US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, well into his 90s, was asked about the biggest issue that kept him up at night. He answered without hesitation, "I'm afraid of China, I'm afraid that we cannot bring China into the international world system." The bad news now is that it is not only China that wants to get out of the liberal world order, but also Russia.
To be accurate, these two powers were excluded from the start and were not consulted when the foundations for this system were laid in a way that suited the US-European alliance. The historical vengeance expressed by President Putin, declaring the death of the liberal order, is justifiable. It made him a taxi driver, he said recently, recalling the bitter memory that hurt both Russian pride and his own personal pride.
The most visible manifestation of this great conflict is what is happening in Ukraine. An extensive article published recently in the Financial Times and entitled "Russia and China's plan for a new world order" explains the Russian and Chinese desire now to do away with the decades-long stifling American hegemony. For the first time, we are witnessing this alliance between Putin and Xi Jinping, setting aside their differences to confront their sole liberal enemy.
The leaders in Moscow and Beijing agree that the West's ultimate goal is to overthrow their governments through the use of principles such as human rights and democracy. It is, they believe, the poisoned dagger that will bleed their systems to death.
Although their role in the past was to support revolutionary movements around the world, their role is currently limited to thwarting the revolutions that are erupting in Ukraine, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other surrounding countries.
Their theory: that these are revolutions moved by hidden American-European hands. Therefore, they must be dealt with swiftly and not allowed to rise again. Kazakhstan is another example of this defensive role, where Russia intervened in a decisive manner. Russia and China agree on this theory and realize that allowing Ukraine to go easily to the West means that Taiwan will be next.
Ukraine and Taiwan are not important themselves, but their loss is catastrophic, as it means the expansion of the Western liberal order at their expense, i.e., the erosion of their influence and power. Therefore, it is not surprising that Putin has amassed 100,000 troops on the border of his neighbor Ukraine, and threatens to invade it if it joins NATO. Same for the angry Chinese tone in response to any Western statements of support for Taiwan.
The conflict now is like walking on the edge of a precipice, but it will shape the world in the coming decades. The rise of the United States came after World War II, at which time all international institutions were established, from the World Bank to global trade that aligns with its new vision of the world. President Putin believes that the hegemony of the United States has grown stronger after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the greatest manifestation of this unilateral power was the war to liberate Kuwait when America gathered many forces on its side without opposition from anyone. After that, we saw individual interventions in Kosovo, Belgrade, Iraq, and other countries up until the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which constituted the clearest picture of the existence of a single global power. Only one pole shapes the world in its liberal image and leverages - according to the Russians and Chinese - human rights, democracy and freedom as pretexts for military intervention if necessary.
The humiliating exit from Afghanistan and the withdrawal from Iraq, was seen by Washington's enemies as the beginning of the erosion of the American system. That is why new regimes must be imposed and the poles re-polarized on the international stage.
It will use brute force to abort any suspicious movements and will increase its military capabilities, as China does in the South China Sea, where it has established many military bases.
The desired form of the new order from Moscow and Beijing is for the world to be divided into spheres of influence for each power that should not be touched. It is necessary to shift the United States to its own sphere of influence, and to make it an Atlantic power only. We see this in the resort to force, but also in ideas, global systems are also based on political and cultural ideas that can be marketed. Westerners talk about human rights, but the Russians and Chinese talk about cultures or civilizations that develop on their own, with their different contexts, and on which foreign agendas cannot be imposed in order to destabilize them.
The question is can Russia do that? In other words, can it challenge the current system and create its own coherent system? That is unlikely, given the size of the Russian economy, which is close to the Italian economy. That is why it does not have the capabilities to implant, protect and sustain a system. But it can do this in alliance with China, as the two nations agree theoretically, politically and militarily on one goal, which is to curb American influence and end the monopoly.
China has a population of more than 1.4 billion; it will soon be the largest economy in the world and its military power is relentlessly increasing. Comparing the two, Russia is reacting to Western harassment and wants to appear as a great power despite its limited capabilities, unlike China, which operates in an expansive, slow and steady strategic manner without abrupt military interventions, and realizes that history is working in its favor in the end. All these indicators say that the world in the coming years and decades will enter into major conflicts between these powers to extend their influence and impose their hegemony on the world. As for Kissinger's wish to integrate China into the Western world order, it is too late.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.