They don’t want to get along with us

 

They don’t want to get along with us

Over the last few years, my views on geopolitics have definitely hardened. Russia’s Ukraine invasion and China’s growing belligerence in the Western Pacific have forced me to realize that America, and the West in general, simply won’t be able to reach a permanent accommodation with the two dictatorial states.

This outcome was baked into the historical cake a long time ago, with the basic patterns laid down long before the creation of the United States. 

China

Starting around 2100 BCE with the Xia Dynasty, China’s recorded history down to the present day totals slightly over 4000 years. 

Early Chinese history was marked by constant warfare between independent kingdoms culminating in the Warring States period: 453-221 BCE. This was when Sun Tzu supposedly wrote The Art of War.

The era of independent kingdoms ended when Qin Shi Huangdi conquered his last competitor and declared himself the first emperor of a united China in 221 BCE. Qin’s takeover of China ushered in the country’s imperial era, with emperors presiding over China until the last dynasty, the Qing, collapsed in 1912.

But this new era didn’t mean the country was always unified.  Periods of peace and prosperity alternated with dynastic collapses, foreign invasions, and numerous rebellions. The bloodiest war of the 19th century was the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). This gigantic conflict, which nearly destroyed the Qing dynasty, took at least 20 million lives before it was finally suppressed.

Four related themes characterized China’s traditional worldview. These are the Mandate of Heaven, the Middle Kingdom, the Son of Heaven, and the Tian Xia — the Great Order under Heaven. You’ve probably heard of the first three, but maybe not the fourth.

Chinese emperors ruled as the Son of Heaven under the Mandate. Heaven bestowed legitimacy on the emperor’s rule. Losing the Mandate of Heaven due to natural disasters or foreign invasions would set off rebellions that could end an emperor’s rule, his dynasty, and maybe his life. Successful Sons of Heaven ruled over China as the Middle Kingdom, the center of the world. 

Tying these three themes together was the Tian Xia, or the Great Order under Heaven. First espoused in the fifth century BCE, a world under the Tian Xia would be guaranteed harmony and prosperity. It’s not too hard to guess which country would establish that harmony.

Merge these ideas with totalitarian Communism, 2000 years of monarchy, and what the Chinese call their Century of Humiliation (1839-1949) at the hands of foreign imperialists, and you get a nasty combination of nationalism and China’s own concept of manifest destiny. This toxic mixture makes it impossible for China’s leadership to accept the idea of a free society.

Given the sheer length of Chinese history, I’ve often wondered if Beijing doesn’t view the USA the same way a man views a fly buzzing around his head, annoying but in the long run insignificant.

Russia

Even though its history isn’t as long as China’s, Russia still has a long tradition of autocracy. Novgorad, the first Russian state was probably founded in the mid-9th century by Swedish Vikings, “Varangians,” who may have been led by a man who may not have existed, Rurik. Whether or not Rurik was a real person probably isn’t very important, since many early Russian names have Scandinavian origins including the word for Russians, the ‘Rus.’

The first unified Russian state was the Grand Duchy of Moscow in the mid-16th century, under Ivan III. His title was the Grand Prince of Moscow, not Tsar. That label didn’t exist until it was adopted by Ivan IV (r. 1547-1584), aka ‘The Terrible,” in 1547. More informally, the Tsar was often called the Little Father under Heaven and the Tsar of all the Russias. How many Russias there were depended on how big the Tsarist empire was at any particular time, since it expanded almost continuously from the time of Ivan III until the early years of the 20th century.

Complementing the idea of the Little Father under Heaven is the concept of the Three Romes. The First Rome was the united Roman Empire of around 100 CE. The Second Rome was Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, aka the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453 and was renamed Istanbul. The Third and final Rome is Moscow, an idea which is apparently close to Putin’s heart.

People reading this piece are probably familiar with Putin’s penchant for offing his political opponents. Opposition political leader Boris Nemstov was shot in the back of the head while walking along the Moscow River in 2015. In February of this year, another prominent dissident, Alexi Navalny died in a Siberian prison colony under suspicious circumstances. His mother and his lawyer were told that Navalny died of ‘sudden death syndrome.’

