Asked about the difference between life behind the Iron Curtain and life in the West, American novelist Philip Roth quipped: “I work in a society where as a writer everything goes and nothing matters, while for the Czech writers I met in Prague, nothing goes and everything matters.” The observation, made in the 1980s, was a pithy summing up of the difference between the free world and world under Communist rule at the time. You could argue that if the West “won” the Cold War, the period of unbridled economic globalization that followed was one in which “anything” went. There was tremendous activity in opening markets and expanding trade. But much of it occurred, in the West at least, during a period of political indifference. The ideological battles of the historical Cold War just didn’t matter, as long as the market was happy.
As professional scoffer Thomas Frank pointed out, the market itself was sold as a form of democracy. Market capitalism in the US and abroad was touted as the indisputable answer to all the vexing anxieties of the age, the philosophical end-point all countries should work towards. One of the great fantasies promoted in the US before September 11, 2001 was that elections didn’t matter like they once did, largely because, unlike during the Cold War, there was no longer cause for debate about economic justice, about the social state, etc. All debate, we were told, has been settled. There was consensus across the board: liberal markets ruled and the faster were embraced this truth, the happier we would be. Certainly during Bill Clinton’s years as president both major American parties embraced market-solutions as a cure for so many problems. That lasted until the financial crisis of 2008-9, when it became clear that the market had failed to deliver on the many promises of its champions.
These days, I can’t help but think we are sliding back into a world that has a broad East-West divide, not identical to the one Philip Roth described – but not altogether alien from it either. Clearly the ideology of the historical Cold War is over. The question is if the ideology of a new Cold War will replace it? This thought came to mind on the news that US network CNN was pulling out of Russia at the end of the year to comply with recently implemented Russian media ownership rules. In recent years, total awareness of global news has encouraged people to look at a foreign event and shrug with indifference. (Everything happening, nothing mattering, as Roth said). I expect that to happen even more in the near-term, since Russia’s propaganda is not to persuade as much as to “muddle and confuse.” But over time, possibly a long time, as the news in Russia is flavored to reflect poorly on the West, and in the West, to demonize Russia, the views of overall shape of the world from East and West will begin to diverge in more meaningful ways.
Even as CNN is packing its bags in Russia, Russia has relaunched Ria Novosti as an explicitly pro-Russia foreign language network called Sputnik. US-backed Voice of America also launched a fresh Russian language service. China, under Xi Jinping, is “using ideological language reminiscent of the Cold War” to highlight conspiracy theories about always vague but ever-present “hostile foreign forces” bedeviling the country. China’s censors are as busy as ever helping shape the Chinese public’s view of the world, and protecting the public from the embarrassing gaffes in gallantry of China’s ally Vladimir Putin.
What has been remarkable for now, though, is that ideology in the international arena has mattered so little in Great Power
relations. (Obviously, religious ideology is everything for jihadists). For years, the unifying effect of globalized companies was supposedly to smooth over all the pesky differences in politics, culture, perspective that made the world such an acrimonious place.
That may be changing. The Kremlin talks about Russian values and denounces “Gay Europe.” China’s message to its BRICs friends is that they have all been wronged by the West. But Western leaders today facing the rise of an authoritarian states today have begun to notice this change and are responding.
Just last week, British PM David Cameron, speaking in Australia’s parliament, defended the concept of democracy and dismissed the systems without the rule of law. Says Cameron:
In the great sweep of history, sometimes freedom is on the offensive, sometimes on the defensive.
Cameron explicitly countered the so-called “alternative model” for national success.
There’s a more incipient creeping threat to our values that I want to mention.
And it comes from those who say that we will be outcompeted and outgunned by countries that believe there is a shortcut to success, a new model of authoritarian capitalism that is unencumbered by the values and restrictions that we place upon ourselves.
In particular, an approach that is free from the accountability of real democracy and the rule of law.
I say: we should have the confidence to reject this view and stay true to our values. These are the things that make us strong.
We are democracies. We don’t shy away from self-criticism. We debate our mistakes in public. That can be painful, but it is so powerful.
World leaders were in Australia for the G20 meeting in Brisbane. US President Barack Obama hit on the same themes in his speech at the University of Queensland.
We believe in democracy — that the only real source of legitimacy is the consent of the people; that every individual is born equal with fundamental rights, inalienable rights, and that it is the responsibility of governments to uphold these rights. This is what we stand for.
He even put the idea in the context of China.
We do not benefit from a relationship with China or any other country in which we put our values and our ideals aside. And for the young people, practicality is a good thing. There are times where compromise is necessary. That’s part of wisdom. But it’s also important to hang on to what you believe — to know what you believe and then be willing to stand up for it. And what’s true for individuals is also true for countries.
Obama, later in the speech, got to the heart of the matter:
There are times where when we speak out on these issues we are told that democracy is just a Western value. I fundamentally disagree with that.
This focus is a change from a few years ago, when Western leaders assumed freer markets would bring about political reforms. China recently reaffirmed that its constitution serves the Communist Party – not vice versa. Turns out the opening of markets didn’t kick off an “inevitable” embrace of political reforms, as many in the West believed back in the 1990s. Instead, the
economic power has awakened a sense of “inevitable” rise in China to an era of prominence, if not dominance. Today, all things being equal, with China articulating a stronger role in Asia and Putinist Russia openly (and covertly) challenging the legitimacy of the West, the wars of words and ideas will likely grow. The ideas espoused by the West will be used to offset the importance of the economic size in China. They will also call into question the idea that China’s rise is inevitable, preordained. China, and Russia especially, will use language to plant doubts in the minds of Westerners about the primacy of Western political power, Western values, or even the facts on the ground. Language itself will become more important in media, as each side tries to frame the other.
The lopsided period when the “everything-goes” triumph of the West dominated the “everything-matters” ethos of the authoritarian states of the East will end. Things that haven’t mattered in the West for some time will enjoy a resurgence. To get an idea of what I mean, consider that the US civil rights period played out against a Cold War backdrop. US Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were painfully aware of how segregation damaged the US brand in the world’s eyes. Fast-forward to today. What will again matter in the West in this newly competitive climate? Try this example: how can the US espouse freedom if income inequality in the US is enough to make even its plutocrats blush? You get the idea.
All of this suggests the language and ideas of the geopolitical competition could begin to shape the political discussion within
democracies. During the historical Cold War, print, radio and broadcast media was divided geographically, and nation-states managed them. Now, messages fly across borders, they are viral by nature, which makes for some novel possibilities. Today the US State Department seeks to counter jihadists recruiting online by contesting their tweets. The Russians freely blend quality journalism with crackpot conspiracy theory. China broadcasts its views to far-flung Chinese populations living abroad. China uses its populations abroad as extras in stage-managed appearances by its leaders, even going so far as to give would-be flag-wavers background checks. It very much is about shaping perceptions. In the calculus of a new Cold War-type thing, you have to imagine a similar, broader, but less explicit message competition taking hold between authoritarian states and the West, even as trade continues a pace.
In fact, the world got a little taste of it in the speeches from Obama and Cameron in Australia. The theme that permeates from the West will likely be: yes, almost everything goes in Western democracies – that’s the nature of free citizens. Anything goes but in contrast to the last twenty years, some things besides business matter, too. And they matter quite a lot.