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East/West: Analysis From Washington -- The End Of The Post-Cold War Era

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 11 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's delivery of two modern warships to China this week is the clearest indication yet that the post-Cold War era is rapidly coming to an end and that the world is rapidly moving into a new and potentially more dangerous period.

This action--which involved the sale of two $800 million destroyers--suggests that Moscow's reentry onto the geopolitical playing field will increasingly be directed at challenging the United States. That in turn implies that this re-entry will consist of Russian efforts to mobilize others disturbed by or angry at American power around the world.

And perhaps most disturbingly of all, this sale suggests that Moscow and its new allies will increasingly focus on military and economic strength rather than on any extension of democratic values -- the values many in the West had thought were the defining principles of development in the post-Cold War world.

Over the six months, Moscow and Beijing have entered into an ever closer strategic relationship. Despite past differences, including military clashes in 1969, the two are now coordinating their military doctrines and staging joint exercises. And 2,000 Russian scientists and technicians now work in Chinese military research institutions.

Some have dismissed these activities, especially the sale of military equipment, as an example of Russia's continuing search for hard currency and China's inability to produce cutting edge military goods. And many more have suggested that tensions between the two may ultimately drive them apart.

Both these perspectives may ultimately prove to be the case. But when put in the context of other recent Russian actions, the latest Russian sale appears to be part of a broader strategy.

Ever more often in recent months, Moscow has sought to challenge the United States -- in Kosovo by its unexpected troop movements to Pristina last year, in Iran and Iraq, and especially in Europe. Such a stance plays well among many Russians angry at their current situation and eager to find someone to blame.

Moreover, it has distinct foreign policy advantages. Many other countries are angry at the sole remaining superpower and are only too willing to band together with a country that promises to end what Moscow calls the current unipolar world. China certainly fits in this category, but so do Iran, Iraq, Libya, Cuba, and even some West European states.

Moreover, this policy does not necessarily compromise Russia's relationship with Western donor countries. Many of these governments are prone to explain away Russian excesses by suggesting that Moscow is playing to a domestic constituency with its nationalistic behavior or by noting that Russia is not the power it once was.

And few of them are willing to impose any sanctions on Russian behavior out of a fear that such sanctions could backfire. Thus, even while decrying specific actions, these government are likely to continue to provide assistance in the hopes that Moscow will change direction or that at least some reforms there will continue.

Given this situation, Moscow has a relatively free hand to try to promote ties with these aggrieved countries and thus assume a leadership defined primarily by opposition to the United States.

But this role increasingly appears to include not only a geopolitical dimension but a political one as well, not only opposition to American power around the world but also opposition to ideas like liberal democracy which many associate with the United States.

With the exception of Western Europe, where Moscow so far has had the least success in currying favor, all of the countries Moscow has been reaching out to as part of this strategy are opposed to the democratic ideals many had thought triumphant after 1989 and 1991.

Some of them argue that they must pursue economic reform first. Others argue that they have a special third way to the future. But all are antagonistic to the values of liberal democracy.

Because of its current weakness and because of the strength and attractiveness to many of American values, Moscow is unlikely to succeed in this attempt. Indeed, many of its own people are likely to oppose it.

But even if the Russian government does not succeed, its effort to move in this direction appears likely to end the optimism of the post-Cold War world and to lead ever more people to search for a more adequate description of a more competitive and more dangerous geopolitical system.