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A new Cold War?

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The epic fight between good and evil, which emerged with the first mythologies ever created by man and translated over the ages in religious and political struggle, could now take a new form: the clash between democracy and autocracy.

“I predict to you, your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded: autocracy or democracy? Because that is what is at stake”, Joe Biden said in the first press conference held as President of the United States. The world, Biden argues, is witnessing a real battle that will decide if democracies still have a place in our world, or if autocracies are the wave of the future.

Joe Biden is not the first American president to describe the world in black and white, speaking of a battle whose stake (the very future of mankind!) takes on epic proportions. During the Cold War, Ronald Reagan used a similar tone in numerous speeches, “evil empire” being the key phrase that got to define his approach. Nearly 20 years later, George W. Bush also spoke about the Axis of Evil (a few months earlier, Bush had declared the Global War on Terrorism).

The Empire of Evil was the Soviet Union. The Axis of Evil referred to Iraq, Iran and North Korea and implicitly, the Al-Qaeda network and other similar organizations. The autocracies Biden refers to are Russia and China.

The fact that the new White House administration isn’t happy with Russia or China is old news. Biden was the first to say it in his first conversation as president with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, as well as in other press statements. US ambassadors have said it too while sent to mobilize / encourage the United States’ allies in the Pacific area and Asia, and talk to Beijing representatives. The threat the two countries pose, China in particular, is also highlighted in the national security strategy published by the White House. During talks with the EU, the United States also tackled relations with Russia and China and Biden suggested to British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a democratic initiative that could rival Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road.

The real news is the speed with which the Biden administration seems to be moving. There’s been no honeymoon, no friendly taps in relations with Moscow and Beijing, no talk of a reset or a fresh start. In his first press conference, Joe Biden merely summed up, using different words, what his administration had been saying all along: rebuilding old alliances and standing up to autocracies.

And these are not empty words. On March 22, the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada adopted sanctions (in the case of the EU, these were the first sanctions introduced since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989) against Chinese officials accused of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang province, where the Chinese are accused to have gone too far with the oppression of the Muslim Uyghur minority, which some people describe as a genocide.

Beijing was furious and responded with sanctions of its own. The first and most serious targeted the Europeans. Yet a few days later, Beijing sent the United States a signal as well.

The Chinese have also coordinated with the Russians. On March 23, a day after the West announced its sanctions, Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. The two released a joint statement, denouncing what they called “interference in national internal matters under the excuse of advancing democracy”, and called for a stronger UN role in international relations for the non-ideological multilateralism. Exactly the kind of language that pervaded the media in the Cold War period.

Unlike those times, when they actually engaged in a short war, China and Russia are now allies. The relation between the two countries showed visible signs of improvement under Yeltsin and were upgraded to the level of strategic partnership with Putin in charge. It remains to be seen just how far this partnership goes, or how long it will survive. Both China and Russia see the West (and the United States in particular) as an adversary / a threat / a competitor. Both reject the idea of a typically Western liberal democracy. China needs Russia’s resources, while Russia needs China’s money and products. They don’t always agree, however, and have some divergent interests with the potential of generating disputes. Russia isn’t happy with China’s increasing presence in the far East, nor with Beijing’s growing influence in the ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia. From Moscow’s standpoint, this region should fully remain in its sphere of influence, along with the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus or in Eastern Europe.

China and Russia are nowhere near being on the same page so as to rival the trans-Atlantic partnership. Right now, the very notion of “being on the same page” is an overstatement, since this is rather a conjectural alliance built on shared interests. The question is: what’s going to happen next? For years, both China and Russia have been taking advantage of a certain degree of leniency displayed by the West which, for the sake of corporations and relative stability, preferred to turn a blind eye, until the cost of it became too big. Will it be enough for the West to show strength right now, straighten things out to some degree, and find a way for all sides to get what they want? Or will this period of tensions, which some have already described as a second Cold War, eventually escalate into a confrontation similar to that after 1945, pitting two superpowers against each other, along with all the autocracies and democracies in their orbit?  

 


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  • “I predict to you, your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded: autocracy or democracy? Because that is what is at stake”, Joe Biden said in the first press conference held as President of the United States. The world, Biden argues, is witnessing a real battle that will decide if democracies still have a place in our world, or if autocracies are the wave of the future.
  • On March 22, the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada adopted sanctions (in the case of the EU, these were the first sanctions introduced since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989) against Chinese officials accused of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang province, where the Chinese are accused to have gone too far with the oppression of the Muslim Uyghur minority, which some people describe as a genocide. Beijing was furious and responded with sanctions of its own. The first and most serious targeted the Europeans. Yet a few days later, Beijing sent the United States a signal as well. The Chinese have also coordinated with the Russians. On March 23, a day after the West announced its sanctions, Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. The two released a joint statement, denouncing what they called “interference in national internal matters under the excuse of advancing democracy”, and called for a stronger UN role in international relations for the non-ideological multilateralism. Exactly the kind of language that pervaded the media in the Cold War period.
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