Is war in Ukraine splitting the world into two camps again?

Is war in Ukraine splitting the world into two camps again? Lucan Way on the emerging competition for global supremacy.
Pavel Neznanov
(Originally published 2022 | 12.22)

Since Russia first invaded Ukraine on February 24, Vladimir Putin has spoken of the attack as part of a civilizational conflict with the West—like the Cold War—while he and his military leaders continue to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. Today, the Russia of Putin looks far weaker than the empire of Stalin and Brezhnev ever did, with Moscow having failed to achieve almost all its goals in Ukraine—and many of the Soviet Union’s old satellite states now NATO members.

At the same time, Russia has become much closer to China than it was in the communist era, as Xi Jinping pursues his declared ambitions to counter the global power of the United States. The U.S. and the EU have meanwhile moved to break off economic relations with Russia and halt the development of Chinese tech industries. From the end of World War II through the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world was fundamentally split into two hostile blocs. Is it happening again?

To Lucan Way, it is. Way is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and the author of three books on authoritarianism. Much of the globe, he says, has been dividing into two camps, democratic and authoritarian—“the free and the unfree”—and the conflict between them is deepening.

But the nature and contours of this new division are different. Now the two sides aren’t fighting over an ideology, as the democratic and communist blocs of the Cold War were. And there are regionally powerful countries today that can challenge the goals of the democrats or the authoritarians—or cooperate with either. In the absence of an organizing ideological dimension, and with the presence of other powerful actors, Way sees the new era of global conflict becoming more chaotic—and ultimately more unpredictable—than the Cold War ever was.

Michael Bluhm: Putin has framed the Ukraine war as a proxy conflict with the West and NATO. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, he says, NATO has never stopped expanding its borders and threatening Moscow.

Yet the war seems to have made Russia much weaker—even weaker than the Soviet Union was toward the end of its history. What do you see Putin as having done to Russia’s position in the world here?

Lucan Way: First of all, Russia is much richer today than it was in that time of the Soviet Union. Until very recently, it had a dynamic market economy.

The main difference between the two eras is that, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a universal ideology that could theoretically be applied anywhere: communism. It was the Soviets’ counterpart to the also-universal liberal-democratic ideology of America and its allies.

The Cold War involved a distinctive, global competition for influence. Every local conflict around the world became infused with this broader great-power conflict—in no small part because of these competing universal ideologies.

Today, liberal democracy has had its setbacks around the world, but there’s still a universal liberal-democratic ideology. There isn’t a universal authoritarian ideology. There are just a lot of parochial nationalists with authoritarian playbooks. The movements supporting them don’t speak to any universal ideology at all. In that sense, Russia has been reduced from a country with global ambitions, based on a global idea, to a corrupt dictatorship based on the power of a single person.

Bluhm: A month after the invasion, the historian Tim Sayle said that it had brought a period of newfound unity and shared moral clarity to the West. How do you see this today—with persistent inflation and rising energy costs triggering protests across so many European countries?

Way: I was impressed in the early days of the war by the remarkable unity we were seeing in Europe. I did feel somewhat apprehensive about the possibility of European fatigue with the conflict—just because most conflicts that initially spark widespread outrage tend to get normalized fairly quickly; we’ve seen this in Afghanistan and elsewhere. But polls in Europe still show overwhelming support for Ukraine, now nearly 10 months after the invasion. The resilience of the sentiment has surprised me.

Back in March, French President Emanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz were arguing that the West should negotiate with Putin. But they’ve completely abandoned that rhetoric—and the biggest reason is the simplest: Russia has just behaved so atrociously that Europe is more unified now than it was at the outset of the war.

Also in March, there was a conflict between the United States, on the one hand, and Macron and Scholz. The U.S. was saying, We have to fight the Russians, give Ukraine weapons, and win the war. Macron and Scholz were saying, No, we have to reach out. There has to be a negotiated solution. But Putin has shown such a complete unwillingness to compromise or adjust his fundamental goals, despite multiple military losses, that he effectively ended that debate.

And then, since March we’ve seen a tremendous decoupling between Europe’s economy and Russia’s. At the beginning of 2022, the European Union relied on Russia for more than 40 percent of its natural gas. Now that number’s down to 17 percent.

To be fair, there are elements of Ukraine fatigue, but there are also now structural reasons for long-term unity in Europe against Russia. Until recently, Russia had deep ties with the European elite. The former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was even on the board of Gazprom, the main Russian gas provider, until the invasion. Those days are over. Putin has completely broken these ties. And there’s no way Europe’s going to re-establish them—at least in the medium term.

Dan Meyers
More from Lucan Way at The Signal:

We’re seeing a starker divide between the free and the unfree in the world today than we’ve ever seen before. During the Cold War, you had communist and anti-communist blocs. The communist world was completely autocratic, but the anti-communist world included many military dictatorships, which were propped up by democratic countries precisely because these dictatorships were Cold-War allies. Today, with Hungary and Poland, we do have autocracies on the Western side, but this is much more exceptional now than it was then.”

China is much more powerful than the Soviet Union was. It has both a very powerful military and an extremely powerful economy. The Soviet Union was quite poor, but it had massive conventional forces in Europe, and that was its main source of power. Beijing has many more resources to challenge the United States with. But there are two problems: One, China doesn’t have a universal ideology. Two, it’s much more integrated into the global economy than the Soviet Union was—so it’s much more constrained in its behavior. There are some Cold War elements in play today, then, but there are also elements of mutual dependence that balance the conflict out.”

During the Cold War, militaries in many non-communist countries were inherently anti-communist, because they knew they’d be the first to suffer in a communist takeover. But militaries in developing countries today are often more comfortable with a country like China—which doesn’t make human-rights demands and doesn’t interfere in domestic governance to the same extent that the West does. And this could make them more open to an alliance with Beijing. The reduction of ideological polarization, in this sense, helps the unfree side make appeals to certain elites in the global South—appeals they’d never have been able to make back in the Cold War years.”

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Categories: Geopolitics

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