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“War is peace.”
“Freedom is slavery.”
“Ignorance is strength.”
In 1949, George Orwell wrote a cautionary story of a huge nation with these declarations as its mottos. The novel was called “1984” and it was a somber warning of a possible future world dominated only by ruthless superpowers.
Somewhat surprisingly, the possibility of Russia invading Ukraine has pushed the world closer to a version of Orwell’s view of the future – China-Russia versus America-Europe.
Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to reassert his country’s influence over neighboring nations, replacing the domination by the Soviet Union before it disintegrated in 1991, leaving Russia as its principal survivor. Ukraine, formerly a Soviet republic, worries him as it moves away from Russian influence.
Massed Russian forces on the Russia-Ukraine border back up Putin’s demand that NATO withdraw its forces from Eastern European countries formerly under Soviet domination and keep Ukraine from joining the alliance. In return, Russia might pull troops away from the border.
By using coercive diplomacy, Putin may have thought he could boost Russian security and regain influence over Eastern Europe. His threat of war might bring a diplomatic result. Clearly, this would be a variation on Orwell’s “war is peace.”
Putin might have assumed that NATO had accepted Russia’s 2014 takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea region. Though that aggression had spurred the NATO buildup he disliked, he may have thought the alliance was now ripe to be pushed back.
NATO was created in 1949 to counter any new Soviet expansion. It had grown somewhat slack as Russian pressure faded, but it was refocused by the Crimea invasion. The Russian military buildup on the Ukraine border brought it fully back to life.
In effect, Putin’s policy may have backfired. With a relatively small economy and a population increasingly acquiring a middle-class lifestyle, he might be limited in launching war. Frustrated, he turned to China, led by Xi Jinping, who shares his authoritarian views and hostility to the U.S.
The Chinese population and economy are far larger than Russia’s. Xi could now pick up the support of his weaker and embattled neighbor. They issued a joint statement, which has been dangerously ignored. It is the China-Russia manifesto for undermining the U.S. as a world power.
Both leaders claim they support democracy, but they say each country can have its own definition of what it means. For them, it means one-party rule.
China’s holding Uighurs in what amount to prison camps, supposedly for their own good, is its version of “Freedom is slavery.” But for Xi, despite saying he supports the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that’s acceptable.
Orwell defined “doublethink” as the ability to hold two opposing views and believe both of them. The China-Russia manifesto is full of it.
Apparently Xi and Putin share the belief that the seizure of Crimea has nothing to do with NATO’s current response to the current Russian build-up. They want to keep world opinion focused on the alliance’s protective moves, not Russia’s aggression. That’s a new twist on “Ignorance is power.”
Meanwhile, they ignore opposition in the U.S. and most of the West to Russia’s Crimea invasion plus China’s ending of Hong Kong’s democracy and threatening to take over Taiwan.
If the China-Russia manifesto, proclaiming there are “no limits” on their cooperation, means anything, the world has moved closer to the Orwellian struggle between superpowers. This new alliance directly challenges the western concept of democracy, which requires that every election is decided by the people not by the ruling party.
Orwell’s superpowers had no agendas beyond the Party holding onto power. Democracy is intentionally messy, allowing for disagreement and change. Yet differences between the U.S. and some European countries in dealing with Russia could produce a better policy than the uniformity of a dictatorship.
Putin may have single-handedly and unintentionally reshaped world politics. NATO, the alliance of democratic countries aligned against aggression, has been brought back to life. Russia, receding in superpower status, may have chosen to attach itself to China’s rising star.
The China-Russia manifesto makes a direct appeal to the leading unaligned countries. Brazil, India and Saudi Arabia all have governments leaning toward authoritarian rule. The manifesto proposes closer relationships with countries that assert their own definitions of democracy and human rights.
The conflict, despite Russia’s saber-rattling, will play out mainly in economic competition. Will national goals be better promoted by the free enterprise that is a feature of democracy or by state economies under authoritarian parties?
The U.S. has lost much of its leadership of the West and its influence on the world economy because of weakened confidence in the dollar and a reduced commitment to NATO. The China-Russia manifesto is a warning that time is running short to repair the damage.