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The Pendulum of History——International Politics 30 Years After the Collapse of the Soviet Union


A lengthy analysis by one of China’s leading Russia experts traces how geopolitical changes since the end of the Cold War have shaped Russia and China’s security environment.

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Abstract: This year marks the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago changed history, brought about subversive changes in international politics, and set the world in a new direction. Some people asserted that history had come to an end, and it seemed that a period had been placed to mark the close of historic changes. But today, 30 years later, the picture is completely different. The development of history is unexpected, and a series of major international political changes stemming from the breakup of the Soviet Union has changed direction or even reversed. This paper highlights five areas, namely the resurgence of the Cold War, the reappearance of the bipolar structure, the restructuring of the new East-West system, the decline of liberalism, and the collapse of the ideal of Greater Europe, and discusses and analyzes these five changes.


In the history of the world, the collapse of any world empire inevitably has a profound and lasting impact on the development process of overall history, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union was no exception. The Soviet Union was not just a country, it was an “empire,” representing a bloc of states covering Eurasia, a global military and economic union, and a worldwide ideology and social system. Therefore, the disintegration of the Soviet Union refers not only to the landmark day of December 25, 1991, but also to the disintegration of the Soviet “imperial” system. This is the disintegration of the global political system, economic system, military alliance, and ideological system centered on the Soviet Union.


In the field of international politics, the disintegration of the Soviet Union fundamentally overturned the global system and the international order, leading to the end of the Cold War, a change in the international structure, the rise of unipolar hegemony, the rise of liberalism, and the prospect of the grand unity between the East and the West. At the time, all of this led everyone to dream beautiful dreams about the future of the world, and it was believed that the world would embark on a bright road from then on.


However, 30 years later, when we look back on the past and compare it with the present, we cannot help but be surprised to find that, history in the post-Cold War world did not proceed along a straight line in its original direction. Instead, like a pendulum, it swung back after a high peak to one side. Many major changes in international politics that occurred due to the collapse of the Soviet Union did not continue. On the contrary, they all reversed to varying degrees, or even returned to the starting point. Among these, changes in five areas are particularly prominent.


I. From the End of the Cold War to the Start of a New Cold War


The end of the Cold War was among the most significant consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are different views on the date of the end of the Cold War. Some believe it was marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, and others use the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact on July 1, 1991 as its symbol, but its root cause was the collapse of the Soviet Empire. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact were only part of the process of disintegration of the Soviet Empire.


The end of the Cold War lifted the 40-year-old confrontation between the East and the West in the field of political, military, ideological, and social systems. All the countries, both East and West, generally believed that the world would enter a post-Cold War era free from confrontation, but what we see now is that although the Cold War is over, a new Cold War has begun. That is to say, in the 30 years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the relationship between great powers has gone from ending one Cold War to starting a new Cold War.


The new Cold War refers to the current state of Sino-US and Russian-US relations. There are different views on whether a new Cold War will take place. Some people think that there will be no new Cold War. The main reason is that it is a completely different era.
The international environment is no longer the same as it was during the Cold War. There is no confrontation between two global alliances of nations, there is no confrontation between two evenly matched military blocs, there are no two isolated economic markets, and no competition between the two ideologies of communism and capitalism. Humanity is now facing more and more serious common threats. Major powers not only have competitive interests, but also common interests. Their relationships have both antagonism and confrontation as well as cooperation and coordination.


All these points are undoubtedly true. Taking this as a reference, what is happening now is indeed not the same kind of Cold War as occurred in the past. However, this analysis only tells us what the current relationship between great powers is not, but not what it actually is. In other words, if this is not a new Cold War, what is it? This is the most important question.


The new Cold War, which borrows its name from the Cold War, emphasizes the nature of great power relations rather than their external forms. Without a doubt, time does not run backward, and a Cold War with the same spatial and temporal characteristics and the same form as the original Cold War will never reappear. However, great power relations still exist, and they still have their traditional content. From this perspective, the nature of great power relations can recur. In this sense, the emergence of a new Cold War is possible. Also, some scholars have discussed the nature of the Cold War, and they have different understandings. One view holds that the Cold War was a special form of international political conflict that can be repeated. Another view was that the Cold War was a unique phenomenon in international politics, one-of-a-kind and unrepeatable. Here, the author adopts the former explanation. The new Cold War is a description of the nature of today’s great power relations. This description is based on the actual situation of great power relations today and does not consider whether the situation is completely consistent with the form of the original Cold War. The new Cold War is not a simple reproduction of the form of the Cold War. It differs from the Cold War in terms of characteristics and manifestations. However, in essence, it is as cold as the US-Soviet Cold War, and in some ways even colder.


