CubaBrief: The New Cold War. Transitional World Order: Implications for Cuba. Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Is Not the Cuban Missile Crisis

Putin-Xi announced a new anti-democratic alliance in February 2022.

Freedom House in their Freedom in the World 2022 report charted 16 years of democratic decline globally, and with it the expansion of authoritarian rule. CFC’s current executive director first highlighted this continuing trend in 2010 and again in 2013 at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. 12 years ago the role of China in undermining international human rights standards was already well established. Council of Foreign Relations member Joshua Kurlantzick on February 18, 2010 had an article published in Newsweek titled “The Downfall of Human Rights that stated “growing aid from China makes it easier for lesser autocracies to dismiss Western pressure on human rights.”

The Cuban government was also at the vanguard of working to undermine international human rights standards. On March 28, 2008 the Cuban delegation, together with the Organization of the Islamic Congress, successfully passed resolutions that turned the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression into an investigator into abuses of freedom of expression. Less than a year later, on February 2, 2009 during the first Universal Periodic Review of China, Cuban Ambassador, Juan Antonio Fernández Palacios, recommended that China repress human rights defenders with more firmness making a mockery out of the human rights instrument.

Now after 16 years of human rights and democracy undermined globally, the world faces a worsening crisis that threatens a global conflagration. It is also a challenge for the Cuban pro-democracy movement at a time when internally the Cuban dictatorship has been at its most vulnerable.

Elliott Abrams  wrote in National Review on March 3, 2022 about “The New Cold War“, and described a threat greater than any in the 20th Century. 

“Neither Germany nor Japan nor the combination of the two constituted a peer rival to the United States. But what if Nazi Germany and Japan had maintained an alliance with the USSR? That is the risk presented when a fully rearmed, aggressive Russia and a rich, aggressive, and technologically advanced China tell us that the inter­national order that has lasted since 1945 must end, and American predominance with it. Consider the Putin–Xi Jinping joint statement made on February 4: “The new inter-State relations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era. Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation . . .” This is a clear announcement of a new alliance meant to go beyond the Cold War — in part by creating a partnership that will lead to a very different outcome this time.”

Communist China, Putin’s Russia and their allies in Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and elsewhere are actively hostile to democratic norms and the rule of law. The above mentioned February 4, 2022 statement and the expansion of the war in Ukraine twenty days later indicates that the liberal international order that sought to outlaw wars of imperial conquest and the taking of territory is under sustained attack. The statement also indicates that Putin and Xi would like to replace it with one where free peoples can be conquered and subjugated, but where democracy cannot prosper.  Abrams describes it as a “new Brezhnev Doctrine”:

“Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions, intend to counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext, oppose colour revolutions, and will increase cooperation in the aforementioned areas.” The old doctrine said no country could leave the Soviet camp; now Russia and China are insisting that no dictatorship anywhere near their borders can free itself or join the democratic, pro-U.S. camp. The frontiers of freedom can be breached, but they may never be expanded.

This can be seen in Cuba, where according to Dr. Evan Ellis, “Chinese digital support included systems provided by Huawei to the Cuban telecommunications firm ETECSA, [were] used to help cut off and isolate those protesting against the regime in July 2021.” This quote was taken from his article “Transitional World Order: Implications For Latin America And The Caribbean” published in the March 30, 2022 edition of Diálogo Americas.  In this article he asserts that “the war in Ukraine highlights the profound shift in global security dynamics that has been underway for some time. It is partially a product of the reinforcing effects of an increasingly powerful China that pursues its own economic and strategic interests and empowers a diverse group of illiberal actors.” Echoing the argument presented by Abrams in National Review.

However, Ellis argues that it is “very different from the competing ideological-political-military blocks that characterized the Cold War and is arguably not the product of conscious design by the PRC or any single one of the actors empowered by engaging with it.”

Nevertheless Ellis finds the outcome of this “profound shift in global security dynamics” will likely ” weaken the functionality of the political and economic institutions that have underpinned the global order since the end of World War II. As seen in this work, they are also likely to lead to increased violence and even a renewed race to acquire conventional and nuclear arms in a world that is less prosperous, less secure, and more divided.”

This is a moment that requires clear thinking and analysis.

In 1962 Soviets placed ICBMs in Cuba that could reach the following targets in minutes.

For example, trying to equate Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is lazy at best, or Russian disinformation at worst.

On January 16, 2022 in an OpEd published in The Miami Herald, Frank Calzon and John Suarez, described such comparisons as deceivingTom Piatak writing for the paleoconservative publication Chronicles Magazine on March 29, 2022 in the article “Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Is Not the Cuban Missile Crisis” highlighted one constant between 1962 and 2022, and that was that “according to the Miami Herald, Communist Cuba has again taken the side of Russia and blames that country’s aggressive behavior in Ukraine on American imperialism.” He makes the argument that the imperialist is Putin.

“The Center for Eastern European Democracy has pointed out how dissimilar Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ukraine posed no threat to Russia, much less an imminent threat. There are no NATO nukes in Ukraine aimed at Moscow, so the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1962, is a weak parallel. The NATO membership argument also demonstrates how dissimilar Russian’ invasion of Ukraine is with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Regarding the “threat” of Ukraine joining NATO, Putin knew, when he ordered his invasion, that there was no prospect of Ukraine joining NATO—he was given assurances by EU leaders before the invasion, and the West’s unwillingness to send troops to defend Ukraine demonstrated how meaningless it joining the NATO military alliance would be. Every president from Johnson to Bush Sr. accepted Cuba’s alliance with the Soviets; none threatened to invade Cuba to end that alliance, and none maintained that Cuba belonged to the United States and that Cubans were actually just another type of American, with no right to a political existence of their own.”

The Castro regime abstained from condemning Putin’s imperial venture into Ukraine, and through Havana’s propaganda networks sought to advance and justify the Russian narrative that the invasion and destruction of Ukraine was a “military operation” seeking to “denazify” the country. Castro regime apologists that look at U.S.- Cuba relations through the prism of anti-imperialism should take a closer look at events in Ukraine, and the Cuban response. Consider that at the height of the Cold War when nuclear war was a real possibility that the Americans never made the claims the Russians are making today in Ukraine. Piatak highlights the stark differences between the two countries in dealing with a hostile neighbor.

“In fact, although America objected to the Soviets placing missiles in Cuba, the Kennedy administration never threatened Cuban nationhood to stop the Cubans from allying with the Soviets. Yet, to justify his invasion, Putin claimed that Ukraine belonged to Russia, that Ukrainians were just another type of Russian, and that Ukrainians had no right to a political existence apart from Russia. That these are lies is proved, conclusively, by the reaction the Ukrainians have given the Russian invaders.” 

Dr. Evan Ellis argues, in the above mentioned article, that the world today is divided into three overlapping groups of states.

  1. Core states of the legacy liberal order, such as the United States, the European Union, Japan, and regimes that adhere to principles with concepts of democracy, free markets, transparency, and rule of law.

