Suppose we look at them through a non-Western lens
By Herbert Rothschild
The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the U.S.-led resistance to it can be framed in two ways. One way is ideological: Liberal democracy is in a struggle against autocracy. The other is geopolitical: The Cold War has been recreated, with the U.S. once again indispensable to the security of a Europe from which Russia is excluded economically and diplomatically.
These aren’t mutually exclusive perspectives. Indeed, at first glance they may appear to be identical, because most of us learned to think of the Cold War ideologically — the U.S. was leading a global struggle against oppression. And if we narrow our focus to Europe, who wouldn’t agree? Democracy and human rights flourished in the countries beyond the Iron Curtain, while tyranny prevailed in those behind it. The gratifying outcome of the Cold War in Europe was not just the preservation but also the extension of freedom to almost the entire continent and, for a brief time, to Russia itself.
The present crisis looks like a replay with the same stakes. In the current issue of The Atlantic, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian Anne Applebaum makes an impassioned case that it is such a showdown. “Unless democracies defend themselves, the forces of autocracy will destroy them.” But while she regards the showdown as global, Applebaum’s perspective is Eurocentric. She grew up in the U.S., earned distinction with books such as “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–56,” and now lives in Poland.
What happens, though, if we look at the current crisis through a global lens? Does the geopolitical struggle carry the same ideological freight for observers who live in Algeria or India or Chile? Do they see the forces of democracy and human rights aligned against the forces of tyranny?
Frankly, I don’t know. What I do know is that peoples in Africa, Asia and Latin America haven’t had to struggle for their freedom against Russia. Generally (imperial Japan being the primary exception), their struggles for self-determination have been waged against European colonial powers and the U.S. That may make it difficult for them to regard the principal NATO members as flagbearers in a global crusade for liberal democracy.
Indeed, they may be wondering why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been portrayed by Western media as uniquely shocking. The basis of that characterization is that it’s the first time since the end of World War II that one European nation has invaded another. But they may ask why an invasion of a European country counts so much more than the invasions and occupations of African, Asian or Latin American countries, which have occurred repeatedly since WWII? Do the deaths of thousands of white people count so much more than the deaths of millions of peoples with darker skins?
You and I are fortunate to live in a liberal democracy. It’s a blessing worth preserving, defending and extending to others. But just as white people have been afforded that blessing more readily and completely than peoples of color at home, abroad U.S. behavior has been marked by an even grosser disparity. We have championed democracy and human rights in Europe. Too often we have subverted or crushed them elsewhere.
What wide appeal could the grim U.S.S.R. have had after WWII except that it opposed colonialism? Had the U.S. not thrown its support behind European countries trying to retain their colonial possessions in Asia and Africa and practiced its own brand of colonialism in Latin America, we would have been universally recognized as freedom’s standard-bearer, and the world would have been spared immense suffering.
Now that geopolitics are being recast as another Cold War, is it too late for us to become the standard-bearer of freedom in the world, not just in Europe? In recent columns I have vigorously resisted the dominant narrative of Russia’s invasion and our role prior to the invasion not to justify the unjustifiable, but to point out a different path going forward than the path we took before. We won’t take that different path, however, unless we acknowledge the realities I have just reviewed.
In particular, I’m concerned that our actions vis a vis China will recapitulate those of the first Cold War. Russia no longer has a global reach beyond its nuclear-tipped missiles, and its invasion of Ukraine has allowed us to restrict it further. In contrast, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) now has 139 members — 39 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, 17 in North Africa and the Middle East, 34 in Europe and Central Asia, 25 in East Asia and the Pacific, 18 in Latin America and the Caribbean, and six in South Asia. Including China, these 139 BRI members account for 63% of global population and 40% of global GDP.
To date, China hasn’t sought influence by invasions and subversions, but by funding and building roads, power plants, ports, railways, 5G networks, and fiber-optic cables around the world. Even though China is more thoroughly autocratic than Russia, it’s reasonable to infer that the peoples in those 139 countries regard BRI as a boon. In that light, will casting our relationship with China as hostile, militarizing it, and conducting it as such throughout the world convince the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America that we are defending liberal democracy, or will they see the clash as a geopolitical struggle to retain our dominance?
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.