The United States has positioned China and Russia as strategic opponents and challengers. This has been repeatedly expressed in official documents and speeches by the United States, and need not be explained further here. The United States implements a policy of strategic containment against China and Russia, which is also open, determined, comprehensive, and systematic. Although both China and Russia hope to establish cooperative relations with the United States and there will be one side of cooperation between them, this does not change the basic positioning and policy of the United States towards China and Russia. It is this that has laid the foundation for a new Cold War.


The new Cold War between Russia and the United States occurred before that between China and the United States. If we look back on the Russian-US relations in the previous US administrations over the past 30 years, including the Clinton, Bush Jr., Obama, and Trump eras (and excluding President Bush Sr., who was in power only one year after Russian independence), an impressive picture can be seen. That is, without exception, when each successive US president left the White House, Russian-US relations were worse than when he entered the White House. If we represent the changes in Russian-US relations over the entire 30-year period by a simple line, then it is a continuous downward curve falling lower and lower.


If we want a sign to mark that Russia-US relations have entered a new Cold War, it would be the Ukrainian crisis and the Crimea incident in 2014. Over the past 30 years, negative issues have constantly been added to the agenda of Russia-U.S. relations, while very few constructive issues have been added, and even fewer have been implemented. In this process, the contradictions, differences, conflicts, doubts, distrust, and hostility between Russia and the United States have been constantly accumulating and expanding. It can be said that, except for a short period of time at the beginning of Russian independence, the relationship between Russia and the United States has been confrontational at all other times. For such a relationship, it is hard to find any name other than a new Cold War.


China and the United States entered into a new Cold War later than Russia and the United States, but the turning point was sharp, the development was fast, and the contradictions are sharper, more comprehensive, and probably longer-term and more general.


There have always been serious problems and contradictions in Sino-US relations, and violent conflicts have occurred intermittently, but before the Trump era, Sino-US relations were still in a state of basically normal inter-state relations. The turning point that marked the general deterioration and antagonism in the relationship between the two countries came during the Trump era. During this period, the original basis of Sino-US relations was completely deconstructed, and the relationship between the two countries was placed in a completely different environment and atmosphere. The close economic ties and huge trade volume that was previously the driving force and stabilizer of Sino-US relations have now become a source of contradiction and an irritating factor. The United States wants to “decouple” from China economically and technologically. China’s political system has become the target of U.S. attacks, and the United States has manufactured so-called human rights issues in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. They have also launched provocative military activities against China in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, blamed China for the COVID-19 pandemic, used the COVID-19 pandemic to launch attacks on China, and is forming regional and international alliances against China. To put it simply, the United States has implemented a comprehensive and public siege of China. Chinese officials also often describe it as a diplomatic war, trade war, technological war, or public opinion war between the United States and China. Therefore, it is not an exaggeration to call it a new Cold War.


As the U.S. simultaneously engages in a new Cold War with China and Russia, China and Russia are close strategic partners. Therefore, the new Cold War has a tendency to develop on a wider scale, that is, to form a new Cold War with the United States on one side and China and Russia on the other. Of course, this is different from the original Cold War period. China and Russia do not have a military alliance, there is not a confrontation between two military groups, and military confrontation is not its main content. The significance of this new Cold War manifests more in international politics. However, the political divide between the United States and China and Russia is an objective reality. The United States is implementing a dual containment policy against China and Russia, while China and Russia support each other and jointly resist the strategic pressure of the United States. Therefore, looking at the macro level, to a certain extent, this inevitably brings to mind the Cold War between the East and the West.


In the future, will the new Cold War become more intense or gradually weaken? If the United States pursues a policy of separating China and Russia, will Sino-Russia strategic cooperation become closer or will the two countries gradually become estranged? Will the new Cold War be a long-term state of great-power relations or just a transitional form? These questions still involve some uncertainty.


However, based on various factors visible today, the trend of the new Cold War between great powers is more likely to strengthen rather than weaken for the foreseeable future, and the strategic cooperation between China and Russia will be maintained for a long period of time. Even if the United States adjusts its dual containment policy, the new Cold War will be the basic feature of great-power relations for a long time to come.


II. From the Collapse of Bipolarity to the Emergence of Two New Poles


After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Soviet-US bipolar structure that had lasted for more than 40 years disappeared. The United States and the Soviet Union were the two superpowers during the Cold War, and the demise of the Soviet Union left the United States the sole superpower. The national power of the United States was beyond the reach of other countries, the bipolar structure changed to a unipolar structure, and the era of unipolar hegemony of the United States arrived. In the post-Cold War period, this state of things seemed like it would persist unchanged for a long period. Now, however, we can see that the development of history has turned another corner. Thirty years later, although the United States is still the country with the greatest overall national strength, the unipolar world has become increasingly difficult to maintain, and a new bipolar structure is emerging.


