Soon after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, followed by the disintegration of the Soviet empire, there was talk of end of history. However, after two decades of democratization and global economic integration, history is resurgent. Cultural and economic nationalism and historical grievances have raised their ugly heads to challenge the generally unifying tendencies of economic and technological globalization.
The deliberations at the July summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Warsaw offered dramatic evidence of the sea-change in Europe since the celebrations at the Berlin Wall. At the meeting the allies decided to rotate thousands of additional US and West European forces into Poland and the Baltic states to counter any cross-border military threats from Russia. They also took additional steps to strengthen the Ukrainian armed forces and reaffirm the alliance’s nuclear security guarantees. Russian officials attacked NATO’s moves as threatening Russia’s security and a new Cold War. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused the alliance of “focusing its efforts on the containment of a non-existent threat from the east” and aiming to “change the existing balance of power” at the expense of regional security.
In East Asia, too, celebrations around the rise of China as the great engine of world growth have given way to fear about Chinese expansionism and military might. Beijing’s harsh denunciation of the July 11 ruling of The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on China’s expansive claim of virtually all of the South China Sea has pitted it against nearly all its neighbors. As China rattles its saber, there is growing concern about armed conflict with the United States and its Asian allies.
The topic of South China Sea will likely dominate the upcoming meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations in Laos. The bloc’s potential is continually vitiated by the divisions among members over how to manage China’s territorial claims, which Beijing exploits.
On July 10, however, Japanese voters gave the Liberal Democratic Party-led ruling coalition the two-thirds majority it needs in the upper house of the Japanese Diet to initiate a constitutional amendment that could relax post-WWII constraints on Japan’s military activities.
In both regions, the Western democracies announced new augmentations to their regional ballistic missile defenses, BMD. NATO leaders declared that their BMD network had attained initial operational capability while South Korea decided to host an advanced US BMD system. Although the two systems’ modest capabilities are directed against Iran and North Korea, respectively, Russia and China still denounced the deployments for allegedly threatening their own nuclear forces.
At home, both Moscow and Beijing are moving in the same authoritarian direction, especially by controlling major media outlets and independent non-governmental groups. At the international level, Russian and Chinese leaders have expressed a shared narrative of resentment and exclusion. They claim that for decades the West has refused to accord them global influence commensurate with their power and interests. For example, they accuse the Western powers of circumventing the UN Security Council’s exclusive mandate to authorize the use of force. Russians and Chinese continue to explore ways to construct alternative economic and security institutions that exclude the Western powers, which have imposed various sanctions on China and especially Russia and are constructing transcontinental trade deals without them.
Even a rare high-level NATO-Russia meeting, atypical Chinese participation in the US-led Rim of Pacific multinational maritime military exercise, and US Secretary of State John Kerry’s personal delivery of a proposal in Moscow for bilateral military cooperation in Syria have failed to break the momentum toward separation. For example, at the NATO-Russia Council that convened July 13 at NATO’s Brussels headquarters, the sides agreed on the necessity of improving air safety in the Baltic region, but failed to narrow differences over Ukraine. They did not set a date for a subsequent meeting. The US military relationship remains strained with both countries.
From a global perspective, the West has superior power resources. Its share of global GDP is about twice that of Russia and China, 41.8 percent versus 20.4 percent, and Western economies hold sway over an even greater share of global trade and investment flows. But Russia and China have niche and geographic advantages. They also have more than 1.5 billion people compared with the 1.1 billion who live in Western democracies.
That said, the Western leaders face several challenges. Although Western economies are generally performing better, their political systems have experienced greater instability and turbulence, with the electorates voting for extremist parties, perhaps as a reaction against the perceived negative effects of globalization such as immigration and job instability. The British decision to withdraw from the European Union is but the latest manifestation of the anti-globalist sentiment sweeping the Western electorates. Nationalist leaders that openly challenge longstanding transatlantic and transpacific pan-democratic partnerships have gained strong support in many European and Asian democracies as well as in the United States.
Although the NATO-EU partnership is becoming stronger, the European Union is becoming weaker. A British withdrawal from the EU presents serious problems for Western capabilities for managing Russia and other challenges. The EU has authorities and competencies that make it better suited than NATO to address European vulnerabilities such as corruption, ethnic alienation, economic and energy dependencies. In Asia, the democracies have yet to develop strong multilateral institutions. History and other issues still divide South Korea from Japan, which vitiating trilateral Republic of Korea-Japan-US endeavors, while India remains reluctant to openly partner with the United States against Russia or China.
Neither the European nor the Asian democracies have fully succeeded in containing the so-called “gray zone” challenges presented by Moscow and Beijing. Russia and China continue to take assertive actions against democratic countries that fall below the threshold leading to a collective defense. In Europe, Russia continues to contest the national borders and sovereignty of Ukraine, whereas in Asia, China is reinforcing its offshore presence by building artificial islands and taking other measures to secure its de facto hold on contested waters.
The “entrapment-abandonment” dilemma remains more severe among Western allies because, ironically, their ties are stronger. Moscow and Beijing can tolerate mutual reluctance to back the more controversial territorial claims of the other. Russia was noticeably silent on the court ruling against Beijing’s South China Sea stance, while China has yet to publicly endorse Russian military actions in Georgia and Ukraine.
Most notably, neither Moscow nor Beijing support the other’s territorial claims against Japan. In contrast, US allies in Europe and Asia constantly fret that Washington would not risk a major fight with Moscow or Beijing to defend their national interests. In turn, Russian and Chinese experts play on anxieties that US allies free ride on American defense dollars to entrap the United States into confronting Russia and China and advance peculiar national interests. Historical grievances and power politics have returned with a vengeance to challenge democracies, and open new pages of history.