Putin’s actions are hardly new. In a fit of psychotic rage, Ivan the Terrible murdered his son when he hit him over the head with an iron poker. Russia’s greatest ruler, Peter the Great (r.1689-1725), had his son Alexi tortured to death when he believed the young man was plotting against him.

Empress Catherine the Great (r.1762-1796), became Tsarina after she removed her husband, Tsar Peter III, from power in a coup d’etat. A week after the coup, Peter was murdered, probably on Catherine’s orders. To be fair, however, Peter may have been planning to do the same to Catherine, but she struck first.

Catherine was succeeded by her son, Paul I, who ruled only briefly before he was murdered in 1801 and replaced by Alexander I, best remembered as the Tsar who was in power during Napoleon’s disastrous 1812 invasion. How much Alexander knew about the plot that put him on the throne is unknown.

Alexander II (r.1855-1881), was regarded as a reformer, especially after he liberated the serfs in 1861. But it turned out that the serfs weren’t truly liberated and the Tsar’s reputation plummeted among the Russian people. It dropped so much that the radical terrorist group, the Narodnaya Volya (the People’s Will), blew him apart with a bomb in 1881.

Accompanying this tradition of political mayhem is Russia’s well-developed sense of paranoia toward foreigners, an attitude resulting from multiple invasions over the last thousand years, including incursions by Poles, Swedes, Lithuanians, Mongols, Turks, the Grande Armée, and the Wehrmacht.

I won’t touch upon the Communist period except to say that the brutal nature of Communist Party rule only intensified the negative traits that have existed throughout so much of Russian history. Traits whose development, despite Russia’s relative youth compared to its far eastern neighbor, have generally resembled China’s.

America and its allies are now facing two opponents, each with their own vision of Manifest Destiny, a long history of autocracy and internal violence, whose leaders are deeply mistrustful of outside liberalizing influences. Moscow and Beijing view the West as their natural enemy, an almost biological feeling.

 This visceral hatred guarantees that any agreements the leadership of these countries makes with Western nations will likely be seen as a matter of convenience only, which can tossed aside at any time. This casual attitude contrasts sharply with the Western notion that treaties are legal contracts that must be strictly adhered to.

Readers might say I’m preaching to the converted on this topic, since Ricochet is a conservative website. But people frequently have trouble seeing outside the cultural box they grew up in. So they may need reminding that some of their most cherished ideas might be inappropriate, or even dangerous in certain situations.

Does recognizing the possibility that the West may be locked into a permanent conflict with Beijing and Moscow mean it must face the stark choice between war or surrender? 

The USA and its allies don’t have to accept either choice. But what they must do is outlast their opponents. The West waited out the old USSR until its internal problems caused it to finally implode in 1991. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a mere shadow of the former USSR. When it broke, the USSR up had 290 million people. Today, with the loss of the former Soviet provinces, the Russian Federation has just over 143 million people. And that population is steadily declining. Economically, NATO’s combined GDP outstrips Russia’s by 20.5 times.

As for China, could the USA outlast a country with 4000 years of history behind it? Probably not. But the USA and its friends don’t have to outlast China, they just have to outlast the Chinese Communist Party. Starting in 1949, the CCP has ruled China for 75 years. That is a very short time compared to the lifespans of some of the major Chinese dynasties. For example, the Qing, the last imperial dynasty, lasted for 268 years.

There isn’t the space here to go into more detail about the weaknesses of the West’s two main adversaries. But let it suffice to say that it still has the physical capacity to win any long-term contest with Beijing and Moscow. The question, however, is whether the West has the will to do so. Without that essential ingredient, all the economic, technological, and moral superiority in the world will prove meaningless.

Published in Foreign Policy
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There are 15 comments.

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  1. WillowSpring Member
    WillowSpring
    @WillowSpring

    Thanks for this.

    The older I get, the more I realize that history goes back a long way!

    • #1
  2. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    BCE, eh?