In the new bipolarity, the roles have changed. The status of the United States has not changed, but China has replaced the Soviet Union, forming a new Sino-US bipolar structure. Compared with US-Soviet bipolarity, the new bipolar structure is significantly different. Its scale in international politics is smaller, its main entities are two countries, not two political and military blocs, and this structure does not divide the world in two. Its influence is also small, and it does not determine overall global politics.


There are different views on the current international structure, and not everyone agrees that it has a bipolar structure. The author’s view is: International politics are now in a transitional period, and the international structure presents great contradictions. Multipolar elements, bipolar elements, and unipolar elements all coexist. In this general pattern, multipolarization is the basic framework, bipolarization is rising rapidly, and unipolarization is trending downward. There is a complex relationship between the new bipolarity and multipolarization, but it is not antagonistic and mutually exclusive. The new bipolarity does not go beyond the multipolar structure, but still exists under the multipolar framework. The author would express this by saying the bipolar structure that stands out against the multipolar framework.


The formation of the new bipolar structure stems from two factors. The first is the rapid rise of China, and the second is the U.S. policy of containing China’s rise.


The 1990s, when the Soviet Union disintegrated, was also the period when China’s economy began to take off and grow rapidly following reform and opening up. During the subsequent 30 years, China made the leap from a poor and backward country to become the second most powerful country in the world. Although it still lags behind the United States in overall national strength, it has already very close behind the United States. Even if China does not have the goal of surpassing the United States, the United States can already feel China breathing down its neck.


Unlike the Soviet Union, which formed a balance with the United States through military force, the balance between China and the United States lies first and foremost in economic metrics. According to one set of data, in 1992, at the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the GDP of the United States was US$6.52 trillion, accounting for 25.6% of the world’s total economic output. China, on the other hand, had a GDP of only US$426.9 billion, accounting for 1.67% of the world’s total economic output. China’s total economic output was less than 1/15 of that of the United States, ranking tenth in the world. By 2020, the U.S. GDP more than tripled to US$20.94 trillion, but its share of the world’s total economic output declined to 24.7%. During the same period, China’s total economic output grew more than 34 times over, reaching US$14.72 trillion, close to 70% of that of the United States and accounting for about 17% of the world’s total economic output. Since 2005, with the expansion of the aggregate base of the Chinese economy, China’s economic growth has also greatly increased in absolute terms. China’s share of the world’s total economic output has increased by about 1 percentage point almost every year, from 4.8% in 2005 to about 17% today. According to various forecasts, based on the current trend, China will surpass the United States in terms of total economic output and become the world’s largest economy in the near future.

与苏联以军事力量与美国形成平衡不同,中国与美国平衡首先在于经济指标。根据一种数据,在苏联解体之初的1992年,美国的国内生产总值为6.52万亿美元,占世界经济总量的25.6%,而中国只有4 269亿美元,占世界经济总量的1.67%,中国经济总量不到美国的1/15,在世界上名列第十。而到2020年,美国国内生产总值增长三倍多,达20.94万亿美元,但在世界经济总量中的占比有所下降,为24.7%;同一时期,中国经济总量增长了34倍多,达到14.72万亿,已接近美国的70%,在世界经济总量中占了约17%作者根据世界银行的数据整理。。自2005年以来,随着中国经济总量基数的扩大,中国经济增长的绝对数额也大大增加,中国在世界经济总量中的占比几乎每年都提高约1个百分点,从2005年的4.8%大幅提高到当前的约17%。各种预测都认为,按照当前的趋势,在不久的将来,中国在经济总量上将超过美国,成为世界第一。

However, the closeness to China to the United States is not only manifested in economic metrics, but in many aspects, with a comprehensive character. Economic development provides the material conditions for the development of other fields, China can make large-scale investments in various fields, including technology, manufacturing, infrastructure construction, foreign investment, overseas development, international aid, military, education, culture, medical care, environmental protection, and social welfare. This has produced very obvious results, rapidly increasing China’s overall national strength and capabilities. China’s rise has been able to produce such a massive effect not only because of its rapid development speed, but also because of the huge scale of China’s economy and the scale of its acceleration. Neither speed nor scale alone is enough to achieve world power status, but China has both. Now, China is at the forefront of the world in the fourth industrial revolution represented by the information revolution and ranks first in world trade. China invests in and undertakes projects overseas on a large scale. China’s design, manufacturing, and construction capabilities are astounding, the status of the RMB as an international reserve currency and settlement currency is on the rise, and China’s military power is developing rapidly. All of these factors have strengthened China’s overall national strength and made the United States feel that China is “the only competitor with the potential to combine its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological strength” to mount a continuous challenge to the United States.


