Saturday, 9 October 2010

Who Really 'Won' the Cold War?

I remember back in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was broken through.  I had just returned to the UK from living West Germany; ironically, whilst there, I had focused far more on the rise of the far right Republikaner party which no-one seems to remember now, rather than being interested in the collapse of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe.  Anyway, this was seem as the symbolic step in what had been a process that had really been going on for almost five years then, triggered by Mikhail Gorbachev becoming head of the USSR in 1985.  Things moved quickly and with Hungary opening its borders to the West in 1989 the Iron Curtain was breached and though the Communist regime in East Germany clung on its days were numbered.  Incredibly by 1991 East Germany and West Germany had been reunited ending the situation in Central Europe which had prevailed really from 1945.  The changes had been so momentous that in 1991 historian Francis Fukuyama declared that we had reached 'the end of history' because with the collapse of the Soviet bloc it appeared that liberal democracy (wedded to capitalism) had 'won' the Cold War.  Of course, Fukuyama was rather too wrapped up in the jubilation of the end of the European Communist regimes that he neglected the fact that millions of, in fact more than a billion, people remained under the control of right-wing or left-wing dictatorships that had no truck with liberal democracy.  I believe Fukuyama aimed to be ostentatious in his language in order to startle people and get them to reflect on actually what was happening in the world at the time.  Certainly I can remember no other article in 'The National Interest' journal (it became the backbone of the book, 'The End of History and the Last Man' (1992)) being discussed 18 years later.  If you search for Fukuyama, most search engines have 'the end of history' appended automatically to his name.

In some ways Fukuyama is almost turning traditional Marxism on its head.  Karl Marx argued that human society would naturally progress through a series of socio-economic phases such as feudalism, mercantilism and capitalism before inevitably reaching socialism.  For Marx, technology especially in industry drove this process on which is why he anticipated the first socialist revolutions occurring not in relatively industrially backward Russia, let alone China, Korea and Cuba, but in Germany and Britain, the leading industrial states of his time.  Fukuyama also sees a role for technology for moving world society on, but it worries him as he sees humans as in fact unable to control the technology they create properly.  Perhaps this was encouraged by the environmental impact of air and water pollution and the Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster of 1986.  However, basically Fukuyama saw liberal democracy as the most robust and appropriate system for human society and felt it inevitable that eventually the whole world would end up using it; thus the end of the Soviet bloc was a key step of this in moving millions of people away from rule by totalitarian dictatorship.

Of course, Fukuyama proved to be only partially right.  Democracy in parts of Eastern Europe was as weak as it had been in the 1920s and 1930s, you only have to look at the Yugoslav War 1991-5 and the decline of democracy in the Russian Federation in the era of Vladimir Putin.  Even the USA, seen in 1989 as the 'victor' of the Cold War, has shown how feeble the 'liberal' element of liberal democracy can be with its use since 2001 of illegal detention and widespread implementation of torture; something the UK has also participated despite supposedly having the 'mother of parliaments' (half of which, of course, is unelected).  Fukuyama's largest oversight is in connection with China.  Critiques of Fukuyama's line, notably from Israeli academic Azar Gat, points to regimes of authoritarian capitalism and this certainly seems to be how we can characterise contemporary China.

Part of the problem is that too many people in the West, especially at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall still seemed to cling to the views of Friedrich Hayek, who in 'The Road to Serfdom' (1944) basically argued that unless you had a free market economy you could not have democracy.  This was aimed not really at the Nazi and the Communist states being formed but at those in Western capitalist countries, not only as a consequence of the Second World War, but also in seeking a way to avoid a return to the Depression of the 1930s saw a greater role for the state in organising the economy.  I believe Hayek feared that in the post-war world Roosevelt's New Deal economic approach would persist and go even further.  He was to be alarmed by the economic direction and planning adopted briefly in Britain and more extensively in France in the late 1940s onwards, as he felt such an approach would inevitably condemn democracy in these countries.  As France has proven he was wrong.  China has also now proven the opposite, that a free market economy need make no impact on a country's steps to democracy.  It is interesting to read books written in the 1990s which seem to see the destruction of the Chinese democracy movement at Tiananmen Square in 1989 as a futile step against an unstoppable force.  Read a copy of 'China A New History' by John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman, published in the 1990s.  The late Fairbank had anticipated no change in China's political structure and Goldman who took up the work was almost patronising in seeing this as an out-of-date, Cold War attitude, and instead believed that change towards democracy simply had to come as China became more capitalist.  The book has been revised in 2006 and I wonder if Goldman has changed her tune yet.  It is ironic that even Taiwan which has been a capitalist state since gaining independence from Japan in 1945, only became a democratic state in 1996.