  2. Core states of the illiberal counter-order, including China as the principal economic engine and a diverse array of states of different sizes, ideologies, and modes of economic or criminal organization empowered by it, from Russia to Iran to Venezuela and North Korea.

  3. States of the “grey zone,” which continue to participate to varying degrees in the political, economic, and legal institutions of the liberal international order while also wishing to secure benefits from Chinese engagement. For this reason, and for different reasons of principle and calculations of interest, states in this third group may refuse to condemn and may engage with the PRC and other states of the illiberal counter-order to varying degrees.

Cuba under the Castros is a core state in the illiberal counter-order that through its military and intelligence apparatus is actively working with Russia, and China to expand this order and undermine democratic institutions and the rule of law wherever possible.  The Castro regime during the Cold War had this role, and when the Soviet Union collapsed, it regrouped with anti-democratic forces in 1991 to plot the restoration of what was lost in the Sao Paulo Forum with the assistance of Brazil’s Lula Da Silva. The Cuban dictatorship has repeatedly demonstrated that it is not anti-imperialist, but it is anti-democratic, anti-human rights, and anti-rule of law. The only time Cuba’s relationship with Russia cooled was when Soviet and later Russian leadership experimented with openness, and democratic reforms in the mid to late 1980s and 1990s. 

Vladimir Putin and Raul Castro embrace. Xi Jinping and Raul Castro embrace

Now is the time to identify allies, adversaries, and neutral parties in this great struggle for freedom and human rights. The stakes as we are seeing today in Ukraine are existential.

Diálogo Americas, March 30, 2022

The Transitional World Order: Implications for Latin America and the Caribbean

Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas. (Edwin Montilva/Reuters)

By Dr. Evan Ellis
March 30, 2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—indirectly underwritten by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and with the Western response hampered by the threat of nuclear war—highlights a world transitioning away from the institutional, economic, and ideological order that has prevailed since the end of World War II. The transition will have significant and grave implications, and its dynamics are likely to be uneven, with the U.S. and democratic, market-oriented states likely to be some of the most adversely affected.

“World order,” if “order” is an artificial and imprecise yet useful label to understand a block of time in the complex interaction between states and other actors as their relative power shifts, and in the context of competing ideas about political, economic, and other forms of organization that come to dominate in different parts of the globe at different moments. Although the “world order” is thus constantly in transition, it is possible to identify when an alternative fundamentally challenges the dominant cluster of states, ideas, and institutions. The transition currently underway from the “liberal world order,” which has substantially prevailed since World War II, is a product of the rise of China and its largely inadvertent empowerment of a disparate group of other challengers with interests in seeing the weakening of the legacy international system. That shift has far-reaching implications that liberal nations can navigate but cannot easily “stop.”

The currently ebbing liberal order had two defining moments: first, the Allied victory in World War II facilitated the establishment of the current array of global economic and political institutions, such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank which created the framework for the contemporary world’s economic and informational interdependence. Second, the U.S. “victory” in the Cold War replaced the main competing political-economic construct with a temporary, if imperfect, consensus, accelerating the process of “globalization” that flowered as a product of the information technology revolution which occurred concurrently.

The Transitional World Order

The economic and informational interdependence that flowered following the end of the Cold War period also helped stimulate resistance to the prevailing order. Examples include leftist, populist movements that fed on the inability of the prevailing order to solve endemic corruption and inequality, as well as Islamic extremism and other radical responses to the increased visibility of cosmopolitan and secular values in the increasingly hyperconnected world. At the same time, for frustrated populations and excluded groups of all types, that connectivity provided vehicles for sharing their disillusionment and coordinating responses, both politically and violently. However, in this disparate array of responses to an imperfect liberal order, the PRC became the “game-changer.”

Unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, even as PRC economic, military, and institutional power expanded, it did not deliberately promote an alternative system of economic and political organization and values to challenge the liberal order or its chief geopolitical rival, the United States. Rather, China’s remarkable growth, economic modernization, technological base, and military led it to engage with and economically underwrite a range of illiberal actors, even as it continued to engage with the more traditional states of the liberal order. It was thus China’s resources, provided in pursuit of its own benefit, without consideration for the “rules” of the prevailing liberal order, that helped to create the conditions in which mid-level powers such as Russia, also helped by the possession of nuclear weapons, could act in aggressive ways that fundamentally undermine liberal world order norms of territorial integrity and the rule of law.

The Challenge to the Legacy Liberal Order

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exposed and accelerated the fracturing of the legacy world order, it is only one particularly grave manifestation of a broader, more destructive dynamic. At the core of the emerging alternate order is a mutually beneficial interaction between an increasingly wealthy and powerful PRC, working to restructure global economic and political relations to its own benefit, and a disparate grouping of other actors indirectly empowered in part by Chinese resources. Those actors each have very different interests and objectives, but all benefit to some degree from the weakening of the legacy order, its associated institutions, cooperation, transparency, and rule of law.

The PRC and the diverse group of actors with which it shares a symbiotic relationship, empowered by and benefitting the PRC, may be termed the “illiberal counter-order.

The challenge presented by the “illiberal counter-order” is very different from that posed during the Cold War by the Soviet Union. The latter attempted to impose a single alternative world system based on the singular political-economic organizing principle of Communism. Although the PRC generally welcomes others embracing its statist authoritarian development example, it strategically orients its principle objectives toward the continuity, security, and wealth of the Communist-Party-led Chinese state. To that end, the PRC demands its partners’ silence—and ideally their support—with respect to PRC actions toward its population and China’s near abroad. Such demands include silence about or support regarding PRC exertion of political and informational control over its population, its suppression of democracy and violation of its international commitments regarding Hong Kong, its internment of more than two million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, its claim over Taiwan, and its assertion of maritime claims in the South and East China Seas. In the economic sphere, the PRC expects favorable treatment of its companies and nationals. The PRC also expects compliance with the terms of agreements with its government and companies—even when those agreements have been secured through asymmetrical bargaining on terms highly disadvantageous to the partner nation—and regardless of whether such agreements provided the hoped-for benefits to the partner.

In the PRC’s Faustian bargain, China is generally indifferent regarding its counterpart’s political system, whether its partner mistreats its people, and whether it violates its own laws, constitution, and commitment to others, so long as the partner does not criticize or work against the PRC in the previously mentioned areas of China’s core interests, and so long as its partner respects the interests of and commitments to Chinese companies. In exchange, the PRC is willing to make its considerable resources available.

In Latin America, Chinese money has played a key role in supporting the economic viability of populist regimes such as Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, Ecuador under Rafael Correa, Bolivia under Evo Morales, and Argentina under the Peronists; as each sought to consolidate power, change constitutions and legal structures to their benefit, decrease cooperation with Western governments and institutions, and move against the free press and private sector. In turn, as these populist regimes consolidated power, they provided benefits to China through access to resources, often through non-transparent state-to-state deals on terms highly favoring to the PRC, with lucrative side deals for elites connected to the populist regimes.