The change in the comparative power between China and the United States is a natural result of the unbalanced development between the countries. It does not have special political attributes in itself. The existence of two counties more powerful than all others does not mean that bipolarization is inevitable. In physics, the so-called two poles must be mutually exclusive, which is also true in international politics. If two great powers are in a state of mutual non-interference, or in a state of friendly coexistence, there will be no bipolarization. A bipolar relationship can exist between two powers only when they are in a relationship of rivalry. The United States regards China as a strategic opponent and implements a policy of containment, adding a competitive and antagonistic nature to the relationship between the two countries. This is another key factor in turning Sino-US relations into a new bipolarity.


Looking at the current situation, the new bipolarity will not only exist for a long time, but will also occupy an increasingly prominent place in the international structure. The superpower status of China and the United States on the world stage will be maintained long-term. China still maintains the momentum of faster development compared to other major powers and will move closer to the United States in terms of total national strength, while other countries will fall farther behind China. America’s dominance on the world stage is declining, but this decline is only relative and primarily relative to China. The U.S. economy is not in absolute recession and is developing at a normal rate. For the foreseeable future, the U.S. will remain the country with the greatest total strength. The combined GDP of China and the United States will remain above 40% of the world’s total economic output and shows a continuing upward trend. The economic gap between other countries and China and the United States will continue to widen. The material basis of Sino-US polarization is continuing to grow.


On the other hand, the U.S. policy of strategic containment of China has already gathered a high degree of consensus in the United States. Regardless of whether the Republican Party or the Democratic Party is in power, this policy will not be changed. China no longer entertains any illusions about positive changes in U.S. policy towards China and will resolutely fight back on issues concerning China’s fundamental interests. This means that Sino-US relations will be in contradiction, conflict, and struggle. Although there will also be relaxations and cooperation and, after a period of adaptation and smoothing out, the bilateral relationship may also enter a relatively stable and orderly state in the future, strategic competition will be the basic feature of the long-term relationship between the two countries. Some believe that this competition between China and the United States may be more protracted, broader, and more intense than the Cold War. This means that the subjective factors that go into the creation of the new bipolar structure will also persist and intensify.


We can expect that, in the future, the role of the new bipolarity in shaping the global structure will become more and more prominent, and its impact on international politics will become more and more pronounced. It will also increasingly become an important perspective for looking at today’s world. In a sense, this means that the international structure has reverted to its state from before the collapse of the Soviet Union.


III. From the Disappearance of the East-West System to the Reemergence of a New East-West System


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the two Cold War-era systems of the East and the West disappeared. To be precise, the Eastern system disappeared, while the Western system not only remained, but also developed and expanded with the attitude of a victor. Many countries from the former Eastern system have turned to the West, accepting Western values, adopting Western political systems, and entering into Western-led international institutions and organizations. In other words, the Western system annexed the Eastern system, and the Western system became, in a sense, the world system. Since the East-West system no longer exists, the East-West confrontation of the Cold War-era also no longer exists.


However, what we see now is that this change brought about by the disintegration of the Soviet Union has also reversed. Thirty years after the old East-West system disintegrated and the East-West confrontation ended, a new East-West system has appeared on the horizon.


The new East-West system is not a rigorous concept, nor is it an East-West system in the strict sense. As a result, there will naturally be considerable controversy concerning this view. Like the new Cold War and the new bipolarity, the new East-West is not a simple repetition of the East-West system during the Cold War. In nature and form, its differences from the Cold War-era East-West system are more obvious. The author once called it a “soft system,” which means that it has the characteristics of a system, but is not yet complete and mature. It can also be called a “quasi-system.” At this stage, the new East-West system has already begun to exist in people’s political consciousness in international politics. It is mainly a division formed by political identity. Its state and structure are still partially obscured and hard to pin down. There is no clear line between the new East and the West. They are not found in a confrontation between two political and military blocs, nor are they absolute and complete oppositions. They may be partners and collaborators in some aspects and in some areas. Nonetheless, based on a series of visible and objective facts, it is clear that the world is being re-divided and the contours of two political hemispheres of global significance are becoming more and more apparent, although they are not yet fully formed and finalized.


The primary reason for the emergence of the New East system is its conscious fabrication by the United States and the West. It can be observed that, after the end of the Cold War, the strategic goal of the United States and the West was to dissolve the East into the Western system. It implemented a policy of “pulling” China and Russia, that is, trying to pull China and Russia into the Western system. Of course, this would require China and Russia to accept Western values and dominance. Therefore, in the early and middle stages of the post-Cold War period, the U.S. policy towards China and Russia was centered on “engagement.” However, the reality indicated that China and Russia would not be remade based on the Western model, would not give up their independent status, and would not accept the unipolar hegemony of the United States. After that, the strategic thinking of the United States changed. It positioned China and Russia as confrontational strategic competitors, and the United States turned to the policy of strategic containment against China and Russia. However, the United States does not regard China and Russia as two isolated objects, but regards China and Russia as a unit. At the same time, the United States does not deal with China and Russia alone, but wants to partner with Europe and some other countries to rebuild a Western alliance against the East, similar to the alliance of the Cold War-era. In this way, a camp was formed by the United States and Europe to oppose China and Russia, and a new East-West system was recreated.