     

     

    • #2
  3. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    Michael G. Gallagher: There isn’t the space here to go into more detail about the weaknesses of the West’s two main adversaries. But let it suffice to say that it still has the physical capacity to win any long-term contest with Beijing and Moscow. The question here, however, is whether the West has the will to do so. Without that essential ingredient, all the economic, technological, and moral superiority in the world will prove meaningless.

    The question in my mind today applies principally to what is the will of the United States. If we don’t restore what the Founders gave us, what we will have is an admixture of what has come to us historically before this great idea of a nation emerged. The remainder of what we call the West does not have what it takes.

    • #3
  4. Barfly Member
    Barfly
    @Barfly

    I think the long history of the Eastern states is irrelevant. Countries don’t have memories, people do. It doesn’t matter at all if Xi has thousands of years of history on his mind. His actions today are driven by his needs today, within the environment of his culture today.

    • #4
  5. Rodin Member
    Rodin
    @Rodin

    Well said. But to do so we (1) need to be vigilant for the ways and means employed by China and Russia to weaken us, and (2) preserve and strengthen our society internally. We don’t do that the Biden way — cheating, censoring, and dividing. We are in great need of a restoration. We may have the foundation for it, but it is being undermined and that must be stopped. 

    • #5
  6. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Not worried too much about Russia. Border nations like Poland have long memories. Nuclear weapons are a consideration. But mostly as a threat. I don’t think any Russian leader is a fool. 

    My fear is our relative weakness in the Pacific. Can any American politician make a case for military action in defense of any of our Pacific allies? 

    • #6
  7. Tim the Enchanter Coolidge
    Tim the Enchanter
    @TimEwald

    Good post.  I think you could add the confederation of Islamic nations & peoples to the list, as well.  A collective of autocratic, intolerant, honorless theocracies is no more compatible with the West than China or Russia.  

    • #7
  8. Michael G. Gallagher Coolidge
    Michael G. Gallagher
    @MichaelGallagher

    WillowSpring (View Comment):

    Thanks for this.

    The older I get, the more I realize that history goes back a long way!

    Good for you @willowspring! May your knowledge in all things become as deep as the Marianas Trench!

    • #8
  9. Michael G. Gallagher Coolidge
    Michael G. Gallagher
    @MichaelGallagher

    kedavis (View Comment):

    BCE, eh?

     

     

    You don’t know how many times people I’ve talked to say history doesn’t matter. This attitude seems to apply to events and ideas they don’t like and are contrary to their beliefs.

    • #9
  10. Michael G. Gallagher Coolidge
    Michael G. Gallagher
    @MichaelGallagher

    Bob Thompson (View Comment)@bobthompson, the USA, by virtue of its sheer size, is the main show when it comes to aiding Ukraine. But other NATO states are starting to step up to the plate as well. Several NATO nations have signed military-aid pacts with Kyviv. You’ll see 50 or 60 donated F-16s entering Ukrainian service over the next several months. Sweden is sending most of its earlier model APCs to Ukraine. France is sending French Foreign trainers, and its defense minister a while back threatened French arms manufacturers with partial nationalization if they don’t speed up production. And most NATO states are starting to rev up their 155mm shell production. But smaller nations like Belgium and the Netherlands don’t have that much to give.

    As for returning exactly to the ways of the Founders, I don’t think that’s going to happen. I believe that whatever comes out on the other side of the USA’s current political mess will keep most of the Founders’ basic principles, but will apply them in a somewhat different manner.

     

     

    • #10
  11. Michael G. Gallagher Coolidge
    Michael G. Gallagher
    @MichaelGallagher

    Barfly (View Comment):

    I think the long history of the Eastern states is irrelevant. Countries don’t have memories, people do. It doesn’t matter at all if Xi has thousands of years of history on his mind. His actions today are driven by his needs today, within the environment of his culture today.

    Barfly (View Comment):

    I think the long history of the Eastern states is irrelevant. Countries don’t have memories, people do. It doesn’t matter at all if Xi has thousands of years of history on his mind. His actions today are driven by his needs today, within the environment of his culture today.

