Western relations with Russia have rarely been worse than they are now, in the aftermath of Russian President Vladimir Putin's intervention in Ukraine and decision to annex Crimea. But US President Barack Obama has sought to assure the world that this is not the beginning of a new Cold War. Even so, hawkish American liberals and hard-line conservatives are comparing Obama's leadership unfavourably with supposedly tougher presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Never mind that Eisenhower did nothing to stop Soviet tanks from crushing the Hungarian uprising in 1956, or that Reagan had no intention of supporting solidarity activists when they rose against Poland's Communist regime.
In many ways, the Cold War made things easier for US presidents. There were only two great powers — China did not really count until recently — and their spheres of interest were clearly defined. The Soviet Union's ruling ideology was equally clear: a Stalinist version of Communism.
Stalinism, like Maoism in China, was in fact deeply conservative, aimed chiefly at consolidating the regime's power at home and its domination over satellites abroad. The ideological enemy was the capitalist world, but the immediate enemies were "Trotskyists," "revisionists," and other "reactionary elements" inside the Soviet sphere. In times of crisis, old-school Russian nationalism was mobilised in the service of Soviet interests. China was similar. Mao was not an imperial expansionist — he never even bothered to ask the British to give back Hong Kong. Mao, too, focused Chinese nationalism almost entirely on the brave new world of Communism.
Everything changed, however, after Mao's death and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Communism, as a ruling ideology, disappeared in Russia and has become so diluted in capitalist China that little more than its symbolic trappings — and a Leninist party with a monopoly on power — remain.
This left a vacuum in both countries, with Russia's government struggling to justify an elected autocracy, and China's one-party dictatorship seeking a new source of legitimacy. Old, discredited traditions were suddenly revived. Putin quotes half-forgotten philosophers in an effort to show the spiritual superiority of Russia's national soul. Chinese officials now talk about Confucianism as the basis of a new political identity. Putin's favourite philosophers are a mixed bag of mystical nationalists who all conceived of Russia as a spiritual community based on the Orthodox faith, but whose ideas are too diverse in other ways, and too obscure, to provide a coherent ideology. Nor are their thoughts always in line with Putin's own. Putin regards the collapse of the Soviet Union as a major calamity; yet he freely quotes Ivan Ilyin, who became a ferocious opponent of the Soviet regime and was banished by Lenin to Western Europe in 1922. It may be that Putin genuinely believes that Russia is a spiritual bastion against the decadence of a Western world that has been corrupted by materialism. It is also possible that China's current rulers, whose families have grown rich through political favours, are convinced students of Confucian philosophy. But the governments in Russia and China are guided by something much trickier to deal with: nationalism based on resentment.
Maoist dogma in China has been largely replaced by something called "patriotic education," manifested in school textbooks, history museums, and an assortment of monuments. Chinese grow up with the idea — not wholly wrong — that China was deeply humiliated by foreigners for more than a hundred years, especially during the nineteenth-century Opium Wars and the brutal Japanese invasions. Only a strong China, under the firm leadership of the Communist Party, can protect its people from future depredations.
In Russia, Putin, too, is manipulating old grievances and a traditional sense that the wicked West is bent on undermining Russian unity and destroying its soul. As is true of China's leaders, Putin accuses the West of ganging up on Russia.
One can call this paranoia, but it is not completely irrational. After all, both Russia and China are surrounded by countries allied to the US. And, by pushing NATO as far as the Russian borders, the West has hardly been sensitive to Russian security concerns.
The problem with nationalism based on resentment is that it impedes diplomacy, which is based on give and take. Criticism is quickly seen as a sign of hostility or disrespect. Unwelcome moves by American or Japanese politicians are officially branded as "insults to the people."
Of course, much of this is intended for domestic consumption — a way to mobilise public opinion behind authoritarian rulers. But these powerful autocracies' resentful nationalism still makes them harder to deal with than their more brutal, but less unpredictable, Communist predecessors.
Given that military confrontation would be extremely dangerous, the best formula might still be the one framed by the US diplomat George Kennan in 1947. If China and Russia cannot be treated as friends, conflict can be managed by recognising their different interests, by constant vigilance, and by maintaining the strength of our own democratic institutions. If we are at the start of a new Cold War, so be it. The whole point of the Cold War was to ensure that a hot one would be prevented.
- Project Syndicate