Different from the demarcation of the East and the West in the Cold War, which was between the socialist world and the capitalist world, the new East and West system divides the Western world from the non-Western world in terms of politics and culture. In this sense, the New East-West system can be said to be a Western vs. non-Western system. The foundation of the New West is the countries belonging to the Western political and cultural sphere, which almost coincide with the members of the old Western system, while the composition of the New East system has changed significantly from the Cold War period.
This is a new series of countries, and their respective domestic political systems and religious cultures may be very different, but they have one feature in common, which is that they are all non-Western countries.


The new East-West system has a distinct ideological coloring. In degree, it is no less than that of the East-West system during the Cold War, but the ideological content is different. It is no longer the opposition between communism and capitalism. Rather, in the definition of the West, it is the opposition between liberal democratic values and authoritarian and authoritarian institutions. The New West represents liberal democratic values and institutions, while the New East embodies totalitarianism and authoritarian institutions. Therefore, liberal democracy has become the banner of the United States against China and Russia, and it promotes the construction of an alliance against China and Russia called the “Democratic Alliance.” The summit of heads of non-Western countries promoted by the United States is called the “Summit for Democracy,” and the international order it advocates is called the liberal international order. This shows that the United States puts ideology in the highest position and regards it as the fundamental difference with China and Russia.


Although the divergence of values is an important contradiction in the new East-West system, it is reasonable to believe that it is, to a greater extent, a tool used by the United States to mobilize the Western world to form a united front against China and Russia. It is a theoretical source used by the United States to prove the legitimacy of its own behavior, and it is also a disguise to hide its more important geopolitical and strategic goal. This more important strategic and geopolitical goal is to maintain the unipolar hegemony of the United States and maintain the dominant position of the United States in the global system and international order.


There is no clear economic divide between the new East and West systems, and global economic ties are already extremely intertwined. In particular, the United States, Europe, and Japan are China’s most important economic partners. It is impossible to form parallel markets that are closed to each other as in the Cold War era, but there is also a trend towards some degree of separation driven by political motivations. When Trump was in power, he proposed to “decouple” from China economically and technologically, block Chinese technology from entering the world market, boycott China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, impose economic sanctions on China and Russia, and promote an exclusive regional economic integration mechanism. to a certain extent, this is the splitting of the world economy into two systems aligned with the new East and West, although this split is not yet very deep.


This trend of separation is more pronounced in the security realm. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is developing in the direction of “North Atlantic—Indian Ocean—Pacific Ocean.” Major NATO countries such as the UK, Germany, and France as well as Japan have begun to send warships, including aircraft carriers, to the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, and a networked and coordinated military cooperation relationship is being formed among them. At the same time, the military cooperation of the quadrilateral US-Japan-India-Australia mechanism is deepening, and a “line of defense” is emerging from the Arctic Ocean, the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, and the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and the East China Sea. This is not only a challenge to China’s strategic security, but also a threat to Russia’s strategic security. On the other hand, under external strategic pressure, Sino-Russian military and security cooperation has become increasingly close, strengthened in its strategic nature, expanded in its fields of cooperation, and widened in its scope of cooperation. The two countries have formed a stable mutual support structure in the area of strategic security. Whether it is subjective or not, the trend in the field of international security is moving towards a new confrontation between the two fronts.


The latest international political and security developments are also reinforcing this trend. In September 2021, the United States, the UK, and Australia announced the establishment of a new military alliance. The new military alliance targets the Indo-Pacific region. In fact, it is aimed at China and Russia and may form the basis of an Asian version of NATO. At the same time, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) initiated the process of accepting Iran as a full member. After the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, the Afghan government supported by the United States quickly collapsed, and Afghanistan is likely to move closer to China and Russia. Thus, in a geopolitical sense, China, Russia, Central Asia, South Asia, and West Asia have truly become a complete regional combination with the SCO as the tie and framework. It is not an anti-Western combination, but it is unquestionably a “non-Western” one.


It is necessary to point out the special role of the Indo-Pacific strategy in the new East-West system. It is the most important comprehensive institutional vehicle of the new West system. Although the Indo-Pacific strategy is a strategy named after a region, it is, in a certain sense, the grand strategy of the United States. If we say the United States has a European strategy, an African strategy, and a Latin American strategy, none of them will have the overall strategic significance of the Indo-Pacific strategy. The Indo-Pacific strategy chooses the most politically and economically active regions in the world as its area of activity and targets China and Russia, the main strategic opponents of the United States. It has attracted the adherence of almost all of America’s allies, especially the European Union and NATO. These factors give the Indo-Pacific strategy a global nature.


