Nathan Gardels is the editor of Noema Magazine.
A breakup opens a new space in place of the broken status quo. It dispels illusions about an old order no longer fit for its purpose and makes room for what was smoldering to emerge in a clearer form. Above all, a break with the past requires choices about the foundations of the future.
The world today faces such a break as several breaking points converge at once. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has upset the geopolitical balance of the “long peace” since the end of World War II. It has further accelerated the decoupling of global economic interdependence already underway and produced a fossil fuel crisis that could either fatally stall or accelerate the green energy transition that will determine the fate of Earth’s habitable biosphere.
It will take both uncompromising realism and a leap of imagination to capture this moment in a way that averts the next war while protecting the planet.
The choice of China: pragmatism or anti-Americanism?
As Yuen Yuen Ang writes in Noema this week, China faces a choice in its stance on Ukraine between pragmatism that can ensure its prosperous and peaceful rise in an integrated world or succumbing to anti-Americanism that will destroy the means to accomplish in the next four decades what it has in the recent past.
For the pragmatists in Deng Xiaoping’s place, the way forward remains a cautious embrace of the US-led West. As Fu Ying, China’s former vice foreign minister, said at a meeting of the Berggruen Institute’s 21st Century Council in Beijing as recently as 2018, “the reform and opening up of China over the past 40 years coincided in the same period with the opening of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The now-threatened US relationship, she said, has been “indispensable” to China’s success.
For those in China who are convinced that America is already determined to contain its future prospects, such pragmatism is another word for surrendering to an agenda to keep the Middle Kingdom down. Better to remain aligned with “the enemy of your enemy”, even if Vladimir Putin’s Russia violates the fundamental principle of sovereign territorial integrity and horrifically reduces entire cities to rubble, than to risk falling under the thumb of a power eternally hostile to the Chinese system of government. According to them, Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy is just a more aggressive version of NATO’s expansion into their neighborhood.
For anti-Americans, it would be nothing short of a foolish delusion to believe that China will not be next in line in America’s global battle to defeat autocracy in the name of democracy.
In his essay, Ang cites an article that has circulated widely in China and written by prominent academic Zheng Yongnian, who defended the claim that NATO expansion credibly threatens Russia’s security. But she didn’t quote her last lines which are much more important as an accurate description of the world to come where no nation is boss and it is up to the major contending powers to keep the peace.
“During the incubation phase of this new world order,” Zheng wrote, “every great power positions itself for the world order of the future. fundamentals – some are even unwilling to make strategic concessions. The nascent international order is growing to be more evenly distributed along lines of wealth, power and cultural authority. There will be no hyperpower.
Writing in the elliptical language necessary to say anything publicly, Zheng warns that China’s choices today will determine its course for a long time. “The Russian-Ukrainian war complicates China’s unprecedented historical moment. In a volatile international landscape, we must calmly analyze the new changes and trends between the dominant nations. We must be rational and not allow even the slightest sentimentality, because any emotional impulse could lead to serious strategic errors. Since there is little such “sentiment” in China’s relations with the United States, we conclude that it refers here to President Xi Jinping’s “boundless” friendship with Putin.
Zheng continues, “One thing, however, is abundantly clear: what makes a major power—or what makes others see it as a major power—is not how it challenges the old order, nor its ability to wage war, but its responsibility. and the ability to promote and maintain international peace.
Reading what seems obvious between Zheng’s lines, it is in China’s interest to distance itself from Putin’s war and embrace its new responsibility as a “major power” to help forge a settlement. .
China’s choice these days will either plant the seeds for the next war or prepare the ground to avoid it. But choosing a pragmatic compromise with the West cannot be a one-way street; it also requires a reciprocal response in turn. Future peace with China also means that the United States must abandon its hyperpower complex and face the reality that no complete triumph is possible between major powers of roughly equal strength, only strategic compromise. . Unless both sides abandon their zero-sum calculation, every concession will be framed by the power of the wrong metaphor like a moral Munich that only escalates the conflict.
A global climate alliance
Although a realistic accommodation between China and the United States may avert the next war, it will not prevent the planet from overheating and destroying all human civilization with it. This requires an imaginative leap towards the concept of planetary realism.
At this late stage of 2022, when the cascading consequences of climate change are so evident, any lasting foundation for the future must be built on a collective balance with nature as well as a balance of power between rival nations. If military alliances versus the others are what divides the world the most, a “climate alliance” for the planet ruled by the United States and China can counterbalance and prevent the strategic rivalry from spiraling out of control.
Only a concerted and collaborative effort by the great powers, who are also major emitters of greenhouse gases, has a chance of accelerating the transition from fossil fuels and the resulting wars fast enough to make a difference.
Mediocre statesmen and women will immediately dismiss planetary realism as naive, utopian and unachievable. But to miss the present opportunity to step out of the patterns of the past is to follow a failure of the imagination to the grave of our own excavations. If a break as deep as the one we are going through fails to deliver a vision commensurate with the challenges it poses, then it is hard to imagine what might happen.