Since Russia first invaded Ukraine on February 24, Vladimir Putin has spoken of the attack as part of a civilizational conflict with the West—like the Cold War—while he and his military leaders continue to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. Today, the Russia of Putin looks far weaker than the empire of Stalin and Brezhnev ever did, with Moscow having failed to achieve almost all its goals in Ukraine—and many of the Soviet Union’s old satellite states now NATO members.
At the same time, Russia has become much closer to China than it was in the communist era, as Xi Jinping pursues his declared ambitions to counter the global power of the United States. The U.S. and the EU have meanwhile moved to break off economic relations with Russia and halt the development of Chinese tech industries. From the end of World War II through the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world was fundamentally split into two hostile blocs. Is it happening again?
To Lucan Way, it is. Way is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and the author of three books on authoritarianism. Much of the globe, he says, has been dividing into two camps, democratic and authoritarian—“the free and the unfree”—and the conflict between them is deepening.
But the nature and contours of this new division are different. Now the two sides aren’t fighting over an ideology, as the democratic and communist blocs of the Cold War were. And there are regionally powerful countries today that can challenge the goals of the democrats or the authoritarians—or cooperate with either. In the absence of an organizing ideological dimension, and with the presence of other powerful actors, Way sees the new era of global conflict becoming more chaotic—and ultimately more unpredictable—than the Cold War ever was.
Michael Bluhm: Putin has framed the Ukraine war as a proxy conflict with the West and NATO. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, he says, NATO has never stopped expanding its borders and threatening Moscow.
Yet the war seems to have made Russia much weaker—even weaker than the Soviet Union was toward the end of its history. What do you see Putin as having done to Russia’s position in the world here?
Lucan Way: First of all, Russia is much richer today than it was in that time of the Soviet Union. Until very recently, it had a dynamic market economy.
The main difference between the two eras is that, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a universal ideology that could theoretically be applied anywhere: communism. It was the Soviets’ counterpart to the also-universal liberal-democratic ideology of America and its allies.
The Cold War involved a distinctive, global competition for influence. Every local conflict around the world became infused with this broader great-power conflict—in no small part because of these competing universal ideologies.
Today, liberal democracy has had its setbacks around the world, but there’s still a universal liberal-democratic ideology. There isn’t a universal authoritarian ideology. There are just a lot of parochial nationalists with authoritarian playbooks. The movements supporting them don’t speak to any universal ideology at all. In that sense, Russia has been reduced from a country with global ambitions, based on a global idea, to a corrupt dictatorship based on the power of a single person.
Bluhm: A month after the invasion, the historian Tim Sayle said that it had brought a period of newfound unity and shared moral clarity to the West. How do you see this today—with persistent inflation and rising energy costs triggering protests across so many European countries?
Way: I was impressed in the early days of the war by the remarkable unity we were seeing in Europe. I did feel somewhat apprehensive about the possibility of European fatigue with the conflict—just because most conflicts that initially spark widespread outrage tend to get normalized fairly quickly; we’ve seen this in Afghanistan and elsewhere. But polls in Europe still show overwhelming support for Ukraine, now nearly 10 months after the invasion. The resilience of the sentiment has surprised me.
Back in March, French President Emanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz were arguing that the West should negotiate with Putin. But they’ve completely abandoned that rhetoric—and the biggest reason is the simplest: Russia has just behaved so atrociously that Europe is more unified now than it was at the outset of the war.
There isn’t a universal authoritarian ideology. There are just a lot of parochial nationalists with authoritarian playbooks. The movements supporting them don’t speak to any universal ideology at all. In that sense, Russia has been reduced from a country with global ambitions, based on a global idea, to a corrupt dictatorship based on the power of a single person.
Also in March, there was a conflict between the United States, on the one hand, and Macron and Scholz. The U.S. was saying, We have to fight the Russians, give Ukraine weapons, and win the war. Macron and Scholz were saying, No, we have to reach out. There has to be a negotiated solution. But Putin has shown such a complete unwillingness to compromise or adjust his fundamental goals, despite multiple military losses, that he effectively ended that debate.
And then, since March we’ve seen a tremendous decoupling between Europe’s economy and Russia’s. At the beginning of 2022, the European Union relied on Russia for more than 40 percent of its natural gas. Now that number’s down to 17 percent.