In almost every respect, the Indo-Pacific strategy is characteristic of the new West system. Its members, the United States, India, Japan, and Australia, are all Western countries in terms of politics and, in terms of ideology, claim to represent the liberal international order. In terms of regional economic integration, China is excluded. In terms of security, the system is developing in the direction of a security mechanism targeting China and Russia based on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), and it will naturally echo with the newly established US-UK-Australia military alliance. This shows us that, even in geographical features, the Indo-Pacific strategy coincides with the new East system. Both the new East-West system or Indo-Pacific strategy see the basic geographical dividing line to be between Eurasian countries and maritime countries. China and Russia are the largest Eurasian countries, while the new West system and Indo-Pacific strategy countries are mostly maritime countries. Although this is not a reproduction of the traditional system of competition between land and sea power, the difference in geographical features between the groups is objective. Even more importantly, the significance of this difference is not just geographic, it also has important strategic and security implications.


IV. Liberalism: From Ascendancy to Retreat


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberalism entered the most glorious period in its history. In terms of ideas and value systems, liberalism is widely admired and exercises a fascinating attraction. In terms of national development models, the liberal political model has become an object of emulation for many countries. In international relations, the model of exporting liberal democracy proved its own political correctness and broke through the constraints of traditional international rules. Simply put, in the eyes of the West, history ended here. After liberalism, there was no higher human ideal, and no better model of the state than the democratic political system.


But now, throughout the world, liberalism has suffered major setbacks, both in theory and in practice. Liberalism still exists and will continue to exist for a long time to come, and it will continue to occupy a prominent place on the world stage as an ideology and a political model. but now it is undoubtedly going from ascendancy to retreat. Its ideological appeal is in decline, and its political model has ceased to be an object of universal emulation, and in a philosophical sense. Its absoluteness has been questioned, its unique status has been challenged, and its nature as an end-point has been denied.


The most fundamental reason for this retreat is found in liberalism itself. It has given rise to great problems in national development and governance, an internal separation between rich and poor, political division, accumulation of social problems, and a lack of ability on the part of institutions to renew themselves, resulting in a predicament where no effective solution can be found. On the other hand, non-Western countries such as China have risen rapidly, displaying higher efficiency in economic development and social governance. This provides a comparison, where the superiority of the liberal model of development is challenged and it can no longer claim to be the best and only correct model. After the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the United States, which has the best medical resources, did not perform well in its response to the epidemic and ranked first in total deaths ranked first among all countries.
This particularly exposed the weaknesses of the Western model of governance, although some Western countries have done better.


At the same time, the West’s export of liberal values and political institutions outside the Western world has suffered a near-total failure. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and the West, as the victors of the Cold War, began to forcefully export liberalism to the whole world and carry out the liberal transformation on non-Western countries. The factors driving the United States and the West are not only the messianic ideology that regards liberalism as a gospel to be spread throughout the world, but also the arbitrary willfulness of a U.S. hegemony lacking checks and balances and a selfish pursuit of geopolitical or economic interests.


The liberal model is mainly exported in two ways, one is through a “color revolution” and the other is the direct use of force and war. However, no matter the method, it has not brought real democracy and freedom to the target countries, nor has it resulted in obvious economic and social development. On the contrary, it caused national turmoil and social chaos. The pursuit of liberal transformation by force of arms has brought disastrous consequences. The military interventions of the United States have plunged Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya into wars. In these countries, the economy has collapsed, years of construction achievements have been destroyed, countless civilians have been killed and injured, and a large number of people have been displaced and become refugees. Refugees have also become a serious problem faced by Western countries.


The war in Afghanistan is the latest example of the failure of the export of liberalism. In August 2021, the United States hastily withdrew its troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban regained power, and the United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan ended in complete failure. The failure of the United States was not only a failure to win a war, it was a failure on the part of the United States to export liberalism. It is believed that when the United States launched its war in Afghanistan, they had no plan for a long-term war. Initially, the US-Afghan war was primarily retaliatory and punitive, and because of this, it was widely understood and supported by the international community at that time. However, after destroying al-Qaeda and overthrowing the Taliban regime, U.S. war aims quietly began to change, and the United States began to pursue geopolitical goals. At the same time, the United States has shifted from retaliation against al-Qaeda and the Taliban to implementing a democratic transformation of Afghanistan in an attempt to build and maintain an Afghan state that would conform to liberal values and adopts a Western-style regime. This is the main reason the war in Afghanistan dragged on for 20 years.