The PRC has thus contributed to the survival of illiberal populist regimes as they consolidated power by providing them with resources for their economies, as well as the opportunity for “corruption” money to pay off regime supporters through the deals. In addition, the PRC also sold these aligned regimes security equipment, such as the armored vehicles used by the Maduro regime to repress protesters and exclude the democratically elected Congress from the National Assembly in 2020. It also supplied the digital capability to control populations, such as the Fatherland Identity Card system provided by ZTE to the Venezuelan regime. The Maduro regime requires the card for voting, receiving scarce government-supplied food rations, and vaccines. Other examples include Chinese-style surveillance state capabilities such as ECU-911 in EcuadorBOL-110 in Bolivia, and support provided to the Venezuelan government by CEIEC for spying on the democratic opposition. In Cuba, Chinese digital support included systems provided by Huawei to the Cuban telecommunications firm ETECSA, used to help cut off and isolate those protesting against the regime in July 2021.

In evaluating the wisdom and sustainability of PRC behavior, some Western analysts mistakenly apply conventional metrics for evaluating risk, believing that the demonstrated lack of reliability and economic unsustainability of the actions of illiberal regimes make PRC commitments of resources to them imprudent. Such analyses, however, overlook the ability of the PRC to leverage a combination of legal mechanisms and the dependence of partner regimes on the PRC as the “supporter of last resort” to ensure the repayment of Chinese debt. Indeed, of the more than USD $62 billion lent by the PRC to Venezuela, the Maduro regime was obliged to repay all but $19 billion to the Chinese, even as it defaulted on virtually all of its other obligations.

While the PRC may not seek to promote taking power by subversion, as the Soviet Union did during the Cold War, the proliferation of illiberal regimes strategically benefits China in multiple ways. On one hand, such regimes generally provide resources to and conduct transactions with PRC-based companies on terms highly beneficial to China. This dynamic reflects the favorable political orientation of these regimes toward the PRC, their willingness to do “state-to-state” deals, and their lack of other alternatives as their policies lead them to sanctions or otherwise exclusion from the private financing and multinational investment institutions of the liberal order. The favorable terms secured by the PRC with illiberal regimes also reflect the decreasing transparency of these regimes before domestic and international oversight, as well as the shakeup and politicization of their institutions as new populist governments consolidate power, impeding their ability to negotiate effectively with the PRC and its companies. As noted previously, the PRC further benefits from expanded opportunities to sell its products to these regimes, including its military and other security equipment, as well as surveillance and control architectures. Indeed, the authoritarian nature of partner regimes often makes them willing to sell services that are far more invasive to the privacy of their citizens than what China can sell to democratic governments who are more sensitive to the privacy rights of their citizens.

One of the greatest indirect strategic benefits to the PRC of illiberal regimes is that their partner countries’ pursuit of anti-liberal interests, whether ideological, criminal, religious, or otherwise motivated, weakens and distracts China’s principal Western rivals such as the U.S. and the European Union. At the same time, China continues to benefit from doing business with those same rivals. The PRC can thus claim plausible independence from the actions of the illiberal partners it funds and empowers.

In Latin America, authoritarian regimes are consolidating their power in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Elsewhere in the region, an unprecedented number of governments have come to power with varying degrees of troubling authoritarian tendencies, including the Peronist government of Alberto and Cristina Fernández in Argentina, the MAS government of Luis Arce in Bolivia, and the Morena government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in Mexico. In Honduras, the leftist populist government of Xiomara Castro has initially adopted a relatively democratic posture—including a professed disposition to fight against corruption—yet a maneuver within the Libre party to defect from the President-elect’s wishes and impose an alternate speaker in the new Congress suggests the risks posed by internal anti-democratic elements within the movement. Similarly, the left-of-center government coalition of Gabriel Boric in Chile, which includes a key role for the Chilean Communist Party, has shown itself as democratic, yet some of the more radical concepts posed by the Constituent Assembly currently drafting a new Chilean constitution, coupled with the potential of self-inflicted economic and fiscal crises, highlight the risks from such the emergent political configurations in the region.

The probable victory of former M-19 guerilla Gustavo Petro in Colombia’s May elections, and the likely victory of Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva (Lula) in Brazil’s October elections, similarly pose additional opportunities for anti-democratic elements aligned with both to move those key South American countries toward participating in the illiberal counter-order.

In El Salvador, the rightist populist regime of Nayib Bukele has also increasingly taken controversial actions in protecting and advancing its power, including occupying the National Assembly with the armed forces in February 2020, and firing the Attorney General and five supreme court justices who represented a perceived threat to his rule, while becoming increasingly reliant on Chinese resources to financially compensate for his defiance of Western institutions.

In Latin America, as elsewhere, the economic and fiscal stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, and more recently, the adverse effects of Russia’s Ukraine invasion on the global economy, compound longstanding popular frustrations with corruption and poor government performance. These concurrent developments, in turn, proliferate opportunities for the election of more populist governments who are open to leveraging Chinese resources to maintain the viability of their regimes as they consolidate power. Thus, the economic stresses of COVID-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, coupled with Chinese money, is a reinforcing loop that threatens to expand the illiberal counter-order further.

Dysfunctional Dynamics and Contagion

The dynamics of the emerging illiberal counter-order are arguably destabilizing and dangerous for all states, democratic or otherwise, due to the economic, informational, and other interdependencies in the international system. Specifically, the elimination of transparency and accountability by illiberal regimes to their populations; the associated self-exclusion by these regimes from cooperating with Western oversight, law enforcement, and technical institutions; and the tendency in illiberal governments to replace professionals with political loyalists collectively propels illiberal regimes toward economically self-destructive populist policies, corruption, and criminality with severe adverse effects on neighbors and business partners. In Venezuela, for example, the consolidation of power by Chavistas correlated with the gradual collapse of the Venezuelan petroleum industry (even before the imposition of significant U.S. sanctions beginning in 2020) and the growth of powerful criminal structures within the country. These structures include Venezuela’s military-affiliated “Cartel of the Suns” narcotrafficking organization, the growth of illegal mining in the Orinoco river basin, and the generalized spread of “pranes” or prison gangs, and other organizations such as the “sindicatos,” making the greater Caracas areas one of the most insecure areas in Latin America. Such poorly governed spaces, created opportunities for, and gave shelter to, criminal and terrorist groups in neighboring Colombia, such as criminally-focused dissidents from the FARC and the ELN, among others.

In short, while Chinese money may help illiberal regimes consolidate power and continue their rule, it inadvertently also breeds economic dysfunction and criminality in those countries. Moreover, the associated criminal patterns social stresses also affect the “infected” country’s neighbors through commerce, refugee flows, and other interactions.

Because of the nature of the contest between the decaying liberal system and the illiberal counter-order, the incidence of conflicts like Ukraine are likely to grow, as well as other system-stressing events like migration and criminality. Such challenges will help to spread the illiberal counter-order in the coming years. Other stresses, including further pandemics and the effects of climate change which, although not caused by China and the illiberal counter-order, are also likely to compound the spread. Such socioeconomic pressures, in turn, will further increase pressures on weakly performing democratic systems to polarize and embrace populist solutions.

