspects of China that will hopefully give the reader some more insight into the mindset and governance of that country and its role in shaping Eurasia, as well as how Washington is likely to respond to its own decline and Eurasia’s rise. The first source of insight is a Ted Talk by political science and businessman Eric X. Li. Li demystifies some of the inner workings of how China governs its people which will cause many to rethink what they’ve been taught about political democracy, particularly how it is practiced by the West and whether it is the only legitimate or the most effective system of governance. Here are some excerpts from Li’s talk:
In the last 20 years, Western elites tirelessly trotted around the globe selling this prospectus: Multiple parties fight for political power and everyone voting on them is the only path to salvation to the long-suffering developing world. Those who buy the prospectus are destined for success. Those who do not are doomed to fail. But this time, the Chinese didn’t buy it. Fool me once… (Laughter) The rest is history. In just 30 years, China went from one of the poorest agricultural countries in the world to its second-largest economy. Six hundred fifty million people were lifted out of poverty. Eighty percent of the entire world’s poverty alleviation during that period happened in China.In other words, all the new and old democracies put together amounted to a mere fraction of what a single, one-party state did without voting…..
….Yes, China is a one-party state run by the Chinese Communist Party, the Party, and they don’t hold elections. Three assumptions are made by the dominant political theories of our time. Such a system is operationally rigid, politically closed, and morally illegitimate. Well, the assumptions are wrong. The opposites are true. Adaptability, meritocracy, and legitimacy are the three defining characteristics of China’s one-party system. Now, most political scientists will tell us that a one-party system is inherently incapable of self-correction. It won’t last long because it cannot adapt. Now here are the facts…..
…Now, Westerners always assume that multi-party election with universal suffrage is the only source of political legitimacy. I was asked once, “The Party wasn’t voted in by election. Where is the source of legitimacy?” I said, “How about competency?” We all know the facts.In 1949, when the Party took power, China was mired in civil wars, dismembered by foreign aggression, average life expectancy at that time, 41 years old. Today, it’s the second largest economy in the world, an industrial powerhouse, and its people live in increasing prosperity. Pew Research polls Chinese public attitudes, and here are the numbers in recent years. Satisfaction with the direction of the country: 85 percent. Those who think they’re better off than five years ago: 70 percent. Those who expect the future to be better: a whopping 82 percent. Financial Times polls global youth attitudes, and these numbers, brand new, just came from last week. Ninety-three percent of China’s Generation Y are optimistic about their country’s future. Now, if this is not legitimacy, I’m not sure what is. In contrast, most electoral democracies around the world are suffering from dismal performance. I don’t need to elaborate for this audience how dysfunctional it is, from Washington to European capitals. With a few exceptions, the vast number of developing countries that have adopted electoral regimes are still suffering from poverty and civil strife.Governments get elected, and then they fall below 50 percent approval in a few months and stay there and get worse until the next election…..
….There’s a vibrant civil society in China, whether it’s environment or what-have-you. But it’s different. You wouldn’t recognize it. Because, by Western definitions, a so-called civil society has to be separate or even in opposition to the political system, but that concept is alien for Chinese culture. For thousands of years, you have civil society, yet they are consistent and coherent part of a political order, and I think it’s a big cultural difference.
A point made by Li in that last paragraph reminded me of a point made by Vladimir Putin during his first address to the Federal Assembly in which he cited the need for a meaningful civil society to help develop Russia and address the many problems it faced at the time, including massive poverty and crime, the need for reform of the economy and the armed forces, and the worst mortality crisis since World War II. But Putin implied that the best chance for success was for the state and civil society to work together, stating that there was a “false conflict” between the two.
This shows that not only do Russia and China have many views in terms of geopolitics that are simpatico but also attitudes on the relationship between the state and civil society. These views, of course, are anathema to the average westerner who has internalized that political democracy as it is practiced – particularly in the U.S. with its strong libertarian streak – is the best and only legitimate way for human beings to govern themselves. Any other approaches are dismissed as inferior and in need of eventually being destroyed and replaced by the western model. If the people living in another country don’t agree with this, then it is believed that they are the equivalent of ignorant children who must be forced to grow up and eat their broccoli.
