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Two Philosophies of Strength and Weakness Are Clashing in Ukraine

Two Philosophies of Strength and Weakness Are Clashing in Ukraine

Monday, 28 March, 2022 - 11:30

In 2001, after the attacks of 9/11, Western solidarity was at its peak. But the tight hugs were to say goodbye; that became evident two years later, with the war on Iraq. The dispute between the US, which had declared and waged the war, and the French and the Germans, who opposed it, cut deep. At the time, US Secretary of Defense and Iraq war hawk Donald Rumsfeld made a famous distinction between “Old Europe” and “New Europe.” The former, that is, France and Germany, are aging and frail. The latter, the Central European countries and Britain, are promising and on the rise.

In 2016, the Western world saw two more splits: the Brits voted to leave the European Union, and towards the end of that year, Donal Trump was elected president of the United States. He did not hesitate to undermine his country’s ties with Europe, and he put the question of NATO’s survival on the table.

During the Obama years in between these crises, European-US relationships became cozy again. But turning away from most of the world and avoiding its problems meant this coziness came at no cost and yielded little benefit. East Asia took most of the US’ attention, and economic considerations overwhelmed political calculations. This strategy’s primary mover became the economy, not politics.

Over these two decades, China’s position as an immense economic power making unprecedented leaps in growth consolidated, and the same is true for Russia’s position, but as a military power being rebuilt. However, it was clear that Russia’s success lacks an economic foundation, while China’s success has almost nothing but its economic foundation.

The former has the muscle, an arsenal that includes the largest nuclear stockpiles in the world. It is accompanied by a rentier economy that runs on extracting raw materials, an economy that has made no real contribution to the digital and post-industrial economy. As for the latter, its economic power is staggering, but it is not complemented by ideals, images, and models with which we see the world and ourselves, in light of which our imaginaries and desires are shaped. Despite its tremendous progress on the technological front, which is an extension of its economic revolution, China remains very far behind the United States. When it comes to technical innovation in particular, countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, the United States, Britain and South Korea are still ahead of China.

However, as we have seen, the West was divided for a time, and the prospect of new splits is always there. It seemed for a moment that uniting was off-limits to the West and that the different factions’ relationships with one another came to resemble that which defined the parties within each country: many parties and oppositions. This had been the case until the latest war in Ukraine, and it is difficult to speculate about this war’s ramifications in this regard, though it is very probable that NATO will retrieve the unity that had defined it during the Cold War. This prospect, especially with Biden’s European tour, is becoming increasingly real.

On the other hand, in the Russian and Chinese worlds, internal divisions are off-limits. Indeed, their rises, military in the case of Russia and economic in the case of China, were accompanied by a strong aversion to splits and emphasis on unity. That is because the Putinist project itself was born out of the Soviet Empire’s collapse and the negative conditions that emerged in its aftermath, which left freedom seeming, to some Russians, synonymous with chaos, weakness, and disintegration.

In turn, the project initiated by Deng Xiaoping that is ongoing today under Xi Jinping was defined and shaped by the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre perpetrated while the Soviet regime had been collapsing. The Chinese leadership’s message at that time was: Introducing democratic political life exposes China to the threat of facing the Soviet Union’s fate. Whoever thinks that they are heading to the Edens of New York and London are going to find themselves in the hell of Moscow.

Of course, China’s enforced unity is nonetheless less threatening than its Russian equivalent. The reason for this is simple: the economy is the source of China’s strength. Growing economically necessarily compels taking the interests and considerations of others, especially the “Western partners,” into account. As for regimes deriving strength from armed forces, deterring them is probably difficult; undaunted by the consequences, they could take their use of violence to the end.

Nonetheless, once we put the details aside, we find that we are facing two extremely different models of strength and weakness: one of them, the Western version, goes through phases and mutates, and it fluctuates between strength and weakness. Its relationship with time is more precise, fluid, and dynamic. It can be doubted, scrutinized, reassessed, and speculated about. In the second version, there is only one unchanging event: it is strong, and its strength commands it not to tolerate transformation, not in its relationship with others and especially not in its relationship with itself.

Ukraine, today is a theater of war between these two philosophies.

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