The Nuclear Dimension and the Use of Military Force

Despite the proliferation of conflict, the proliferation of nuclear weapons—and concerns about nuclear war—will likely prevent states of the residual liberal order from responding with force to aggression by regimes of the illiberal counter-order in all but the most exceptional circumstances. As seen by Western restraint against Russian aggression in Ukraine, now and future attempts to reduce the risk of escalation to a nuclear conflict will impede formulating coalitions to respond to actions by aggressor states militarily.

At the same time, the success of Russia’s nuclear weapons in preventing NATO from responding to its invasion of Ukraine with force, combined with the role of the PRC as an alternative partner for sanctioned illiberal regimes, may encourage other illiberal states to employ the threat of military force as a viable tool for pursuing their strategic objectives, presuming they believe they can employ their military more effectively than Russia has.

The demonstrated contribution of Russia’s nuclear weapons is that Western restraint will likely also encourage illiberal regimes to obtain or retain nuclear weapons as a tool that prevents coalitions of liberal states from responding militarily as predatory illiberal regimes use force to pursue their objectives against weaker actors.

In short, the demonstration effect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, even though substantially unsuccessful, may increase the proclivity of illiberal states to employ or acquire nuclear weapons, giving new life to the importance of arms and alliances as necessary tools to resist the advances of neighbors.

Decoupling of the Global Order

A key strategic byproduct of the rise of the “illiberal counter-order” is likely to be an accelerated “decoupling” between states associated with the liberal order and illiberal counter-order. Much of this decoupling is self-imposed, with populist regimes using ideological justifications to withdraw from participation in supposedly oppressive Western financial institutions such as the IMF or World Bank, restrict law enforcement cooperation with institutions such as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, or impede financial cooperation and oversight through institutions such as the Financial Action Task Force and Egmont Group of Financial Intelligence Units.

In practical terms, such exclusion is often self-serving, protecting increasingly corrupt regimes from the oversight or reach of such entities. At the same time, however, liberal governments also drive decoupling, as they apply financial and other sanctions against illiberal regimes for their violations of rules and commitments—illustrated by Western sanctions against Venezuela, Iran, and most recently, against Russia, to include the suspension of key Russian banks from the SWIFT currency clearing system. Such actions, in turn, stimulate the construction of separate parallel structures outside the liberal order. Russia’s partial exclusion from SWIFT, for example, not only has obligated it to work with the Chinese and others to establish alternative interbank clearing mechanisms, but also leads China and other actors to recognize demonstrated vulnerabilities and diversify away from the mechanisms of the liberal order, in anticipation of the day when they too could be subject to sanctions.

The ”defensive” impulses of both liberal governments and regimes of the illiberal counter-order also drive decoupling. For example, in digital technologies, as liberal Western states increasingly see the PRC and others as adversaries, they expand the exclusion of Chinese vendors such as Huawei, Hikivision, and others from digital architectures in areas such as telecommunications, data centers, smart cities, and e-commerce.

At the same time, illiberal regimes are similarly constructing barriers and tools to control their own digital architectures to monitor communications within their population that could challenge the regime, including by filtering external news and social media content.

The result of such actions, whether self-exclusion or reactionary steps, is the accelerated, multidimensional “decoupling” between the residual liberal order and the emerging illiberal counter-order. Even while the illiberal counter-order will continue as highly heterogeneous in ideological and other terms, decoupling will create the illusion of two semi-coherent competing blocks.

In the political domain, the world will increasingly become divided into three, not two, overlapping groupings:

  1. Core states of the legacy liberal order, such as the United States, the European Union, Japan, and regimes that adhere to principles with concepts of democracy, free markets, transparency, and rule of law.

  2. Core states of the illiberal counter-order, including China as the principal economic engine and a diverse array of states of different sizes, ideologies, and modes of economic or criminal organization empowered by it, from Russia to Iran to Venezuela and North Korea.

  3. States of the “grey zone,” which continue to participate to varying degrees in the political, economic, and legal institutions of the liberal international order while also wishing to secure benefits from Chinese engagement. For this reason, and for different reasons of principle and calculations of interest, states in this third group may refuse to condemn and may engage with the PRC and other states of the illiberal counter-order to varying degrees.

Conclusions

The war in Ukraine highlights the profound shift in global security dynamics that has been underway for some time. It is partially a product of the reinforcing effects of an increasingly powerful China that pursues its own economic and strategic interests and empowers a diverse group of illiberal actors. The new dynamic is very different from the competing ideological-political-military blocks that characterized the Cold War and is arguably not the product of conscious design by the PRC or any single one of the actors empowered by engaging with it. The results of this dynamic, nonetheless, are transformational. They are likely to weaken the functionality of the political and economic institutions that have underpinned the global order since the end of World War II. As seen in this work, they are also likely to lead to increased violence and even a renewed race to acquire conventional and nuclear arms in a world that is less prosperous, less secure, and more divided.

The good news is that such a future is not inevitable. Nonetheless, there are no ready-made policy remedies for this challenge. Rather, political and economic leaders and other strategic planners must assess the risks and plan for the possible new reality.

Evan Ellis is a Latin America Research Professor with the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. The views expressed in this work are his own, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Government.

https://dialogo-americas.com/articles/the-transitional-world-order-implications-for-latin-america-and-the-caribbean/#.YkRxbjUpDIU


Chronicles Magazine, March 29, 2022

Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Is Not the Cuban Missile Crisis

By Tom Piatak

Cuban Missile Crisis weapons exposition in Havana, Cuba (Martin Trolle Mikkelsen / via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Twenty years ago, we traditional conservatives, paleoconservatives, members of the dissident right—whatever you want to call us—had perhaps our finest hour. With the nation still looking to avenge 9/11, a number of powerful people who had been scheming to invade Iraq long before 9/11 used that tragedy to plunge America into a disastrous war of choice. 

Few other conservatives of any stripe spoke in opposition to a preemptive war against a nation that had nothing to do with 9/11 and was no threat to America. Those of us who did speak out were denounced as “unpatriotic conservatives” on the cover of National Review by a man who has never been an American patriot and who no longer even pretends to be a conservative.  

Twenty years later, there is a near-universal consensus that we were right about Iraq, and no one questions our patriotism for having opposed that unnecessary and unjust preemptive war.

On Feb. 24, 2022, a different nation launched another preemptive war. Once again, the country attacked posed no threat to the attacker. Once again, the war was entirely one of choice. But this time, far fewer people in my corner of the right—particularly on social media—offered much beyond pro forma criticism of the nation starting this preemptive war. Indeed, the attacking nation, Russia, was portrayed as a victim or even a hero by some (such as Padraig Martin at Occidental Dissent), while others, such as retired Army Colonel Douglas MacGregor, said that the U.S. should stop encouraging Ukrainians to resist their stronger neighbor. “We should stop shipping weapons and encouraging Ukrainians to die in what is a hopeless endeavor,” MacGregor said on Fox News on Feb. 27.  