    I beg to differ with you @barfly. While Xi Jinping certainly doesn’t dwell for hours each day on China’s long history, he’s certainly aware of it. If nothing else, he can certainly call on any number of historians if he wants to check something out

    Do you think Xi’s implementation of China’s pervasive Social Credit Score scheme is only because he’s afraid of evil Western influences? Xi is very familiar with the fact that Chinese history is littered with major rebellions. The Taiping Rebellion I mentioned was only one of the biggest and baddest.  The Communists came to power in their own revolution in 1949 the last dynasty, the Qing was toppled from power in 1912.

    On September 30, 1949 ( I hope I’ve remembered this correctly), Mao Zeodong was getting ready to enter Beijing, where on the next day he would announce the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. That evening, one of Mao’s bodyguards became curious about what the Great Man liked to read. So he took a peek in one of Mao’s knapsacks. The man was very surprised to find not one, single, work on Communist thought. All the books were traditional Chinese novels or history books. One book, the Spring and Autumn Annals, dated to the 5th century CE.

    • #11
  12. Michael G. Gallagher Coolidge
    Michael G. Gallagher
    @MichaelGallagher

    Rodin (View Comment):

    Well said. But to do so we (1) need to be vigilant for the ways and means employed by China and Russia to weaken us, and (2) preserve and strengthen our society internally. We don’t do that the Biden way — cheating, censoring, and dividing. We are in great need of a restoration. We may have the foundation for it, but it is being undermined and that must be stopped.

    Dear @Rodin,

    I think the USA might have to go through what the Brits did during the Glorious Revolution 0f 1688. They dumped King James II and his nasty Chief Justicar, ‘Bloody Azzizes’ Jeffreys, asserted the authority of Parliament over the King, and came out on the other side with their traditional freedoms intact and strengthened, plus economic and political reforms that helped spark the Industrial Revolution in the next century. Those reforms included the 1689 Parliamentary Declaration of Rights, a sort of proto-constitution.

    And they did this with very little bloodshed, something I hope the USA can achieve ove the next few years.

    • #12
  13. Michael G. Gallagher Coolidge
    Michael G. Gallagher
    @MichaelGallagher

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Not worried too much about Russia. Border nations like Poland have long memories. Nuclear weapons are a consideration. But mostly as a threat. I don’t think any Russian leader is a fool.

    My fear is our relative weakness in the Pacific. Can any American politician make a case for military action in defense of any of our Pacific allies?

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Not worried too much about Russia. Border nations like Poland have long memories. Nuclear weapons are a consideration. But mostly as a threat. I don’t think any Russian leader is a fool.

    My fear is our relative weakness in the Pacific. Can any American politician make a case for military action in defense of any of our Pacific allies?

    @user_530132 the Chinese will probably make any politician’s job of justifying war with China by doing them the favor of attacking first. However, I think more and more people are becoming aware of how dangerous the PRC actually is. So I think that if the toilet nuggets hit the fan over Asia, that realization might a U.S. politician’s job easier, too. 

    T

     

     

    • #13
  14. Michael G. Gallagher Coolidge
    Michael G. Gallagher
    @MichaelGallagher

    Tim the Enchanter (View Comment):

    Good post. I think you could add the confederation of Islamic nations & peoples to the list, as well. A collective of autocratic, intolerant, honorless theocracies is no more compatible with the West than China or Russia.

     

    Tim the Enchanter

    But the Islamic states lack the combo of technology and firepower that China and Russia have, especially China. Besides, the Islamic countries aren’t one, united entity. They have their own severe divisions. Nobody likes Iran and the mullahs, being Shia Muslims,  hate the Sunni Muslim majority.  In Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia don’t appear to hate anybody too much.

    Muslim states will mostly wait and see how any great power conflict turns out before siding with anybody.

    • #14
  15. Michael G. Gallagher Coolidge
    Michael G. Gallagher
    @MichaelGallagher

    @kedavis

     

    If you make it 2023 BCE then you’re up to 4046 years.

     

    • #15
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