By Rich Lowry*
The increasingly evident de facto alliance between Russia and China makes the war in Ukraine look like just another front in a wider clash of civilizations.
In his infamous mid-1990s book of that title, Samuel Huntington briefly contemplated such a partnership:
“Russia and China united would surely weigh in the balance against the West and awaken all the concerns about the Sino-Soviet relationship in the 1950s.”
If it is an exaggeration to compare this to the current situation – the two countries are not formally aligned, and Russian military power is no longer what it once was, among other things – there is no doubt about the civilizational aspect of today’s geopolitical tension.
This does not mean that large civilizational blocs are willing or in alliances against each other as Huntington imagined, but that hostility to the West as such animates our main adversaries.
In a speech last year, Vladimir Putin protested, as usual, against the West’s “indivisible dominance over world affairs” and blamed it for keeping what the region considers “second-class civilizations” subordinate.
President Xi Jinping spoke similarly but less fiercely.
He believes his country will provide “a new option for other countries” and “a Chinese approach to solving the problems that stand before humanity.”
In short, our era “will see China moving closer to center stage.”
Russia and China are driven by resentment for past humiliations that they feel are immediate, no matter how far back in time they are.
They seek to lower the West a bit from the podium to achieve their deserved place in the world, not just in terms of power but of respect and status.
(As Henry Kissinger once observed, “it has always been one of the paradoxes of Bolshevik behavior that its leaders longed to be treated as equals by the people they considered doomed.”)
Ukraine underscores this inconsistency in Russian and Chinese ambitions.
One could argue that Western support for Ukraine is too expensive, reckless, or both.
That Ukraine is a drain of corruption that cannot be trusted to receive rivers of money.
That NATO expansion has frightened Russia and provoked it into aggression.
One cannot doubt, however, the moral and political superiority of the West over its authoritarian adversaries who represent corrupt and poisonous imperial traditions.
Of course, the Russian and Chinese civilizations have great depth and are responsible for impressive cultural achievements.
Our leaders and diplomats should always acknowledge this, but the fact is that if Vladimir Putin sounds like he is on the defensive about “second-class civilizations,” there is good reason for it.
A few millennia after Athens and a few centuries after the modern democratic revolution, Russia and China have never managed to create stable, democratic, open societies.
Both have corrupt lifelong presidents who imprison and kill their opponents.
With resentment or envy of the modern West’s success, particularly the United States, they dream of re-establishing a version of their former authoritarian empires.
Both committed horrendous crimes involving the murder and incarceration of millions in their not-so-distant past.
Right now, China is perpetrating genocide.
They are different, of course.
Russia is the same unstable mess it almost always was; its power is primarily a function of territory and natural resources.
China has achieved an extraordinary economic, technological, and military rise that poses a challenge to the United States that may surpass the former Soviet threat.
Indeed, the heart of the West, the English-speaking world, is guilty of enormities – the transatlantic slave trade, mistreatment of native peoples, and racial discrimination.
All these will appear at the top of the negative side of the balance sheet.
In life, however, the question is always, “compared to what”?
And compared to the rest of the world, and especially to the regimes that challenge us, neither is a close contest.
The West may be naive, irresponsible, reckless, or self-destructive, but it is not malicious or evil.
It represents the greatest advance in freedom, broad prosperity, and self-government in human history and forged modernity as we know it.
It created respect for the individual and human rights.
It created an international system of sovereign and self-sufficient states with a norm against wars of territorial expansionism.
It created political entities in which the rule of law is salutary.
It created an accountable government subject to the people’s approval or disapproval.
All these things are odious to our adversaries.
Now they will say – along with the West’s internal critics – that it was all built on lies or that our blatant hypocrisy undermines it.
But in practice, nothing that the West is typically accused of is unique to the West.
Slavery? It is much older than the West and persisted until well after the West had eliminated it from its societies.
War? It is endemic to human nature, as evidenced by evidence of violent killing before the large-scale political organization and by the behavior of contemporary tribal societies.
Colonialism? Please. What about the Arabs, Parthians, Mongols, Hans, etc., etc., not to mention the Aztecs or Comanches?
Reasonable people may disagree about the policy regarding Ukraine, but there can be no doubt about which of the competitors is superior in any way that should matter.
The West must understand why it is so distinctive and what fuels the animosity of those who want to bring it down.
*Rich Lowry is editor-in-chief of National Review
With information from Gazeta do Povo