But one thing has remained the same. According to Miami Herald, Communist Cuba has again taken the side of Russia and blames that country’s aggressive behavior in Ukraine on American imperialism. We are again reminded of how the U.S. reacted to the installation of a Communist regime in Cuba, and some have drawn a parallel between American actions against Castro’s government as a Soviet proxy and Russian actions against Ukraine’s government as a NATO proxy. Supposedly Putin is protecting his country against his enemies by invading a hostile Ukraine, just as the U.S. reacted to the establishment of a Soviet outpost in Cuba.

The Center for Eastern European Democracy has pointed out how dissimilar Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ukraine posed no threat to Russia, much less an imminent threat. There are no NATO nukes in Ukraine aimed at Moscow, so the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1962, is a weak parallel. 

The NATO membership argument also demonstrates how dissimilar Russian’ invasion of Ukraine is with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Regarding the “threat” of Ukraine joining NATO, Putin knew, when he ordered his invasion, that there was no prospect of Ukraine joining NATO—he was given assurances by EU leaders before the invasion, and the West’s unwillingness to send troops to defend Ukraine demonstrated how meaningless it joining the NATO military alliance would be. Every president from Johnson to Bush Sr. accepted Cuba’s alliance with the Soviets; none threatened to invade Cuba to end that alliance, and none maintained that Cuba belonged to the United States and that Cubans were actually just another type of American, with no right to a political existence of their own. 

In fact, although America objected to the Soviets placing missiles in Cuba, the Kennedy administration never threatened Cuban nationhood to stop the Cubans from allying with the Soviets. Yet, to justify his invasion, Putin claimed that Ukraine belonged to Russia, that Ukrainians were just another type of Russian, and that Ukrainians had no right to a political existence apart from Russia. That these are lies is proved, conclusively, by the reaction the Ukrainians have given the Russian invaders.  

America did assist the Cuban exiles who landed at the Bay of Pigs, but that is analogous to Russia’s support for the separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk. Battalions of marines did not wade through the surf at the Bay of Pigs, nor did American jets come to the rescue of the Cuban exiles once the Communists started overrunning them.

It is very difficult to see an ending to this war that would leave Russia or traditional conservatism or traditional Christianity in a stronger position than before it began. The decision to invade was made by one man and one man alone. That decision has already cost thousands of lives, both Russian and Ukrainian; devastated cities, towns, and villages; and displaced some 10 million people. A conservative case for Putin could, perhaps, be made before Feb. 24; none can be made now. As Robert Burns wrote in a different context, “leave a man undone, to his fate.”

That is not to say that there are not many valid points for us on the dissident right to make:

  • Many of the sanctions being imposed promise to do nothing other than impoverish ordinary people, including ordinary Americans.

  • The fact that the Europeans clearly have the means and manpower to defend themselves from Putin’s underperforming army should bolster calls for us to withdraw from NATO, a withdrawal that should have occurred in 1991, after NATO had successfully completed the task for which it was created.

  • President Biden comes across as reckless as Putin, seemingly willing to seek “regime change” in a Moscow that still has a formidable nuclear arsenal at its disposal.

Unfortunately, any criticism of Putin’s actions on the dissident right tends to be met with the charge that one is a dupe of the Western globalists, who set up Ukraine as a corrupt puppet state to oppose the traditionalist and Christian Russia. One should be able to take a more nuanced view, especially of a war we are not even in, without having one’s loyalty to the American nation questioned.

https://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/blog/russia-s-invasion-of-ukraine-is-not-the-cuban-missile-crisis/

Pressure Points, March 3, 2022

The New Cold War

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and partnership with Xi have forced the United States into a new Cold War. Can the United States gain victory this time?

Blog Post by Elliott Abrams via National Review

By ELLIOTT ABRAMS

March 3, 2022

THE NEW COLD WAR

Only the oldest Americans have memories of the 1930s, when German and Japanese power threatened war in both Europe and the Pacific. In those years Americans well recalled the earlier “Great War” and wanted no repeat of it. Isolationism was strong and the Roosevelt administration trod carefully in building American defenses and offering help to allies. Even when war began in Europe in 1939, America stood back until it was directly attacked. 

The coming decades may resemble the 1930s more than any other period since. Whether they will lead to a peaceful contest or a conflict that tests the nation as much as or more than did the Second World War is the awful question we now face. 

We are not ready — militarily, politically, or psychologically — for the prolonged crisis ahead of us. Vast American productivity, wealth, and power overwhelmed Germany in both the First and the Second World War, and Japan in the latter. We were certain of victory, and our allies knew that once we entered the war, the outcome was not in doubt. 

In the Cold War, Russia rivaled us in military power but — though many analysts vastly overstated the size of the Soviet economy — its communist system meant that it could never keep up. The gap in wealth and technological pro­gress grew by the decade. Still, Russia and Soviet communism posed a great challenge, and the “Cold” War saw tens of thousands of American deaths in Korea and Vietnam. Russia seemed to be steadily gaining ground geopolitically by the end of the 1970s, but Ronald Reagan led a resurgence of American military and economic power and determination, and a decade later the Soviet Union fell. For 30 years now, Americans have been able to fight the dangerous but not existential threat from terrorism without much worry about the shape of the world our children will live in. 

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not an attack on the United States, and in that sense is perhaps more like the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 than like Pearl Harbor: a sharp announcement that all bets are off. Like 9/11, it tells us that the world is far more dangerous than we have wanted to believe. Even many Americans who saw China as the great challenge of the 21st century often thought we could simply draw back from Europe and the Middle East and turn to the Pacific again. A look at U.S. defense spending confirms our relaxed view of the threats we faced: Spending was 9 per­cent of GDP in 1960 and then fell to under 5 percent in the late 1970s. The Reagan buildup raised it to 6.6 percent by 1986, but then it fell again: under 6 percent, then under 5, then down to 4, then under 4 percent from 2014 to 2020. 

Today we face challenges to U.S. interests that are growing each year and may actually be greater than those of the 20th century. Neither Germany nor Japan nor the combination of the two constituted a peer rival to the United States. But what if Nazi Germany and Japan had maintained an alliance with the USSR? That is the risk presented when a fully rearmed, aggressive Russia and a rich, aggressive, and technologically advanced China tell us that the inter­national order that has lasted since 1945 must end, and American predominance with it. 

Consider the Putin–Xi Jinping joint statement made on February 4: “The new inter-State relations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era. Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation . . .” This is a clear announcement of a new alliance meant to go beyond the Cold War — in part by creating a partnership that will lead to a very different outcome this time. 

Moreover, Putin and Xi announced a new Brezhnev Doctrine: “Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions, intend to counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext, oppose colour revolutions, and will increase cooperation in the aforementioned areas.” The old doctrine said no country could leave the Soviet camp; now Russia and China are insisting that no dictatorship anywhere near their borders can free itself or join the democratic, pro-U.S. camp. The frontiers of freedom can be breached, but they may never be expanded. 