From the perspective of historical progressivism, liberalism has significant value, especially when compared to extremist religious thought and politics. Many non-Western countries, including China and Russia, also favor democracy and freedom, although they interpret these terms somewhat differently. But the problem is that exporting democracy by force of arms itself violates the idea of democracy, so it is no longer democracy. The imposition of one’s own ideas and models on other countries cannot but arouse the resistance of the people of the other countries. Moreover, any institutional model requires corresponding ideological and cultural preparations, and it needs to strike a certain balance with local historical and cultural traditions before it can bear fruit. Sowing seeds on unsuitable soil cannot yield the desired fruit. The relationship between modernity and tradition is often a contradictory one, and maintaining a dynamic balance is the most feasible way to move forward. America’s defeat in Afghanistan was a landmark event for the expansion of liberalism. It marked the historic failure of the idea of saving the world through liberalism and made people, including in the West, realize that liberalism is not a value that is welcomed around the world, nor is it a system that can be transplanted arbitrarily. This is not necessarily a sign of the end of U.S. hegemony, but it leads to a pessimistic conclusion concerning the historical experiment of the promotion of liberalism throughout the world by the United States and the West.


The hegemonic behavior and performance of the United States have also dealt a heavy blow to liberalism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States, as the only superpower, no longer had a counterbalance and could act at will without restriction or punishment. However, the United States did not impose rational constraints on itself. Instead, it moved towards unilateralism, ignored the interests of other countries, disregarded the constraints of international law, arbitrarily interfered in the internal affairs of other countries, withdrew from international institutions, implemented sanctions policies, and frequently launched wars and used force against other countries, especially when it launched the war against Iraq based on false evidence. The cameras that presented U.S. lies to the world have not only caused a precipitous drop in U.S. moral credibility, but also put out the enchanting light of liberalism.


Now, even the author of the “End of History” thesis has had to revise his view, saying that liberalism is not everything, history does not end here, it continues to develop, and in a sense, it is a beginning anew.


V. From the Dawn of Hopes for a Greater Europe to the Redivision of Europe


The union of Russia and Europe in a Greater Europe has been a long-standing topic. The idea of a Greater Europe was put forward even during the Soviet era. Charles de Gaulle once proposed the establishment of a Greater Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals and Gorbachev also proposed the idea of a “Common European Home.” However, it was not until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and the cessation of the confrontation between the two major blocs that the blueprint for a Greater Europe became a realistic possibility for the first time.


In the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and Europe did indeed make mutual approaches to each other and both sides also held great enthusiasm and expectations for the realization of a greater Europe. In terms of political relations, in 1994, Russia and the European Union signed a 10-year Partnership and Cooperation Agreement and established the Russia-EU summit mechanism. Since 1998, the Russian and EU heads of state have met twice a year. In 2003, the Russia-EU summit in St. Petersburg proposed a plan to create four unified spaces from Lisbon to Vladivostok, namely a unified economic space, a unified freedom, security, and judicial space, a unified external security space, and a unified science, education, and cultural space. In 2010, Russia and the European Union launched a modernization partnership. In terms of security relations, Russia and NATO signed the Bilateral Military Cooperation Plan in 1996, and in 1997, Russia and NATO established the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council. In 2002, it was decided to establish a more substantial NATO-Russia Council to replace the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council, which mainly focused on liaison functions.


However, the current reality is that Russia is still Russia, and Europe is still Europe. Although Russia and Europe are neighbors, it is hard to make them a family. Even more, Russia’s relations with Europe are now at their worst point since the end of the Cold War, and the estrangement between the two sides is even deeper than in the latter period of the Soviet Union. The picture Greater Europe has dimmed and become increasingly blurry. Europe and Russia are not drawing together, but drifting apart. The topic of Greater Europe is no longer on the agenda of Russia-European relations, and the four common spaces are no longer brought up. The theme of these bilateral relations is not cooperation but mutual dissatisfaction. In terms of political relations, Russian-European relations have been buffeted by a continuous series of events and crises. In terms of security relations, the two sides have escalated to military standoffs in Eastern Europe, the Baltic Sea, and the Black Sea. Economic relations between the two sides have also declined. Although the EU is still Russia’s largest trading partner, due to sanctions and the pandemic, the EU’s share of Russia’s foreign trade has dropped from over 50% previously to below 40% currently, reaching 37% in 2020.


It is safe to say that, 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dream of a Greater Europe that once seemed so close has now been completely dashed. This is not because Russia or Europe is against it. In fact, both Russia and Europe are supporters of the idea of a Greater Europe. In particular, since Peter the Great, integration into Europe has become Russia’s emotional and historical complex. Although it has encountered many setbacks, Russia has never given up. Whenever hope arises, this emotion resurges. As an idea, Occidentalism has deep roots in Russia, and it will continue to exist for a long time to come. For many Russians, Europe is Russia’s spiritual home, something Asia has never been and cannot be. This is determined by Russia’s cultural genes and cannot be changed. Although this does not indicate that Russia will have better relations with Europe than with Asia in terms of relations between states.