To be fair, there are elements of Ukraine fatigue, but there are also now structural reasons for long-term unity in Europe against Russia. Until recently, Russia had deep ties with the European elite. The former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was even on the board of Gazprom, the main Russian gas provider, until the invasion. Those days are over. Putin has completely broken these ties. And there’s no way Europe’s going to re-establish them—at least in the medium term.
Bluhm: Sayle talked about the economic rupture between the West and Russia, as well, as reminiscent of the Cold War. Now, the U.S. administration has enacted strict prohibitions on exports of semiconductor chips to China, and the EU is also becoming increasingly antagonistic toward Beijing. How do you see today’s global economic landscape comparing to the Cold War’s?
Way: In the 1970s and ‘80s, the idea of liberal transnationalism emerged. It was the idea that the best way to liberalize countries like Russia and China was to integrate with them economically. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, you saw a tremendous effort to do this, particularly by integrating Russia’s economy into Europe’s. It’s an idea I’ve supported.
But the invasion of Ukraine has entirely discredited that approach, at least with Russia. The expectation was that integrating with Russia economically would make war less likely. But the opposite happened: Integration gave Russia the impression that it could invade Ukraine without sanctions from Europe, because it had all these ties. Integration gave Russia a great deal of confidence that it could divide Europe. Thankfully, that was wrong.
As a result, there’s a new kind of containment today. Containment was the Cold War strategy devised by the famous U.S. diplomat George Kennan in 1947 after the collapse of the U.S.-Soviet alliance of World War II. The strategy came from the gradual realization that the Soviet Union was an inherently expansionist and hostile power—so the U.S. needed to do everything it could to contain Soviet aggression.
The expectation was that integrating with Russia economically would make war less likely. But the opposite happened: Integration gave Russia the impression that it could invade Ukraine without sanctions from Europe, because it had all these ties. Integration gave Russia a great deal of confidence that it could divide Europe. Thankfully, that was wrong.
Exactly the same thing is happening now in these economic ruptures. It’s more clear-cut with Russia; Russia has oil and gas, but it’s not a great economic power. The more complicated case is China. It’s not difficult to imagine cutting off Russia, but it’s much harder to imagine cutting off China.
Bluhm: As you mention, Russia’s economic relationship with the West has been significantly disrupted, despite the fact that it was, until recently, fully integrated into the European economy. But China is by far the biggest trade partner for many Western countries. How hard would it be for either China or the West to disrupt their economic relationship?
Way: Europe’s break with Russia is astounding. Given the extent of China’s integration with Western countries, it’s harder to imagine an equivalent break with China. But, in part because of policies like China’s zero-Covid policy, you might imagine Western companies being less interested to do production in China—and so, a slow decoupling.
Another point to consider is that the Chinese economy depends very heavily on a $35 trillion market in North America and Western Europe. I talked about the failure of liberal transnationalism—that economic integration hasn’t meant that China’s on the way to becoming a democracy. But it is likely to make Xi at least hesitate when he’s deciding whether to invade Taiwan.
We’ve seen this kind of hesitancy in China’s policies toward Russia. Some had hoped that China would put pressure on Russia to stop the war—that hasn’t happened. But if China were providing significant military aid to Russia, Ukraine would look very different now. So the liberal idea that transnational trade moderates aggressive military behavior seems to be holding—in China’s case.
Bluhm: You mention that the Cold War was not least a conflict of ideologies—politically and economically: It was a conflict between democracy and communism, and also one between capitalism and central planning.
Now, observers have been saying for years now, the world is dividing into two new rival blocs: democratic and authoritarian countries. The American president, Joe Biden, seems to want to align U.S. foreign policy along this divide; he organized a Democracy Summit, and he’s even talked about creating a league of democracies. Meanwhile, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, has cast China as an alternative model of central control, more efficient than the Western model. How would you compare the ideological aspect of global politics today to the Cold War?
Some had hoped that China would put pressure on Russia to stop the war—that hasn’t happened. But if China were providing significant military aid to Russia, Ukraine would look very different now. So the liberal idea that transnational trade moderates aggressive military behavior seems to be holding—in China’s case.
Way: It’s true, we’re seeing a starker divide between the free and the unfree in the world today than we’ve ever seen before. During the Cold War, you had communist and anti-communist blocs. The communist world was completely autocratic, but the anti-communist world included many military dictatorships, which were propped up by democratic countries precisely because these dictatorships were Cold-War allies.
Today, with Hungary and Poland, we do have autocracies on the Western side, but this is much more exceptional now than it was then.