Li also mentions that China has achieved the impressive and unprecedented feat of lifting hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty within the last 30 years. Progressive economist Mark Weisbrot, who works for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, reiterated this success in a recent interview with the Real News Network and compared what China did to what other developing countries did that was less successful:
We looked at this recently in one of our papers and you have these statements from politicians as well, President Obama in his last speech at the United Nations said that over the last 25 years, the number of people living in extreme poverty has been cut from nearly 40% of the world to under 10%. Now that’s World Bank statistic and there’s a lot of dispute over that. But even taking it at face value, if you actually look at what happened since 1990, two-thirds of that extreme poverty reduction was in China. And if you go back a little further from 1981 to 2010, 94% of that net reduction in people living below the extreme poverty line was in China. And even the part that wasn’t in China, a lot of that was the result of China’s growth and importing. Increased imports from developing countries and increased investment as China became the largest economy in the world.
Chinese globalization’s done very well. China’s income per person has multiplied 21 times since 1980. The fastest economic growth in history. But if you look at what they did, most of it’s the opposite of what these Washington institutions and what even President Obama was describing as globalization in his speech. They had foreign investment, but they controlled it. And they still have it. They control it to fit with their own development plans. They have technology transfer as much as they can get. They have performance requirement. Require foreign investing firms to do certain things that promote local management skills and things like that. Export promotion. They have a mostly state controlled financial system for most of this period, and still quite a bit today. Their central bank isn’t independent, which is one of the main thing Washington pushes.
This is the kind of globalization they had, and the rest of the developing world is very different. You have this indiscriminate opening to international trade and capital flows. You have the central bank being independent of the government so it’s not really a subject of public control. It’s more the response of the financial sector. They got rid of these industrial and developing policies that used to be successful, and were successful in China. And all this other financial deregulation and other deregulation. And if you look at what happened in these last 25 years in the vast majority of developing countries outside of China, the ones that did the kind of globalization that President Obama and all these officials at the IMF and the World Bank are talking about and calling a success, and the media usually calls a success, they did very badly overall.
This is not to say that China is invincible or that it will continue at the breakneck speed it has in past years. As economist Jack Rasmus reports, the Chinese government recognizes that another global financial crisis is on the horizon, which will slow China’s growth and force it to continue addressing internal problems it still has with speculation, among other things:
The past year the US and global ‘real’ economies have enjoyed a moderate recovery. Much of that has been due to China stimulating its economy to ensure real growth in anticipation of the Communist Party’s convention, which has just ended. China’s president Xi and central bank (Peoples Bank of China) chair, Zhou, have announced, post-convention, that China’s real growth will slow and have warned a global ‘Minsky Moment’ (i.e. financial crisis) may be brewing. China will now try, once again, to tame its shadow bankers and speculators who have been feeding China’s debt and bubbles, and prepare for the global financial instability that is brewing.
Moving back to the arena of geopolitics, journalist Finian Cunningham in a recent article contrasted the visions expressed recently by Chinese president Xi and U.S. president Donald Trump and pointed out the obvious about who Putin is more closely aligned with:
Two very different faces of world leadership were on display this week. In Beijing, President Xi Jinping delivered a bold, outward-looking vision of Chinese global leadership. Meanwhile, in Washington President Donald Trump was embroiled in yet more egotistical infighting and tawdry claims of media lies.
Addressing the 19th congress of China’s Communist Party, 64-year-old Xi was reelected for a second five-year term. He is being talked about as the greatest Chinese leader since Mao Zedong who led the country’s founding revolution in 1949. With dignified composure, Xi spoke to the Great Hall of the People about “a new era of modern socialism… open to the world.”
….“No country can alone address the many challenges facing mankind; no country can afford to retreat into self-isolation,” Xi told delegates during a three-and-half-hour address.
Reuters again: “Xi set bold long-term goals for China’s development, envisioning it as a modernized socialist country by 2035, and a modern socialist strong power with leading influence on the world stage by 2050.”
….Contrary to American leadership and Trump in particular, Chinese characteristics of global leadership are not marked by knuckle-dragging domination, militarism and aggression. The emphasis from the Chinese leader is on global cooperation and multilateralism. In short, a peaceful and prosperous world.
Contrast that to Trump’s tirade before the UN General Assembly last month when he rhetorically swaggered and threatened nations with “total destruction”.
In that regard, Russian President Vladimir Putin shares the same leadership qualities as China’s Xi. No wonder the two leaders are visibly comfortable when they meet publicly, as they have done more frequently than any other two current heads of state. Quietly, with dignity, the two men seem driven to create a more progressive, peaceful world of co-development and co-existence – in spite of American proclivities to create a world of chaos, conflict and hegemony.