After the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, Europe saw Russia’s annexation of Crimea as the use of force to change national borders, overturning the international order in post-Cold War Europe. The EU unilaterally froze the main mechanisms of economic and political cooperation with Russia, including bilateral summits and consultations between EU member states and the Russian government, and imposed severe sanctions on Russian financial and industrial entities. At the same time, the NATO-Russia Council also ceased activities, and Russian-European relations fell into their most serious crisis since the end of the Cold War. In this context, Russia “turned to the East,” subsequently proposing the Greater Eurasian Partnership. However, the turn to the East indicates that Russia has increased its attention to the East, but this does not mean it has abandoned Europe. Russia’s turn to the East does not mean leaving Europe, nor does it mean replacing Europe with Asia. It just involves strengthening development to the East, striking a better balance between Europe and Asia, and greater diversification in economy, technology, investment, and energy markets. Greater Eurasia and Greater Europe are not contradictory and mutually exclusive concepts. The relationship between these concepts can be interpreted in two ways: The first interpretation is that Greater Eurasia and Greater Europe are parallel concepts, applicable to both directions of Russian diplomacy. Greater Europe is applicable to the European direction, and Greater Eurasia is applicable to the Eurasian direction. Greater Eurasia and Greater Europe are two distinct parts that can be connected. The second interpretation is that Greater Eurasia is an extension and upgrade of the concept of Greater Europe. The concept of Greater Eurasia includes Europe, making it conceptually larger than Greater Europe.
In fact, the official Russian concept of Greater Eurasia contained this idea from the very beginning. The concept of Greater Eurasia can better reflect Russia’s autonomy and subjectivity than Greater Europe. In diplomatic terms, it is a revision and balance to Greater Europe. However, regardless of the interpretation, Greater Eurasia does not deny the idea of Greater Europe. Its only questions whether it is possible for Russia to join hands with Europe. The belief is that, if there is a historical opportunity for Russia and Europe to join hands, whether it is the linkage of Greater Eurasia with Greater Europe or the pulling of Europe into Greater Eurasia, Russia will welcome the chance with open arms.


The deterioration in Russian-European relations and the change in their nature are the direct causes that make it difficult to achieve the idea of Greater Europe. After experiencing the eastward expansion of NATO, the Kosovo war, the Russo-Georgian war, the Ukrainian crisis, and various other problems in succession, Russian-European relations have deteriorated so deeply that the foundation on which to build a Greater Europe no longer exists. In addition, there is still a major problem between Russia and Europe, that is, in what form and in what capacities should Russia and Europe build a Greater Europe. Although both sides agree with the idea of Greater Europe as an abstract concept, there is a difference in principles in their understanding of it at a practical level. The Greater Europe they imagine present different pictures.


The Russian side’s understanding of the construction of a Greater Europe is that Russia and Europe will jointly create a kind of community. The European vision of Greater Europe is based on Russia’s acceptance of Europe’s political framework, security framework, and value system. This is equivalent to the expansion of European-led political and security institutions to Russia, so that Russia would be brought under the European-led framework. The two sides also differ markedly in their understanding of their identities. From Russia’s point of view, it will have an independent role in Greater Europe as a peer of equal status with Europe. Europe, on the contrary, does not accept the equal status of Russia. The EU and NATO are collective identities, while Russia is a single state. Granting Russia equal status with the EU and NATO would mean giving it veto power over the EU and NATO, which the EU and NATO will not accept. Russia is also willing to use the Eurasian Economic Union as an equal partner of the EU and the Collective Security Treaty Organization as an equal partner of NATO, but the EU and NATO do not agree with this. As a result, the European vision of a Greater Europe is incommensurate to that of Russia in terms of form and identity. However, Russia will not give up its independent and equal status in Greater Europe, and will not accept its integration into Europe as a vassal of Europe. This contradiction between Russia and Europe confronts Greater Europe with insurmountable congenital defects at the practical level.


Of course, the ideal of a Greater Europe cannot be said to be dead. It still exists and may reemerge at some point in the future. However, for Europe at present, Greater Europe has lost its realistic prospects. This is yet another major setback in international politics 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.


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Cite This Page

赵华胜 (Zhao Huasheng). "The Pendulum of History——International Politics 30 Years after the Collapse of the Soviet Union [历史的钟摆——苏联解体30年以来的国际政治变迁]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in Russian, East European & Central Asian Studies [俄罗斯东欧中亚研究], November 13, 2021

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