In fact, the invasion of Ukraine is step four for Putin, after Georgia, Crimea, and Donbas, invasions done under U.S. administrations of both parties over a decade and a half. Had we reacted more strongly in those cases, had we imposed severe costs, the Ukraine invasion would likely not have occurred. Putin learned a lesson; so should we. 

This challenge will test our nation to its core. The first and quick U.S. reaction to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine should be to understand that aggression will be repeated unless it incurs a heavy price. Before we turn to addressing the next decades, we should address the coming months. Putin must learn that crime does not pay, or else he will try it again — even against NATO countries we are pledged to defend. If we are cowed by his threats against “interference” and his warning that Russia is a “powerful nuclear state,” we are telling him that we will not stop him from reestablishing Russian domination over all of Eastern Europe — the Soviet empire rebuilt. Russia’s economy, finances, and energy exports are weapons for Putin, and we should be acting more forcefully now to weaken all of them. What’s more, doing so will show the Russian people — who did not ask for and may oppose killing thousands of Ukrainians — that their leader is going down a path that will lead to harm for them and their country. The more Russia is penalized for this aggression, the shorter may be Putin’s years in power. His plan is to be “president for life,” but that plan may not work out if the invasion of Ukraine is seen to be a hugely dangerous gamble that failed. 

That means a permanent refusal to recognize Putin’s conquest and the quisling government he may install. The United States refused to recognize Stalin’s 1940 annexation of the Baltic states, even as decade after decade rolled by. The same adamant refusal should govern here, however long it takes for Ukraine to be free again. And real resistance to Putin means backing a Ukrainian resistance and supplying it with the money and weapons it will need to bleed Putin. Facing a determined and effective Ukrainian insurgency is the best way Russians may come to conclude that Putin’s gamble has been a disaster — and turn against him. 

This will be very difficult. For one thing, that resistance needs to be based someplace, and that place (Poland makes the most sense geographically) will face attack by Putin; it will need strong and unwavering American support. Rhetoric is nice, money is better, but steel is best: American forces in Europe must be redeployed east, to protect the nations that have borders with Russia and (now) Ukraine. Having our troops and armor sitting in Germany now makes little sense. 

The second reaction should be to rally all our allies, across the globe, which will not act unless led by the United States. Putin has just one ally of any importance in his Ukraine attack — China. Putin and Xi have each other in the sense that they have a common enemy in us, but they should remind us of Hitler and Stalin in the days of the Nazi–Soviet pact: murderers finding temporary advantage. This is not an alliance based on trust. By contrast, the United States has since the Second World War been the creator and beneficiary of a vast system of alliances based on fundamental common interests and common values, something the Soviets never had and Russia and China do not have today. Most of our own allies have stepped forward already, but willpower may wane over time. Maintaining unity will require both serious U.S. action and constant effort to keep allies on board; George Shultz likened diplomacy to gardening in its requirement for endless and re­petitive effort. 

However well the United States reacts to the invasion of Ukraine in the coming weeks, over the medium and long term the United States must take advantage of every asset we have or can create when facing Russia and China. 

There will be no substitute for military strength, and we do not have enough. It should be crystal clear now that a larger percentage of GDP will need to be spent on defense. We will need more conventional strength in ships and planes. We will need to match the Chinese in advanced military technology, but at the other end of the spectrum, we may need many more tanks if we have to station thousands in Europe, as we did during the Cold War. (The total number of American tanks permanently stationed in Europe today is zero.) Persistent efforts to diminish even further the size of our nuclear arsenal or prevent its modernization were always bad ideas, but now, as China and Russia are modernizing their nuclear weaponry and appear to have no interest in negotiating new limits, such restraints should be completely abandoned. Our nuclear arsenal will need to be modernized and expanded so that we will never face the kinds of threats Putin is now making from a position of real nuclear inferiority. 

The United States is an energy superpower and must expand this strength. The point is obvious: As we were once and will need again to be the arsenal of democracy, we must also try to be its fuel depot. We cannot supply all allied needs, but we can supply ourselves and influence the allies who constitute the bulk of world production aside from Russia. Foolish limits on American energy production must be pulled back, especially in the next decade, while allies wean themselves off Russian energy sources. The Europeans and especially the Germans deserve condemnation for putting themselves so deeply in Russia’s hands on oil and gas, but more useful than recrimination will be helping them turn away speedily. And indeed, the Europeans appear to realize now that they must act, protecting their national security by both increasing military spending and ending energy dependence on Russia. In addition to U.S. production, other alternative sources, such as Eastern Mediterranean gas supplies from Israel, Egypt, and Cyprus, can help Europe back away from Russian energy. 

Enhancing our energy production and military strength, both of which are essential components of preparing for the new Cold War, will require a functioning political system with bipartisan cooperation on national-security issues. When Roosevelt faced the Nazi threat and when Truman faced the Soviets, they were smart enough to seek some form of bipartisan cooperation — and they got it from Republicans who put country over party when it came to national security. Roosevelt brought the Republican Henry Stimson into his cabinet as secretary of war in July 1940, before the United States was at war. Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, gave invaluable support to Truman in passing the NATO treaty in 1949 and funding the Marshall Plan. 

President Biden should consider now whether there are any steps he can take to overcome, on national-security issues, some of the deep and bitter partisanship that marks our politics today. Realistically, this will not mean multiple Republicans in his cabinet, but will he do anything? Why has he not asked all living presidents, including George W. Bush, to come to the White House very visibly for consul­tation and advice and in a show of unity? Why has he not invited in Republican leaders such as Mitch McConnell and the ranking Republicans on the House and Senate armed-services and foreign-relations committees? Why not ask former officials such as James Mattis, Condoleezza Rice, James Baker, and Robert Gates for help? Why not have a talk with Henry Kissinger? Surely President Biden does not believe that all the experience and wisdom he needs can be found in Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan — and if he does believe it, the nation does not. But even, or especially, if he refuses to bring in a new team, Biden must show the nation that he is making a real effort to remove the poison from politics when national security is at stake. 

Of course, it takes two to tango, and some Repub­licans, led by former president Trump, have in the face of crisis been irresponsible. Biden should ignore them, but Republicans should reject their partisan posturing and demand something better: patriotism. If Biden decides that his team, and his party, can go this alone, he will be making a very consequential error. Republicans should seek to advance our national interests. If the Amer­ican people then judge that it is the party of military strength and political responsibility, it will be protecting our security and also winning more elections. 

In what will now be a dangerous and lengthy struggle with Russia and China, one that may last for generations, as did the Cold War, there will be three temptations the United States must avoid. The first is to seek relief by putting our heads in the sand. For too many decades Americans have persuaded themselves that once China got rich, it would turn away from militancy and stop threatening its neighbors and brutalizing its own populace. This is clearly false, just as it is false that Putin’s demands can be negotiated into acceptable compromises. We are in an unavoidable competition with both countries, which see us as an enemy, and we can avoid the challenge only by surrendering allies and assets. Realizing this fact is the critical first step in rallying Americans to the requirements that defense of our freedom and our prosperity will impose on us. The world today is far more dangerous for us than it has been since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it will remain so while those two regimes exist. The danger cannot be wished away. 

