Cold War, classic form: geopolitics frozen
The second Cold War of modern history was the one we all know, The Free World vs. The Communist [Sino-Soviet] Bloc from 1946 to 1989. It was a period of many wars but never one between the two nuclear superpowers, the US and Soviet Russia.
The West won the Cold War when USSR collapsed; Red China survived as a totalitarian-party State without Russia, and began to help communists in other Asian lands. The West’s victory made the USA a temporary global hegemon and superpower without rival in a briefly unipolar world. That did not last past 2001.
When the USSR fell to pieces from 1989 to 1992, it lost its empire in East Europe, its client states in Africa and Latin America, huge lands in central Asia, and any hope of strong ties to Red China. But China was strong even without a Russian ally, and proved it by helping Viet Nam defeat America in 1975. China then was not yet economically modern but it showed the rich world that the Communist Party in Beijing was in full control of the Chinese people; at Tiananmen Square in 1989, the Party under Deng Xiaoping used the military solution to a popular revolt.
[see the links to essays about this event in the appendix, notes 1 and 2.]
Mao Zedong’s intermission
From about 1966 to 1980, China was a peculiar Maoist state, trying, as Mao put it, to build socialism and avoid becoming like the USSR, which was social-imperialist. He wanted China to lead the Third World into a mighty opposition to the two imperial superpowers. At the UN Mao had some success organizing the Third World into a bloc opposed to the superpowers and rich nations, with India and Africa often aligned with Red China. (At this time, China was not on the UN Security Council, which was absurd in view of its power and nuclear weaponry. This Council is in fact a sort of successor to the nineteenth century Concert of Europe.)
Instead, Mao’s policy of “refusing the capitalist road” meant China continued long as geopolitically weak and economically insignificant. Only when Mao was gone and Deng took the capitalist path “with Chinese characteristics” did the nation of over one billion people rise up to challenge the USA and Europe and leave Russia in the figurative dust. [see
Russia in twilight, China ascending
China inherited the USSR’s former leadership of the non-Westernizing states of the world. It is the major alternative form of state and society opposed to the American and European model of liberal electoral democracy and rule of law. And after Mao, it moved quickly to adopt capitalist economic forms “with Chinese characteristics.”
Who can doubt China is THE third great geopolitical force on earth? But it has profound problems too. I refer readers to notes 3, 4, 5, and 6 in the appendix of this column. China is not going to walk easily into leadership of the world’s poor nations, because its domestic politics and economy are in crisis. It matters what is going on inside one of the great powers, as it tries to influence outside nations to model themselves on the great power. Is China now an inviting, seductive model?
According to stats in 2008 cited by Panag Khanna, Russia was losing 600,000 emigrants a year who were fleeing the economic chaos and oligarchy of Putin, while there were about the same number of Chinese immigrants into Russia’s far east territory of Siberia. Russia lost its grip on Mongolia to China, and now risks losing some of Siberia, perhaps. Russia cannot go on indefinitely failing to develop an economy to compete effectively with modern powers in Europe or Asia.
[see note 9]
Russia is not negligible in geopolitics of course, with its immense nuclear arsenal and its vast fossil fuel reserves, but it now has less than half the population of the USA or Europe, it has no alliance of strong states to balance NATO, and is in a state of constant economic and political semi-chaos; all these factors renders it much less formidable. Other states not nearly so large as Russia have stronger economies.
Empires in new clothes: New Silk Road, New World grown old
It seems to me uncontroversial to posit three great powers today, whose geopolitical reach used to be called imperialist but now is called globalist.
[see note 7 and 8 in the appendix to this column]
China is one. Its power is measurable on all scales, military/naval, economic, cultural, financial, diplomatic, ideological. It holds vast reserves of American capital as government bonds and treasury bills, and is, according to many analysts, aiming to make the Chinese yuan a viable alternative the US dollar as the world’s preferred currency. Within its immediate neighbourhood of the far east and western Pacific ocean, it is the hegemonic power, balanced precariously in naval force by the American superpower and its allies in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Australia.
China clearly is making inroads into western Asia, Africa, and even South America with investment in its “belt and road” initiative. It rejects criticism by the West for its internal suppression of democracy, human rights, and environmental abuses. It is constantly reminded by the Party that the West subjected China to The Century of Humiliation from 1850 to 1950. America and China are the G2 of global economy.
China and its very-particular totalitarian social order, political system, cultural formations, and economic dysfunctions is not a model the West can wish to emulate. And personally, I hope and trust that model will not attract people beyond the West, either.
We in Canada have good reasons, well-publicized in our media and academic sources, to feel no affection for China and its methods of geopolitical aggression. Yet despite my own bias, I appreciate that ruling classes in many places admire Chinese ways of governance.