The Cold War is usually seen as having started around 1948 stemming from tensions predominantly between the USA and USSR over their respective spheres of influence across the world.  It was given an added dimension by the two states having different economic and political systems: the USSR Communism and a centrally planned economy and the USA democracy and an economy that was generally unplanned.  However, the phase 1948-89 can be seen as an episode in a longer running and more complex conflict, curiously, probably most accurately perceived by the planners of Imperial Germany in the lead up to the First World War.  This perception of the Cold War is that as technology advances, conflict between continental empires is inevitable as each battles for control of the resources it needs.  The arena in which Russia and the USA were expected to conflict was the Pacific, especially over dominance in China.  At the turn of the 20th century the Kaiser and his advisors felt that unless Germany could secure dominance of the bulk of Europe then it would always be beholden to one of the world powers, which at the time were seen as the British Empire, the USA, and potentially Russia if it could modernise quickly enough.  Japan's colonial activities from 1895-1945 can be seen as being motivated by a similar uneasy perception of the world of the late 20th century.

To a great degree the German view of the 1900s came true with the post-1945 era.  They had overlooked that colonial empires could not continue to be sustained, something they should have realised from the crumbling of the Ottoman empire and weakness of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the late 19th century.  However, at the time, overseas colonialism and subjugating different nationalities was seen as the norm.  Even if it had not been exhausted by two world wars, the British empire would have dissolved as did the French and the Dutch empires and, I imagine, would have the Japanese empire, if somehow it had persisted beyond 1945.  For the 20th century and beyond it was to be contigous empires with a clearly dominant nationality of a single ethnicity with its language the one used right across its lands.  This meant Russia, the USA and, of course, China.  In the 1920s and 1930s it looked like China would remain fragmented, but there was too much common culture and too much desire for a unified state to allow this situation to persist.   Napoleon I, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Sir Winston Churchill all foresaw the strength of China if it could be a united country and 'awoke', i.e. engaged with the modern world rather than tried to ignore it as it had tended to do so at its peril during the the mid to late 19th century.

As I have noted before, until the 1970s, in the West, China was the overlooked element of the Cold War, which certainly from 1950 onwards was about three superpowers not just two.  Especially in the 1960s when the USA worried about a nuclear Third World War between it and the USSR we could easily have suffered one between the USSR and China.  One can argue if the perceived ideological divisions were really as strict as they were seen at the time.  Yes, of course, you could live a freer life in the USA than in the USSR or even now in China.  However, Maoism diverged as far from Marxism as Stalinism did and Hitlerism did from Fascism.  All of these political creeds were dressing for the assertion of power.  Democracies tend to diffuse that assertion of power and so far, even though not always entirely effective, have watered down the control of the population by the privileged and wealthy.  This was why the George W. Bush regime was so alarming as it seemed to side-step such safeguards as effectively as many Chinese Communist Party officials were able to side-step centralised economic control to make lots of money in China.  The conflict may have seemed ideological, but I believe stripping away the rhetoric, it owes more to the competition between the rulers of the different continental powers.

Since the crushing of the Tiananmen Square demonstration in 1989 we have seen no steps in China towards democracy.  It is nominally a Communist state, but it appears to be that only in name.  Supposed equality of opportunity for all, lack of discrimination of women or for people of particular social or ethnic backgrounds, may have been weak in the Communist states, but they have entirely gone from China of 2010 and people have as little chance to progress as they do in any capitalist state.  Centralised economic planning does not work effectively.  It works temporarily to fight a war, but will never sustain a country in prosperity even on the diminished terms supposedly sought by Communist regimes.  This was what the period 1985-9 proved beyond doubt and this is why the European Communist bloc regimes fell.  Abutting or near to states where democracy was comparatively strong, these countries went towards that political system assuming, as Hayek had noted, that it was necessary for prosperity.  In their case many of the states got political freedom, but the prosperity has yet to come even when buoyed up by EU aid and jobs in Western Europe.  China also shed quite a bit of its centralised economic system and this brought it prosperity with it having no need to change its political system which is really no different today than when Mao Zedong died in 1976. 

The danger for the world is that China has become so rich and powerful that it is now behaving just as all the superpowers did in the 1970s.  China, the USA and USSR all tried to export their ideology and economic control into the Third World.  China has gone back to Africa, but to Asia and South America too, and has even began economically penetrating Western nations, to secure the resources it feels it needs.  It whines on about how it has always been the victim of imperialism and how it needs aid to combat environmental damage and yet, its output now exceeds Japan and it has more financial reserves than the entire US economy.  It is a neo-imperial power just the same as the USA is.  It favours regimes which follow its political system, so while the USA struggles to establish some kind of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, China supports harsh dictatorships in Sudan and Zimbabwe.