Sadly, it seems safe to say at this point that the American elites have no meaningful or constructive solutions for the U.S.’s myriad domestic problems or its diminishing geopolitical fortunes. As mentioned earlier in this post, Washington seems stuck in a zero-sum mentality, tilting at the windmills of its former glory days. It is therefore likely that Washington will continue to see the potentially constructive moves of China and Russia in Eurasia as a threat to be conquered or sabotaged rather than an opportunity to participate to the degree it can in a win-win arrangement that does not rely on full-spectrum dominance of the world and the narcissistic imposition of its “values” and mores on everyone else.
Foreign affairs writer and Russia expert Gilbert Doctorow has penned an analysis of the “Russia-China tandem” explaining how the Eurasian project need not be a threat in any objective sense of the term for Washington, but that the chance of Washington’s recognition of this fact is slim:
Much of what Western “experts” assert about Russia – especially its supposed economic and political fragility and its allegedly unsustainable partnership with China – is wrong, resulting not only from the limited knowledge of the real situation on the ground but from a prejudicial mindset that does not want to get at the facts, i.e. from wishful thinking.
….The chief reason for the many wrongheaded observations is not so hard to discover. The ongoing rampant conformism in American and Western thinking about Russia has taken control not only of our journalists and commentators but also of our academic specialists who serve up to their students and to the general public what is expected and demanded: proof of the viciousness of the “Putin regime” and celebration of the brave souls in Russia who go up against this regime, such as the blogger-turned-politician Alexander Navalny or Russia’s own Paris Hilton, the socialite-turned-political-activist Ksenia Sochak.
Although vast amounts of information are available about Russia in open sources, meaning the Russian press and commercial as well as state television, these are largely ignored. The sour grapes Russian opposition personalities who have settled in the United States are instead given the microphone to sound off about their former homeland. Meanwhile, anyone taking care to read, hear and analyze the words of Vladimir Putin becomes in these circles a “stooge.” All of this limits greatly the accuracy and usefulness of what passes for expertise about Russia.
….By contrast, today’s international relations “experts” lack the in-depth knowledge of Russia to say something serious and valuable for policy formulation. The whole field of area studies has atrophied in the United States over the past 20 years, with actual knowledge of history, languages, cultures being largely scuttled in favor of numerical skills that will provide sure employment in banks and NGOs upon graduation. The diplomas have been systematically depreciated.
The result of the foregoing is that there are very few academics who can put the emerging Russian-Chinese alliance into a comparative context. And those who do exist are systematically excluded from establishment publications and roundtable public discussions in the United States for not being sufficiently hostile to Russia.
….What we find in Kissinger’s description of his accomplishments in the 1970s is that the American-Chinese partnership was all done at arm’s length. There was no alliance properly speaking, no treaty, in keeping with China’s firm commitment not to accept entanglement in mutual obligations with other powers. The relationship was two sovereign states conferring regularly on international developments of mutual interest and pursuing policies that in practice proceeded in parallel to influence global affairs in a coherent manner.
This bare minimum of a relationship was overtaken and surpassed by Russia and China some time ago. The relationship has moved on to ever larger joint investments in major infrastructure projects having great importance to both parties, none more so than the gas pipelines that will bring very large volumes of Siberian gas to Chinese markets in a deal valued at $400 billion.
Meanwhile, in parallel, Russia has displaced Saudi Arabia as China’s biggest supplier of crude oil, and trading is now being done in yuan rather than petrodollars. There is also a good deal of joint investment in high technology civilian and military projects. And there are joint military exercises in areas ever farther from the home bases of both countries.
Doctorow goes on to reiterate what I stated in a blog post months back – that any ideas by Kissinger or the late Brzezinski to try to break up the Russia-China partnership with the promise of better relations with Washington were delusional due to the economic, military and diplomatic ties that had developed in the recent past between the two countries, as well as the recognition by the leadership of both countries that any promises made by Washington were unreliable to put it magnanimously.
But unlike me and some other analysts, Doctorow believes that we are seeing the emergence, not of a multi-polar world, but another bipolar world with the U.S. and its western allies on one side and the Eurasian powers of Russia and China on the other. He believes that this bipolar world will be the geopolitical paradigm of the foreseeable future and that it may not be such a bad thing as it will at least provide some kind of balance in place of the uni-polar world that saw one nation running through the world like a bull in a china shop.
However, a bipolar world with the U.S. remaining as the main power on one side presupposes that the U.S. will continue to have a stable enough political system to carry out a coherent foreign policy and an economic system robust enough to continue to underpin its military domination and serve as a coercive instrument to keep other “allies” in line. No one knows how long that will be the case.