The second and related temptation is to think there’s a shortcut in competing with China, which is to forget the rest of the world. “We are overcommitted in the Middle East and Europe,” that mantra goes; we have finite resources and need all of them for China. This is a grave error because abandoning allies and interests anywhere will weaken all our alliances everywhere. If we want allies to forgo Russian oil and gas, for example, supplies of Middle East oil and gas become that much more important, and abandoning the Middle East is impossible. What’s more, our military resources are not fixed; they are the product of budget decisions taken every year by Congress and the president. Americans must awaken from the decades-long dream that our downsized military is adequate because major interstate conflicts are impossible. We see now that they are not, and it remains true that if we want peace, we must prepare for war — in Europe and in Asia. The decision of the Obama administration to move from preparedness to fight two and a half wars to readiness for one war at a time was not sensible a decade ago, and now it is plainly dangerous. The United States cannot assume that simultaneous crises in Europe and Asia are im­possible. 

Third, we must resist the temptation to conclude that in such a dangerous world, promotion of freedom is a luxury we cannot afford. On the contrary, freedom is one of the most powerful weapons in our hands; it is what separates us morally from the Russian and Chinese regimes, and this is understood around the globe even if we sometimes ignore it. Putin and Xi understand this deeply, as their joint statements show. It helps explain why we lead global alliances while they have only marriages of convenience: Common values underlie our closest relationships and make them supple and long-lasting. Ukrainians are fighting for national sovereignty and for liberty, and they know the two are in­separable. Putin has just reminded a billion people around the world why they accept and want American leadership, and our commitment to live in liberty and allow them to do so is central to our prospects in the coming struggle. 

Reagan always understood that the Cold War was more than a conflict among states; it was even more fundamentally an ideological conflict between the forces of liberty and the powers that would snuff it out nation by nation until our own was in jeopardy. 

This new struggle has been thrust upon us by Russia and China; there is no escaping it. Strength will be rewarded and weakness will be punished. The days of easy American preponderance have come to an end; for the next few decades we will have to work hard to keep the global balance of forces from turning against us. If history is a guide, the American people will rise to the challenge as long as our own national leadership is up to the task. As we judge those who seek to lead, this is the prime test we should put to all of them.  

ELLIOTT ABRAMS — Mr. Abrams is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the chairman of the Vandenberg Coalition. 

https://www.cfr.org/blog/new-cold-war-0


From the Archives

Newsweek, February 18, 2010

The Downfall of Human Rights

Feb 18, 2010
By Joshua Kurlantzick
NEWSWEEK
Touring Asia in November, Barack Obama hit all the usual presidential themes, including free trade, investment, and strategic alliances, except for one: human rights. During a scripted press conference in Beijing, Obama barely mentioned it. In Shanghai he offered only mild criticism of China’s Internet blocks, saying he was a “big supporter of noncensorship.” Obama’s nonstatements amount to a clear break from nearly three decades of U.S. policy. From its engagement with the brutal Burmese junta to its decision to avoid the Dalai Lama when he first visited Washington during Obama’s tenure to its silence over the initial outbreak of protests in Iran, Obama’s administration has taken a much quieter approach to rights advocacy than his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. “Conceding to China upfront doesn’t buy you better cooperation further down the track,” says Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch.

Obama’s waffling was hardly unique. Across Europe, Asia, and Latin America, many democracies have abandoned global human-rights advocacy, trotting it out only for occasional speeches or events like International Human Rights Day. With the prominent exception of Canada, the developed world has fallen mum. Earlier this year European nations handed the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, one of the major organizations tasked with promoting human rights in Eurasia, to Kazakhstan, a country accused by human-rights groups of arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture. In Japan, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has promised a new dialogue with North Korea, rather than pressuring Pyongyang to first release alleged Japanese abductees. In contrast to predecessors such as Junichiro Koizumi, Hatoyama prefers a soft approach to China as well, calling for far closer ties while all but ignoring the growing climate of repression under the government of Hu Jintao. The Australian government, once known for stinging critiques of China, Burma, and other autocratic regimes, now collaborates with Indonesia and other neighbors to prevent refugees from Sri Lanka and elsewhere from entering the country, instead detaining the migrants in a Guantánamo-like camp on remote Christmas Island. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has refrained from criticizing China, even for the arrest of an Australian mining executive on what many observers see as a trumped-up spying charge. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has failed to deliver on his campaign promise to champion human rights and end the country’s old ties to African dictators. Instead of the “new relationship” with Africa that Sarkozy promised, his government has backed the new ruler of Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba, despite widespread claims of fraud in his election, and offered a state welcome to Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the general who launched a coup in Mauritania. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, the cofounder of Médecins Sans Frontières, a unique kind of human-rights organization, admitted in an interview, “There is a permanent contradiction between human rights and the foreign policy of a state.”

In the developing world, too, young democracies that once seemed ready to stand up for human rights have beat a retreat. After apartheid ended, many activists had high hopes for South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, which had benefited from a global pressure movement when it was fighting white rule. Yet the ANC has used its influence at the United Nations to protect not only the brutal regime in Zimbabwe—where South Africa has security and economic interests—but tyrants as far afield as Burma. In December, Thailand, which during the Vietnam War era sheltered tens of thousands of Indochinese refugees, forced some 3,000 Hmong back to Laos, where they could face persecution. Cambodia deported a group of Uighurs back to China, despite the fact that Uighurs previously returned to China have been executed.

The age of global human-rights advocacy has collapsed, giving way to an era of realism unseen since the time of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. In the West, the failure of George W. Bush’s moralizing style of democracy promotion, combined with the pragmatism inspired by the global financial crisis, has made leaders far more reticent to assert a high profile on rights issues. In private, Obama officials say that they deliberately took a humbler tone because of the global rejection of Bush’s claim that he was fighting in Iraq to advance the cause of democratic rights. But such a strategy, initially appreciated by countries tired of Bush, can go too far. “The administration wanted to send the message that the U.S. is listening to the world again, that they are the anti-Bush,” says one former senior State Department official, who did not want to be quoted by name criticizing his old colleagues too harshly. “Rather than saying, ‘OK, we have made some mistakes, but we are correcting them, and that doesn’t mean we are going to ignore what’s going on in Russia, or China, or Iran,’ instead they’ve just gone silent.”

And in hard times, human-rights advocacy starts to look like a luxury, particularly when some of the countries whose cooperation is critical to rebuilding the global economy, such as China and oil-rich Kazakhstan, also rank among the worst human-rights abusers. In the flush early 2000s, Tony Blair could afford to make improving governance in Africa a British government priority, but his successor, Gordon Brown, spends most of his time trying to fix Britain’s debt morass. In the U.S., the Obama administration’s domestic agenda makes it leery of alienating potential partners abroad. As Hillary Clinton said during her first visit to China as secretary of state, “Our pressing on those issues [human rights] can’t interfere with the global economic crisis.”

