Systems of government are scraping against each other like continents grinding at a fault line. The noise they make announces a new world disordered.
These clashes are not just because of Vladimir Putin or the new hard-line Chinese leadership of Xi Jinping. Nor are they a product of the alleged missteps of the Obama administration. Leadership does make a difference. The reverberations of the Donald Trump earthquake are still trembling through the world. But, at the root, it is the systems of government that are clashing, and Trump’s bromance with Putin is unlikely to change that.
It was not supposed to be this way. For some, the end of the Cold War was an end to strife over ideology. Liberal democratic capitalism was every nation’s future and an ever-growing international liberal order of peace and cooperation would follow. For others, all great powers are the same and the minuet of their crises over spheres of influence and shifting alignments is normal, legitimate—nothing unusual.
But in the last few years, a different reality has begun to emerge. Russia and China are not liberal democracies in the wings, at least not anytime soon. They have their own political systems, interests, and ideologies that are deeply engrained. Russia and China are not like the democracies of the United States, Germany, Japan, the UK, France, India, Brazil, or South Africa.
Their approaches to global trade and investment are filtered through different political systems. China and Russia are much more corporatist and nationalist, and they are also autocratic. The state owns large parts of the economy and bureaucrats govern it. Elections are limited to a single party, or the party controls the media and intimidates any rivals. They lack open markets, the rights of property and democratic precepts such as equal protection of the law.
The legitimacy of these political systems must be bolstered by political repression of dissidents, with strong economic performance (poverty or economic crisis is but a generation in the past), or with extreme nationalism—or all three. Both regimes feel they have been slighted globally through the loss of empire: the Chinese by Western and Japanese imperialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the Russians by the collapse of the USSR.
National corporatist systems are not all the same. In China, the state ruled by the Communist Party still dominates the oligarchs who control the economy. In Russia, before Putin, and in Ukraine, oligarchs dominated the state. Putin is attempting to assert the dominance of the Russian state by intimidating opponents; whether he will succeed or just emerge as another—albeit, the wealthiest and most powerful—oligarch is an open question.
Both China and Russia feel deeply threatened by market democracies on their borders, having alr...
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