The rivalry between the United States, Russia and China is intensifying on all fronts — military, economy and efforts to win global allies. This new Cold War is very different from the old one.
“America is back,” Joe Biden declared on our continent. He then immediately identified the most important challenge in today’s world: the clash between democracy and authoritarianism. Future historians, Biden predicted, will be “doing their doctoral theses on the issue of who succeeded.” This pathetic speech may cause us to mistakenly disregard the message. Indeed, American rhetoric is full of phrases like “the city shining on a hill” and “the best country in the world.” Here, however, we have the announcement of a new U.S. doctrine in foreign policy. Protection of democracy grows to the same level as security and the fight against climate change. To military confrontation, demonstrations of strength in hot spots, trade wars, economic and personal sanctions, Biden adds the battle of ideologies, referring to civic attitudes. In the same way, the president asks Americans and allies, rival societies and enemies under which system and under what authority they want to live.
Bloc against Bloc
The U.S. had indeed emphasized the importance of democracy even before that. Attempts were made to build wider coalitions, even with Poland as a co-organizer. In 2000, a grand conference was held in Warsaw, which subsequently remained as the headquarters of the Community of Democracies; but it was a rickety work, now irrelevant. During the Cold War, the U.S. welcomed anyone it strategically needed to its bloc. If they did not adhere to the standards, it was said: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
Today, such an attitude stands in stark opposition to Biden’s doctrine. The world has changed. Recent American polls indicate that the Chinese — especially the youth — support their government much more than Americans support theirs. The value of this research notwithstanding, it is easy to understand Chinese submission to the authority of Beijing. China has reduced poverty, created a great civilization leap and given up on the one-child policy. Finally, and most importantly, the Chinese are not bothered by any Marxism or Leninism. Since the dawn of history, they have accepted Confucianism: They understand that individual life must be subordinated to the interests of the wider community. When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at a meeting with Yang Jiechi, publicly accused China of actions threatening world stability, the Chinese scolded the U.S. for the murder of George Floyd; Yang referred to the Black Lives Matter movement, seeming to be saying, “You do not have the moral authority to give us lessons.”
The Chinese media congratulated its minister on exposing America’s hypocrisy. A wave of sympathy for the persecuted in Hong Kong poured through the Western press, but I myself remember the common and genuine pride of the Chinese in regaining territory from the British. This does not mean they worship the government in Beijing, but that they have their own view of Western democracy.
The situation with Russia is different because Vladimir Putin remains an idol at home, only because of Crimea and perhaps Ukraine, but he failed to build prosperity for Russians. Nevertheless, both China and Russia lift their heads without embarrassment in defending themselves against American accusations. Putin, stigmatized today, passes the buck by saying that Americans are even worse, pushing their way around the globe. It is not difficult for him to find acts of aggression and morally questionable behaviors in modern U.S. history. Putin even claims that Russia is morally higher than the decaying West — an opinion that pleases some parts of the public.
The new Cold War is a serious tension between the three, and not the two powers of the first one (1947-91). It dramatically differs from the old one as well. U.S. authority has been significantly strained, not least because of Donald Trump. In Europe, we have a distorted view of this. Even with a certain traditional anti-Americanism of France or Italy, the majority sympathizes with the U.S., or at least stands by it and not by China or Russia. But more broadly over the world, it is different.
After Biden’s victory, the Democracy Alliance surveyed as many as 50,000 respondents in 53 countries, who claimed that democracy is important for them (81%), but that the U.S. itself is a threat to its stability, perhaps even more than China or Russia. Thus, it is evident that it will be more challenging for Biden to present himself as the leader of democratic forces in the clash with autocracy — a clash that he himself described as the defining challenge of our time.
In many countries where the U.S. was viewed with suspicion in the past, it was said that America was a military power but was consumed by racism, violence, poor primary education and other embarrassing shortcomings. The American dream, the dream that material and social advancement can be achieved through one’s hard work, is rapidly becoming an illusion. “We Americans repeat the mantra that ‘we’re No. 1,’ even though the latest Social Progress Index, a measure of health, safety and well-being around the world, ranked the United States No. 28,” The New York Times recently concluded. Rivals of the United States, especially China, take this as a sign of weakness. So, in a broader sense, the United States has not come back yet, at least not as “the shining city on the hill.”
Secondly, China raised its head. It has long departed from the cautious politics of Deng Xiaoping, a leader in 1978-89, who encouraged keeping a low profile and waiting for one’s time. Perhaps in Beijing, the time has come. Xi Jinping’s China is not ashamed of its power. In June, the alarming news was announced that China is building a whole set of new silos for long-range strategic missiles.