[see note 10 in appendix]
The European Union is the other great geopolitical power, with three of its nations – France (a nuclear power) Germany and Italy – in the G7; Canada, Japan, Britain, and the USA are the others in the rich-world club. Europe’s economy is huge, but not a single unified State despite its intentions. It rivals the US and China in economic contests, investment, technology, and cultural production. NATO is its military and naval face, but inside that bloc the US and the UK are major forces. America will not give up its habitual meddling around the world, nor will the European Union and NATO.
[again, note 9 in the appendix]
The US is in relative decline now, and the notion of a unipolar world dominated by it, which was believed to be fact in 1991, has proven illusory. Its economic dominance has waned, and its political, social, and cultural defects have been revealed to an extent that many undeveloped nations do not want to be like it.
[see notes 11 and 12 in the appendix]
Canada, in my opinion, simply cannot ever be independent of the sphere of the US geopolitically. Capitalism and geography has integrated us with them. They count on our resources. We sell the resources to the US, and that makes us affluent.
But as Noah Richler opined in The Globe and Mail in August, Canada could and should attempt again to attain to the status of an influential Middle Power in the UN context.
Most of all, Canada ought never to be a party to a counterinsurgency war; it is foreign to our historical traditions and our peace-keeping aspirations. Indulging in that kind of war was the crowning and outrageously-inappropriate miscalculation our leaders of all parties “sold” to Canadians in Afghanistan. Our shameful failure in that region followed naturally on the heels of the mistakes our American ally was so willing to commit. But Canada is not a Great Power, and should not intervene in the political affairs of any sovereign state engaged in civil and internecine wars within its own borders. The UN is the one organization Canada should rely upon to determine when intervention by a UN force is needed for humanitarian and peacekeeping acts.
Wretched of the Earth
The global South, meaning Africa, south Asia, and Latin America, is where the Powers compete. India is not part of anyone’s sphere but not a fourth Power itself.
Will this poor and vast region of the earth “catch up” with the developed nations? I see few people who believe that anymore, whereas it was a common theory in 1970. The normal operation of capitalism does not create a more-even distribution of wealth; quite the contrary, it concentrates capital in small places and fewer owners.
The pandemic has provided yet more evidence that the poor of the world are not heading toward a more just sharing of global economic prosperity.
Africa is torn by war, civil war, revolutions, and political disintegration. Climate change will devastate it even further. South America has had a fatality rate from Covid out of proportion to its share of world population, and also suffers economic weakness and political dysfunction; it seems unable to found stable democracy and is in peril from fascistic figures like Chavez, Peron, Bolsonaro, and Pinochet.
South Asia is much affected by underdeveloped economies and an additional huge challenge where Islam is fracturing into deadly rivalries and near civil wars ( and a real civil war in Syria, where Russia has played a major role to help the regime ).
The rich Arab oil powers – oppressive feudalist monarchies in most cases -- care little for the poor Arab nations; theocratic Iran is permanently pitted against Israel. The miserably poor and disunited nations like Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan are suffering domestic collapse, and Bangladesh and Myanmar, Indonesia and Egypt, are all still trapped in immense poverty, incipient civil wars, and/or military government.
I recommend books by Parag Khanna on Geopolitics, Asia, and America.
Planetary “colonies”: the wrong lesson from history
Europe was rescued from tearing itself into fragments in war and revolutions after
1600 by its colonial good fortune, finding weak peoples and seemingly empty lands overseas to exploit and to settle with colonists.
Europe rose to global dominion with the wealth derived from its commerce, and made the breakthrough to capitalism before any other region of earth. So colonies in a sense made Europe supreme.
It is easy, and lazy, to extrapolate from that history to say that humanity now must go to other new places and create colonies, such as other planets, their moons, or our own moon. The resources of the solar system are there for us if we can just build the ships to get us there, and the tech to exploit them -- the names of three billionaires – Musk, Branson, and Bezos – are symbols of this thinking.
I for one do not see the solar system rescuing us from ourselves. Geopolitics will be conducted on earth before any stellar colonies can make a difference to the contests. Climate change, vast poverty, overpopulation and the consequent mass migration of people escaping these forces by going elsewhere, will mean war once again among clients of the three great Powers, or interventions by these states in wars abroad.
China will not easily solve its internal problems, of which I have said little but of which I am aware (see notes), and that will lessen its chances of having wins in any wars outside its borders. In fact, China has a record of staying out of such wars.
(Allow me to recommend, to those who like political novels, a fine book by Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Moon, as a gentle education into Chinese politics and culture. His other recent work, The Ministry for the Future, also rewards one’s close attention to how global politics might address climate change.)