In 1989 one round of the Cold War came to an end.  Just as Britain had been downed in 1918 and knocked out in 1945, the USSR was sent from the arena in 1989.  This leaves the two remaining superpowers still facing each other and China is clearly in the lead.  Despite all the joy at the 'end' of the Cold War that the values embraced by the USA and its allies had triumphed, this was a premature celebration.  One competitor in the challenge not only for the dominant ideology of the world, but economic dominance, especially of raw materials, had been knocked out, but the bout has continued.  The interim score in 1989 was not a clear US victory as far too many people believed, it was: China 1st, USA 2nd, USSR 3rd.  Now were are in the throes of the run-off to see the ultimate winner.

I have often worked with Chinese people from both the People's Republic and from Taiwan and see nothing inherent in the Chinese nature which is anti-democratic.  However, the same could have been said, I imagine for many people from the USSR or Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, but that did not stop those states being unacceptable, and, of course, like all dictatorships, oppressing their own people before turning on others.  Whilst I am no fan of the USA, I am certainly on the side of freedoms and democracy.  However, I believe that whereas once the focus was on opposing the threats to these, attention has gone away from the key threat to these values and greed has encouraged too many states to trade with China, without recognising the risk it still presents to our way of life.  Of course, as during the Cold War there are other threats, but too many policy makers have preferred to focus on Islamic fundamentalism because there is little that they can sell to or buy from such groups, especially as this approach has not taken hold in oil-rich states (it never did in Iraq, despite what Bush may have believed).  We need to wake up to the fact that we are still in a Cold War, and I fear that the side backing democracy is currently losing.  We need to reinforce democracy in the former Communist states, notably Russia and support it in India and boost it in Indonesia, if we are to have any hope of winning the final round of the Cold War.

3 comments:

Rooksmoor said...

David Cameron's visit to China last week showed how beholden the West has become to the country and how, even more than ever, sales come before any concern over human rights. 'The Economist' is warning of a spate of Chinese takeovers as finally the massive savings built up in the country over the past two decades are turned to buying up the economies of western states. This will limit these countries' freedom of action even further and they will be obliged to hold back from making even mild protests about China's behaviour for fear that the Chinese will shift their funds elsewhere and make more of that country's citizens unemployed.

What this means is 65 years after the West seemed to bring an end to widespread Fascist dictatorships and twenty years after many of the Communist ones came to an end, the dictatorial approach to running a state is now actually winning out.

China is a one-party state with an appalling human rights record, which supports similar states across the world. Its undemocratic approach using secret police and torture will increasingly be seen as at least tolerable if not acceptable. The example of the USA's readoption of torture under George W. Bush shows how easily this happens. China's 'victory' is a real blow for free speech, democract and the ending of torture across the world not only in China itself.

I have no problem with Chinese people themselves, as I have never had a problem with Russian or German people, but we need to oppose the Chinese regime in the way we opposed those of the USSR and Nazi Germany. Otherwise in the years to come ever more billions of people will be denied basic human rights.

Rooksmoor said...

One comment from an online contributor printed in 'The Guardian' back in January of this year has nagged at me for the past few weeks. The commentator condemned the fact that 2011 would see more best-selling books written by White men, without the ability to read Chinese, warning of the threat of China to the rest of the World.

That kind of attitude, that simply because someone cannot read the language of a country, they should be prevented from warning of its very obvious behaviour, is an incredibly dangerous one and plays right into the hands of dictatorships like China.

I can read some Chinese and have attended numerous lectures by Chinese people and researchers of other nations who are looking into what is going on in China. This has enabled me to understand a range of issues such as increasing sexism in China, nationalistic attitudes in the popular Chinese media, the extent of internet penetration into rural China and the rapid increase of Chinese consumption of luxury goods.

However, none of us need to have even that level of engagement with China to know it is a risk to the rest of the World. It takes minimal efforts to conceal its appaling human rights record and no effort to conceal its imprisonment of protestors. China is a member of the World Trade Organisation and its trading figures, levels of reserves and the artificial pegging of its currency are all public knowledge.

Knowing these things alone is enough to know that China is dangerous. It is a totalitarian dictatorship which is taking no steps towards democracy and is busily buying up resources across the World. You do not need to read Chinese to know this. In fact official Chinese publications, the only kind which come out of China, would try to paint a very different, highly inaccurate picture.

No-one needed to speak German to know Hitler was a danger; no-one needed to understand Khmer to understand that Pol Pot was carrying out genocide nor Serbo-Croat to comprehend the atrocities that happened as Yugoslavia dissolved. China is an unpleasant country whose power is growing year by year. It has a very arrogant attitude and sees nothing wrong in the combination of its rapid informal imperialism and its denial of human rights. It supports other regimes with similar records.

Do not let people tell you that you have to understand any particular language to recognise the true danger of a regime. All you need is to be human and have an affinity for other humans.

yellowdingo said...

Fanaticism, cruelty, ignorance and lawlessness won the cold war. They are still making gains in every nation and conflict today, So the War to oppose them will never be over. Mainly because the wars that are happening now are being perpetrated on all sides by those who support these belief systems as acceptable.