The biggest difference in today’s ideological conflict is the resilience of democracy. And one of the reasons why democracy has been so resilient is that liberal-democratic ideology still has a global reach. It’s not as strong as it might have been in the late 1990s or mid-2000s, but it’s still there.
There’s no serious anti-democratic alternative that can challenge the global faith in multi-party elections. We have populist-authoritarianism today, but almost no populist-authoritarian leader questions the need for competitive elections.
Xi and Putin lead parochial, nationalist movements. They don’t care about ideology. They just want them to have pro-Chinese or pro-Russian foreign policies, respectively. Iran and Russia don’t share anything ideologically; the only thing they share is enmity with the West.
So we don’t see universal ambitions for authoritarianism that match the global reach of and support for democracy.
Bluhm: Xi Jinping consolidated his power at the recent Chinese Communist Party Congress, and relations between Beijing and the West seem to be worsening; EU leaders now speak openly of an adversarial relationship. That relationship—between the alliance of mostly democratic, mostly Western, countries and the axis between Beijing-Moscow—seems similar in some ways to the Cold War’s two rival blocs. With Moscow so much weaker now than it was then, to what extent is China taking the role that the Soviet Union had in the Cold War?
Way: The relationships are comparable in some ways. But not only is Russia weakened; China is much more powerful than the Soviet Union was. It has both a very powerful military and an extremely powerful economy. The Soviet Union was quite poor, but it had massive conventional forces in Europe, and that was its main source of power.
Beijing has many more resources to challenge the United States with. But there are two problems: One, China doesn’t have a universal ideology. Two, it’s much more integrated into the global economy than the Soviet Union was—so it’s much more constrained in its behavior. There are some Cold War elements in play today, then, but there are also elements of mutual dependence that balance the conflict out.
The biggest difference in today’s ideological conflict is the resilience of democracy. And one of the reasons why democracy has been so resilient is that liberal-democratic ideology still has a global reach. It’s not as strong as it might have been in the late 1990s or mid-2000s, but it’s still there. There’s no serious anti-democratic alternative that can challenge the global faith in multi-party elections.
You mention China projecting an ideology of meritocracy: The West is corrupt, but in China, the political administration is managing things much better than anyone else. But with Beijing’s zero-Covid policy, that illusion has been deeply undermined. China’s vaccination rate is low. The country hasn’t been able to emerge out of Covid in the way the world’s democracies have. This insistence on zero-Covid, which was a function of the concentration of power in China, shows they’re actually bad at governance.
One of the other sources of strength of the West is that democratic countries have political oppositions. Oppositions prevent governments from doing things that are really stupid, even if that doesn’t necessarily lead to the best decision-making.
A friend in the Canadian government said to me, Whenever we’re making a decision, we imagine what the opposition will say to us during Question Period in Parliament. If we can’t come up with a good response, that means it’s probably a bad idea.
But this disciplining effect of opposition is something that dictatorships like Russia and China lack. Both have made huge, unforced policy errors—the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and zero-Covid in China—that have really undermined their global power.
Bluhm: Xi was welcomed last week in Saudi Arabia, in a visit that irritated many in Washington who see Saudi Arabia as a longstanding U.S. ally. Richard Gowan said in April that other countries were trying to keep good relations with both blocs, hedging their bets to keep their options for cooperation open. How do you see other countries approaching the post-invasion global dynamic?
Way: Thanks for that question. It’s an important corrective to what I was saying, in that you’re seeing the effects of a truly multipolar world—a world with multiple centers of power. So, the growing divide between the free and the unfree may reflect a weakening of Western power globally. Saudi Arabia accordingly feels very at liberty to turn to China.
One other point about China: During the Cold War, militaries in many non-communist countries were inherently anti-communist, because they knew they’d be the first to suffer in a communist takeover. But militaries in developing countries today are often more comfortable with a country like China—which doesn’t make human-rights demands and doesn’t interfere in domestic governance to the same extent that the West does. And this could make them more open to an alliance with Beijing.
The reduction of ideological polarization, in this sense, helps the unfree side make appeals to certain elites in the global South—appeals they’d never have been able to make back in the Cold War years.
Bluhm: What do you make of these comparisons between the world today and the Cold War?
Way: The biggest difference is this ideological component But the Cold War was also unique in the sense that it affected every conflict in the world. I’m not sure there’ll ever again be a scenario where literally every conflict in every part of the world can be connected to a single global conflict.
It’s more like the 19th century, really. You have a lot of key actors, region by region. Today’s dynamic is less ideological—and more uncertain.