Pepe Escobar sees Eurasian integration and associated trade developments as possibly marking the emergence of a new, post-ideological strategic world order. China, with its infrastructure-focused Belt and Road Initiative, is driving this process. By contrast, the US appears to be locked into a Cold War-like mentality.
There is some truth in this view. Certainly the latest annual Worldwide Threat Assessment released by the US Director of National Intelligence has explicitly categorized US–China relations in ideological terms. China is interpreted as seeking to propagate “authoritarian capitalism” and this is perceived as a direct challenge to Western liberal democracy.
And so it may be. But only if it delivers the promised benefits at a time when Western democracy seems to be losing its way. Our problems are of our own making and can’t plausibly be blamed on Russia or China.
Escobar rightly criticizes the tendency to conflate very different kinds of system; to equate, as he puts it, “Russian democracy with China’s one party rule, Iran’s demo-theocracy and Turkey’s neo-Ottoman revival.” Moreover, American criticisms of the illiberalism and authoritarianism of states which are perceived to be strategic rivals ring rather hollow while other equally illiberal regimes are given a pass.
It must be admitted that a pro-Russia bias is evident in Escobar’s article. The reference (quoted above) to “Russian democracy” is a case in point. And then there is this:
Last month in Moscow, I discussed Greater Eurasia – by now established as the overarching concept of Russian foreign policy – with top Russian analysts. They told me Putin is on board. He referred to Eurasia recently as “not a chessboard or a geopolitical playground, but our peaceful and prosperous home.”
All sweetness and light…
Some of Escobar’s substantive claims have merit, however. Claims about Russia’s strategic significance, for example, despite its relatively small economy (one tenth the size of China’s).
From boosting trade that bypasses the U.S. dollar, to increasing joint military exercises, the Russia-China symbiosis is poised to advance beyond political and ideological affinities.
China badly needs Russian know-how in its military industry. Beijing will turn this knowledge into plenty of dual use, civilian-military innovations.
Technology and trade are driving an historically and strategically significant process of economic and social change, no doubt about it. Escobar points out that Henry Kissinger saw this coming.
The Kissinger doctrine rules that, geopolitically, the U.S. is just “an island off the shores of the large landmass of Eurasia.” Domination “by a single power of either of Eurasia’s two principal spheres – Europe or Asia – remains a good definition of strategic danger for America, Cold War or no Cold War,” as Kissinger said. “For such a grouping would have the capacity to outstrip America economically and, in the end, militarily.”
Are we headed for a post-ideological world? It is a question of scope and degree. The fact that the West’s major antagonists have abandoned the ideology of Marxism-Leninism and adopted more pragmatic approaches makes it difficult if not impossible for the US and its allies to sustain with any degree of plausibility the simple dichotomies of a Cold War-style approach.
Our perceived strategic rivals have (as Escobar pointed out) adopted various ideologies and forms of government while, in the West, tottering liberal democracies are facing challenges from within. We see a swirling mix of views and outlooks. Various forms of nationalism, regionalism, separatism and internationalism compete with one another. Some groups focus on identity politics, others on radical environmentalism. Attempts are being made to revive various forms of socialism. Crackpot ideas like Modern Monetary Theory are being seriously entertained in some quarters.
In such a fluid situation it is hardly surprising that American attempts to utilize ideology as a means of cementing Western solidarity are failing. In recent years we have seen major US allies resisting America’s hardline approach to China and Russia. The current battles over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline are just the latest example. Generally, pragmatic considerations seem to be winning out as US allies are increasingly seeing the need to take a more independent line on foreign policy and trade.
This, I think, is a good thing. Social and political myths and the ideologies with which they are associated will always be with us. But, given the role that ideology has often played in exacerbating international tensions and fanning the flames of war, it is well to be wary of any attempt to deploy ideological considerations in the context of foreign policy and international relations.