The changing global balance of power may now prevent human rights from ever gaining the international attention it did in the 1990s and early 2000s. At that time, leaders and techno-evangelists argued that new technologies would give human-rights campaigners an edge over repressive governments. President Clinton warned Beijing that controlling the Internet would prove as tough as “trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.” Well, consider the Jell-O nailed: even though Twitter, Facebook, and other tools have helped Iranian protesters bring their stories to the world, authoritarian governments have figured out how to monitor and block the Internet and other new tools. China’s “Great Firewall” is now so extensive that many Chinese Internet users have no idea how much information they are actually missing out on, and countries such as Saudi Arabia and Vietnam have brought in Chinese Internet specialists to learn how to build their own Great Firewalls. And in a tough business climate, few Western technology companies—or Western governments—seem willing to stand up to this Internet censorship. Google’s public condemnation of Beijing’s alleged hacking drew headlines, but another story got far less notice: no other Silicon Valley giant publicly supported Google’s stance.

Many current world leaders also happen to have strongly realist instincts, low-key demeanors, and little inclination to push the cause. Brown, Hatoyama, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh do not have the idealistic instincts and charisma of a Blair or Koizumi. While Bill Clinton’s dynamism helped him make a strong case for human rights in places such as Vietnam and China—the likes of the dour Brown cannot follow that act. In the office of the U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon is no Kofi Annan. He cuts a retiring pose, meekly leaving Burma last July after the regime refused to allow Ban to meet opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The one leader who has the popularity and flair to press the case for human rights does not have the inclination. Obama’s desire to be a consensus builder, even when dealing with brutal governments, also pushes him toward nonconfrontation. He seems to think he can find common ground with anyone, even Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il. As the historian Walter Russell Mead notes in a lengthy essay in Foreign Policy magazine, the president falls into the Jeffersonian tradition of American leaders, in that he wants to “reduce America’s costs and risks overseas by limiting U.S. commitments.” He believes “that the United States can best spread democracy and support peace by becoming an example of democracy at home.” In contrast, the heirs of Woodrow Wilson, such as John F. Kennedy, Paul Wolfowitz, and, in many ways, Bill Clinton, believed that promoting democratic values abroad helps global stability.

In most democracies, the public has also become far less interested in global human rights. In 2005 crowds around the world attended the Live 8 concerts designed to increase support for aid to Africa; though aid is not solely a human-rights issue, the concerts were a sign of the rich world’s international engagement. Don’t expect to see any Live 9. With unemployment skyrocketing, the residents of democracies have turned inward, fighting against immigration, rethinking free trade—and paying far less attention to what happens in Iran or Sudan or North Korea. One poll by the Pew Research Center, released in December, found that 49 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. should “mind its own business” internationally, leaving other nations to work out their problems themselves. That was the highest percentage of Americans expressing isolationist sentiment in four decades.

Today the lack of interest in human rights has been virtually institutionalized in Washington and other capitals. A decade ago, policymakers could move up the ladder within bureaucracies like the U.S. State Department, the British Foreign Office, or Germany’s Foreign Ministry by focusing on human rights, but today advocating for global freedom will get you nowhere. In many Western democracies, increasingly partisan politicians apply far greater scrutiny to every detail of diplomats’ records, and human-rights work requires aggressive, often controversial statements and actions—just the types of activities that could get a promotion blocked by elected legislators. When Britain’s ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, criticized that regime’s abuses (and Britain’s tolerance of them), he was recalled to London and removed from his post. Britain’s relationship with Uzbekistan was deemed critical to the war on terror, and Murray’s bosses apparently thought he was freelancing too much with his opinions. As a result, government bureaus that focus on human rights often have become dumping grounds for the weakest diplomats and places “where Foreign Service officers don’t want to serve,” according to one former staffer in that bureau.

Other structural changes bode poorly for human-rights advocacy. While the major democracies dominated the world stage in the 1990s, today autocracies like Russia and China have found that economic success can co-opt the middle class, normally the main source of support for human rights. In China, the government has boosted salaries for opinion leaders like professors, opened up membership in the Communist Party to entrepreneurs, and taken other steps to ensure that the regime’s success enriches the middle class as well. This strategy works: in polls conducted by the Pew research organization, Chinese respondents had a higher level of satisfaction with conditions in their country than almost any other people in the world. Now the autocracies are effectively exporting this model. Growing aid from China makes it easier for lesser autocracies to dismiss Western pressure on human rights. In December, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled for three decades and stands accused of creating a climate of fear for political opponents, praised China for building roads and bridges with “no complicated conditions.”

China and Russia have started to twist the concept of human rights in ways that gut its meaning. In a paper issued in June, Freedom House notes that Chinese President Hu Jintao’s report to the 17th Party Congress in 2007 used the words “democracy” and “democratic” some 60 times, without ever explaining how China qualifies as a democracy. “Russia and China are working to muddy the waters abroad as well,” wrote Freedom House. Indeed, the Kremlin backs organizations operating in Central Asia and the Caucasus that mimic Western groups like Amnesty International or America’s National Endowment for Democracy, but work to promote Putin-style “managed democracy,” essentially authoritarianism with a thin veneer of social freedoms. Similarly, China now runs training programs for as many as 15,000 foreign officials annually, including many legal specialists and local authorities, who learn how China has managed to open its economy without allowing real political liberalization.

It’s possible that the old idealism will return, just as Jimmy Carter followed Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon. The yearning for freedom remains, and after a slow start, Obama’s administration has begun making human-rights advocacy a higher priority, finally meeting with the Dalai Lama, stepping up its criticism of Zimbabwe and Iran, appointing a special envoy for human rights in North Korea, more aggressively condemning Internet censorship in China, and taking China to task for its alleged attacks on Google. But the fact is that the past year has been one of the toughest in decades for prominent dissidents. Freedom House’s report “Freedom in the World,” released in January, revealed a global decline in political freedoms and civil liberties for the fourth year in a row, the longest drop in the almost 40 years that the survey has been produced. The decline stems from repressive governments cracking down harder, and leading democracies apparently “losing their will” to speak out in response. A recent string of major dissident cases—including China’s rounding up signers of the Charter 08 call for rule of law, and sentencing activist Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in jail, as well as crackdowns in Vietnam and Central Asia—has received what Chris Walker of Freedom House considers “astonishingly little attention and support from the democracies.”

It’s only going to get tougher. The global recession may give way to a long period of slow growth, particularly in the leading democracies. If China can stymie democracy today, how much more influential will it be when its economy is the world’s largest? Though Obama may be focusing more on rights now, the president’s power is decreasing after his first, honeymoon year in office, and has taken a hit from the recent loss of the Democrats’ super-majority in the Senate. New and potential future leaders in other major democracies—Jacob Zuma, David Cameron—haven’t demonstrated much interest in international human-rights advocacy. And realism and isolationism, once ingrained, can be hard to shake off. In the past, it has required cataclysmic historic events to spark idealism, like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the 9/11 attacks, to shake Western populations out of their torpor.

Kurlantzick is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
https://www.newsweek.com/west-now-ignores-human-rights-75137