Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday, 16 February 2022

 In their excesses, Putin and Xi might be unwittingly saving the West

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Feb. 4. (Li Tao/Xinhua via AP)
Opinion by David Von Drehle
February 16 at 4:38 am Taiwan Time
The Western alliance that was created from the wreckage of World War II ushered in a period of great-power stability and shared prosperity unmatched since the Roman Empire. It enriched not only the United States but its friends, too. And not just its friends but also its defeated enemies. Germany and Japan, ruined by the war, became economic and cultural titans.
So thoroughly successful has this partnership been that generations have grown up in blithe ignorance of it. Global order — the blessing so fatally absent in the first half of the 20th century — became a sort of public utility, like tap water or electricity. The builders of dams and stringers of wires never forget their feats of engineering. But their children forget, and their children’s children, until no one is left to wonder at the coffee maker and the toasted bagel.
Forgetfulness about the infrastructure of stability has been epidemic in recent years. Isolationist, nationalist and subversive movements have blazed throughout the West. Americans elected a president, Donald Trump, loudly skeptical of NATO and free trade. Britain voted to leave the European Union. Hate-filled marches resumed in Germany. France picked up its discredited flirtation with fascists. And so on.
About 75 years after the Western alliance was built, only two people on Earth, it seemed, could save it from decadence. They are the two people who most hate the alliance. History might be poised for an ironic turn: Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping bumbling to the rescue of the West.
Putin and Xi must have thought their joint appearance at the Winter Olympics would ring in the era of the non-West, the end of Pax Americana. Thumbing their noses, the Russian president massed forces around Ukraine while the Chinese premier tightened his tyranny and threatened Taiwan.
Time will tell — but at first examination, these are spectacular miscalculations. Start with Xi. He has turned his triumphal Olympics into a dystopia. Having a Uyghur athlete lead the Chinese team into the Games, while 1 million or more Uyghurs are imprisoned, intimidated or enslaved, only emphasized the government’s cynicism. Its brutality bled through the obviously scripted whitewash that tennis star Peng Shuai, announcing her retirement, delivered for global TV (as government minders hovered over her). Athletes from around the world arrived in Beijing with “burner” phones to protect themselves from surveillance. Meanwhile, by its own measures, China is seeing its formerly fearsome economic growth cool.
Fake snow, dirty air, forced confessions, enslaved minorities: Xi’s Oppression Olympics are an ongoing advertisement for the Western alliance, far more effective than any pitch aired during the Super Bowl. And when the torch goes out, Hong Kong will remain as an object lesson in the suffocating fate that awaits free people sucked into Beijing’s orbit.
Xi is an impatient tyrant, eager to declare himself ruler for life on the basis of his victory over the West. In his haste, however, he has reminded the world what a Chinese superpower really means — and why a strong alliance of democracies is necessary as an alternative.
[Opinion: The crisis in Ukraine is one for the history books]
As the skaters cut their figures and the curlers swept their ice, the increasingly isolated kleptocrat Putin cranked his armies ever closer to the border of Ukraine. The threat of Europe’s largest military action on land since 1945 turns out to be exactly what was needed to rouse the West from its dangerous backsliding. Thanks to Putin, squabbling members of NATO are suddenly singing from the same song sheet again.
Germany appears ready to cut its dependence on Russian natural gas. Britain appears ready to squeeze the looted fortunes Russian oligarchs have stashed in London. If Russia begins an unprovoked, needless war in Ukraine, it will force Europe to choose sides — and no one wants to wager on demographically dying Russia.
There is a phenomenon known as “lucid dreaming,” in which the sleeper becomes aware that a dream is in progress. When the dream is a nightmare, this realization can come as an enormous relief: You aren’t falling toward your death; your loved one isn’t lost; you haven’t just made an irrevocable mistake.
In a sense, the alliance of democracies had fallen into a fitful sleep. What began as a happy dream of perpetual peace at the end of the Cold War changed in recent years to a nightmare of Stalinist ambitions in Russia and Communist empire-building in China. But in their excesses, Putin and Xi are rousing the West to a new lucidity.
There is a path forward that neither caves in to tyranny nor invites global war: a strong, determined teamwork on behalf of liberty and the rule of law. Putin and Xi believe the West no longer has the will to achieve this. Their overreach has tripped the alarm.

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