It’s still cool—even if it excuses stupendous profits and ridiculously expensive speeches by Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger—to believe that trade will ultimately lead to democracy in China and a more stable world.
Conversely, it is not cool any longer to be hopeful about Russia.
It’s the height of sophistication in American politics to not count on Russia to act like a democracy or to be of any help in advancing America’s interests. Obama’s desire to “re-set” the relationship was an example of a young president’s naiveté. Time Magazine, that well oiled weather vane for thousands who still read magazines to inform their politics, recently profiled Vladimir Putin as the “Tsar of the New Russia.”
On March 4th Russia will hold a presidential election and on March 6th the Republicans will have their Super Tuesday in eight US states.
Feelings are sour in both electorates. So, Putin, the Russian presidential front-runner, campaigns against American imperialism and promises to rebuild Russia’s defenses. In America, not one Republican candidate for president bothers to even talk about rebuilding relations with Russia—the biggest, strongest—albeit troubled—new democracy in the world.
This could turn out very badly—surprisingly, for those who think the future’s all about what happens to China.
Richard Bernstein points out how the Chinese government uses the quarrels between the United States and Russia to play down the ideological content of the west’s appeal in China:
“The day after the Russian parliamentary elections in early December, the Chinese publication Global Times, an English-language newspaper and website managed by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party official, ran an editorial on how little credit the West gave to Vladimir Putin’s Russia for becoming a democratic country. “Russia’s transition to democracy has cost it dearly,” the editorial said, attributing a lot of Russia’s problems, including its failure to achieve prosperity and its “brutal wars” in Chechnya, to its adoption of a “Western-style election with a multi-party system.” The lesson is clear. China shouldn’t make the same mistake of trying to curry favor with the West by becoming a multiparty democracy itself. “The West doesn’t really have an interest in promoting democracy to the world,” the editorial avers. “Its scheme is to expand its interests hidden behind that process.”
China’s present model of authoritarian state capitalism isn’t an end state. But China isn’t necessarily on its way to becoming a western butterfly either.
National pride can be a dangerous tool for reactionaries and is being used effectively by China’s governing elite.
The more the United States and Russian leaders and elites portray one another as imperialists and corrupt, the easier it is for Chinese leaders to portray soft power talk about democracy as merely a ploy to repress China’s ambitions to be a great power.
The closer Russia gets to becoming a great democratic power, the better freedom’s chances will be in China.
After two centuries, Europeans still insist that American democrats and capitalists haven’t yet grown up. At least, Americans should give Russians a little time, say a decade or so, to catch up.