However, this article discusses Biden’s ideological clash and the struggle for human beliefs, not military or scientific rivalry. The West hoped that China’s admission to the World Trade Organization would not only open this country to the world but also, somewhat automatically, to political liberalization. China was to become similar to the other countries of the West. Their calculation was wrong.
The assertiveness of Chinese politics ensures them public support for their own order. Furthermore, China has done a lot to win the gratitude from foreigners with its industrial and commercial investments in the Indian Ocean basin and Africa. At any rate, in some corners of the world, China is more popular than the West.
Thirdly, Russia is not alone in the world and, despite the atrocities it commits, it does not have to feel stigmatized. Western politicians looking for some kind of agreement with Russia argue that it is better to have Russia on their side in the event of a conflict with China. But today, Russia has more than good relations with China, and it candidly talks about a “return to the East” and a “quasi-alliance” with Beijing. Moreover, they both organize joint military maneuvers that would be unthinkable, with the U.S. or NATO, in general, always referred to as the enemies.
Russia’s relations with China are shaped by Putin’s good chemistry in personal contacts with Xi; they’ve met more than 30 times in the past seven years. It seems that they understand and even like each other, although the only bond between the countries seemed to be in the conviction that the West was pursuing a hostile policy toward them — especially in terms of applying unfair sanctions. In the past, leading Russian politicians would have been dissatisfied with being China’s junior partner.
Today, Russia, swallowing its pride, accepts the role of a supplier of raw materials, sweetening its inferior status by exporting modern weapons — Russia even offered Beijing a modern, multifunctional Su-57 fighter and anti-missile defense elements.
However, Russia is concerned about the prospect of Chinese counterfeits and the Chinese advantage in the arms field. Moreover, Putin is extremely worried about his position as a global superpower, although he must fear that the asymmetry in relations with China will weaken this position. Nonetheless, there is probably no other option for him. He failed to strengthen the country; he sketches the “Great Eurasia” project and is under the illusion that he will use the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative to his advantage.
In the new Cold War in the U.S.-China-Russia triangle, Europe’s place is, of course, with America. But it is the position of a rachitic squire, almost entirely reliant on Washington for his safety. Besides, in the economy, Europe cannot be a true ally of the U.S. on the Chinese front because — similarly to two-thirds of the world’s countries — it depends on China for trade to a much greater extent than on America. Finally, Europe is more interested in a modus vivendi with Russia than America. Quite simply, America is on the other side of the ocean.
The present rivalry between the great powers must look different from the one existing just after World War II. Populism and fake news propaganda have spread across the world and force people to look for allies, not so much among the leaders of individual countries or the elites, but in the hearts and minds of ordinary people.
The real geopolitics of emotion has arrived. Long before the quavering of public opinion today, Henry Kissinger wrote: “Any system of world order, to be sustainable, must be accepted as just — not only by leaders but also by citizens.” Apparently, it has always been like this. Still, the leaders have never been so censored and never has the foreign policy of individual countries depended so much on moods, complexes and internal relations.
Biden knows that. To win the global clash, he must defend the endangered democracy in his own country. And how do you get your troublesome allies in order? Anyone who has seen U.S. diplomats in action knows that Uncle Sam’s foreign policy is task oriented. The clash defined by Biden will be divided into specific and detailed moves that we have yet to see.
There is no room here for a policy review of Washington’s troublesome allies, so I will limit myself to three examples. When Turkey, an important foreground in the Middle East, bought Russia’s anti-missile defense system, the U.S. refused to sell it modern American aircraft. When Hungary forced the university founded by George Soros out of Budapest, Trump did not intervene because he himself did not like Soros.
Washington has so far responded to violations of democracy, especially freedom of the press, with critical statements, but its harsh tone is growing. The U.S. agreed to Nord Stream 2 because Germany is a much more valuable ally than Poland, which Biden lists as a “problem” in speeches heard worldwide. In the case of Hungarians who were guilty of tolerating or suspected of corruption, America, for the first time, publicly banned them from entering the U.S. It can be predicted that the U.S. will likewise not ignore the issue with the TVN* concession.
But it does not stop there. In the fight to defend world democracy, Biden cannot give in to his natural allies; he cannot indulge them in the old way: “son of a bitch, but ours.” Even if they spend a lot on American weapons. In the global struggle over the worldview and in the historical clash that he himself defined, clear rules are crucial. Otherwise, he will lose credibility. It is worth it for people on the Vistula River to realize this.
*Editor’s note: TVN is a Polish TV channel.