We also must face squarely that we are in a cold war with two Powers, China and Russia -- but not them only. Elites in the world of Islam, in Africa, in Latin America, also wish the Western way and its former hegemony to fade away. The oppressive authoritarian and anti-egalitarian ethos of these foes of the West are in fact our ideological and cultural opponents, not valuing what the West values highest.
The end of liberal one-worldism
I still maintain that the UN enshrines a vision of a better world on the basis of rule of law, democratic institutions, human rights codes, and liberal individualist citizenship. These are not new ideas; Harari, in the book I referenced earlier, is an excellent author to lead readers through the key issues of Western values today.
But I am not naive. The UN is a toothless organ, without the enforcement tools it needs to outlaw behaviour that is normal for a nation-state. National actions ultimately have to conform only to reasons of State and interests of the national government – not be bound to obey supposed “international law” within an imagined consensual “community of nations.” The League of Nations was rendered impotent by this same fact. The UN has tried to improve on LN design, with partial success.
There are international laws, many entrenched in UN treaties that states sign of their own accord, or not. Weak states can be coerced by the strong in the UN, but strong states can ignore UN censures. The Security Council of the five great powers – US, UK, China, France, Russia (sometimes called the nuclear club but in fact lacking all the nuclear-armed states within it) has much capacity to force UN members to honour commitments. But the Council must have unanimity before acting as a force of intervention to impose peace by UN authority; that is rare to achieve. In Afghanistan, the UN authorized an international force. The result is not such to inspire confidence that military solutions will succeed under UN authority.
In short, the code of law for the globe has no law-enforcement agency, no police, if major powers refuse to honour a commitment to the law, or refuse to sign treaties to obey it. The UN is routinely ignored by states around the globe in the name of their sacralized “national sovereignty.” China and Russia are not substantially worse than the USA in showing no respect for UN power to enforce its demands, or reject UN condemnation of political or human-rights abuses. America has put itself first and its national interest takes precedence over UN resolutions. The World Court has no jurisdiction over America or China or many other nations who refuse to let that Court have authority over actions of the state or citizens of that state.
The UN is the conscience of the world, I believe. It still can make nations like Canada feel shamed for some of our internal political behaviours, such as our treatment of indigenous peoples. China is very happy to point out our defects in this area, and hold us up to global shaming, as we do to China over its abuses.
The world ahead will not be more regulated by the UN than in the past. But we still need the UN to make the balance of power less dangerous to peace and to be the forum where geopolitics has a chance of being effected by democratic opinion. A free media is all-important to assist the UN in that work of building a moral community.
Conclusion: Canada’s best options in geopolitics
As for Canada: it seems to me it is our geographic destiny to be an ally, client or dependency of the mighty American sphere of influence. But within that broad limitation, we can be a very effective Middle Power, as were in the fifties and sixties.
I believe the best we can hope for is that the better forces of liberal democracy and rule of law within the European Union, rather than negative forces of racism, national chauvinism, and capitalist growth imperatives, will prevail there. Then perhaps the EU can balance the ill effects of the USA in our future economic and political evolution – but only if Canada can incline east against powerful magnetic force south of us.
The EU has challenges it must resolve, and do so without the UK inside it. At this perilous moment of climate change, the EU seems to me to offer a better model by far of responsible policy for the environment than the USA, as the recent announcements from the EU demonstrate.
The EU has not the capacity to act as a single unified force in the way China and the USA can act, but the latter is an EU ally within NATO, whereas China is a threat.
We Canadians, with our special historic relations to the UK, might hope to escape being at the complete mercy of American dominance by using British and EU counterbalances, but we will have to have leaders of exceptional ability to guide us in this. The pandemic has not generally raised my expectations of the quality of leadership Canada has at hand.
Last and surely not least, Canadians have to face an existential question due to present preoccupation with our crimes of colonialism and racism against natives. Do we think Canada is a worthy state, or would we prefer to dissolve, calling it justice because of what Canada has done and is doing to natives or other minorities?
“Canada Day is a Celebration of Genocide” according to posters I saw a few times around Nelson’s Baker St. in days leading to July 1 this year... If we take that attitude as our guide for our national existence in future, the fracturing of Canada into smaller pieces in this century might not be improbable. Powerful corporate interests in the USA and EU might see stellar market opportunities in a fractured Canada, with some pieces even requesting admission to the American union. (Dare I say it – Alberta and Saskatchewan might lean that way]. China might well enjoy an investment boom where the former Canadian state would have resisted it. Such scenarios seem alarmist and extreme now. But politics can become toxic enough that the forces holding us together fail, and centrifugal forces prevail.
I for one would grieve the disappearance of our young state.