In the world order now emerging, it is genuinely strong nations that will prevail over those reliant on power alone, and force will have little to do with it.
Vladimir Putin’s speech from the Kremlin last Friday, delivered to the nation and the world as four regions of Ukraine were reintegrated into Russia, was another stunner, in line with numerous others he’s made this year, demonstrating a fundamental turn in the Russian president’s thinking over the past eight months.
The implications of this new perspective warrant careful consideration. Putin has taken to looking forward and seeing something new, and in this he is hardly alone.
“The world has entered a period of a fundamental, revolutionary transformation,” Putin said while standing beside the leaders of the Luhansk and Donetsk republics and the Kherson and Zaporozhye regions. Phrases such as this bear the weight of history. By way of magnitude, presidential speeches do not get any larger. Here is how the Russian leader expanded on the thought:
“New centers of power are emerging. They represent the majority — the majority! — of the international community. They are ready not only to declare their interests but also to protect them. They see in multipolarity an opportunity to strengthen their sovereignty, which means gaining genuine freedom, historical prospects, and the right to their own independent, creative, and distinctive forms of development, to a harmonious process.”
Putin has been speaking in this register since Feb. 4, 20 days before Russia launched its intervention in Ukraine and on the eve of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. In the Joint Declaration on International Relations Entering a New Era and Global Sustainable Development, issued with Xi Jinping, Putin and the Chinese president declared, “Today the world is going through momentous changes,”
“and humanity is entering a new era of rapid development and profound transformation. There is increasing interrelation and interdependence between the States; a trend has emerged toward redistribution of power in the world.”
Putin’s rhetoric has grown markedly sharper from February to last Friday. He has attacked the European Union for its “selfishness” and cowardice, the U.S. for its hegemonic aggression, including the genocide of Native Americans, and the West altogether for the “neocolonial” character of its relations with the non–West. Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, used to refer to Western nations as “our partners.” As of last Friday, yesterday’s partners are Russia’s “enemies.”
All very grim. Putin has made this turn toward confrontation reluctantly and out of frustration with the West’s obstinate refusal to negotiate the new security order that Europe so obviously needs. He is angry at the spectacle of wasteful violence and prolonged disorder. This is my read. But there is a certain brightness to his outlook that we must not miss amid the bleak, evident animosity.
“Global politics and economy are about to undergo fundamental and irreversible changes,” Putin asserted again, this time at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Council, held in Samarkand last month, “not based on some rules forced on [us] by external forces and which nobody has seen, but on universally recognized principles of the rule of international law and the U.N. Charter, namely, equal and indivisible security and respect for each other’s sovereignty, national values, and interests.”
In his Moscow address, he said: “They do not wish us freedom, but they want to see us as a colony. They want not equal cooperation, but robbery. They want to see us not as a free society, but as a crowd of soulless slaves.”
“Western countries have been repeating for centuries that they bring freedom and democracy to other peoples. Everything is exactly the opposite: instead of democracy – suppression and exploitation; instead of freedom – enslavement and violence. The entire unipolar world order is inherently anti-democratic and not free, it is deceitful and hypocritical through and through.
Let me also remind you that the United States, together with the British, turned Dresden, Hamburg, Cologne and many other German cities into ruins without any military necessity during World War II. And this was done defiantly, without any, I repeat, military necessity. There was only one goal: just like in the case of the nuclear bombings in Japan, to intimidate both our country and the whole world. …
The US dictate is based on brute force, on fist law. Sometimes beautifully wrapped, sometimes without any wrapper, but the essence is the same – fist law. The collapse of Western hegemony that has begun is irreversible. And I repeat again: it will not be the same as before.”
This kind of talk is daring. It is a million miles from anything you will hear from any of America’s purported leaders, lacking all vision as they do. What is Putin talking about if not a new era in world history, the kind that gets its own chapters in the history texts of the future? What will distinguish this new era, we have to ask.
There are various ways to interpret what Putin, Xi, and their allies among non–Western nations are working toward. In my view, they draw a distinction none has put into words but which is nonetheless essential to their vision: There are strong nations and there are the merely powerful. In the world order as we have it the powerful dominate — ever more evidently by force alone. In the world order now emerging, it is genuinely strong nations that will at last prevail over those reliant on power alone, and force will have little to do with it.
I have distinguished between the strong and the powerful since my years serving as a correspondent in East Asia, long back. The Vietnamese, the South Koreans, the Chinese in their way, even the Japanese in theirs: In these nations I saw a durability and coherence that had nothing to do with the size of their armies and air forces.
What was it that made them strong? The answers, of which many, came to me only after years of considering the question. I do not consider the answers anything like complete.
Strong nations serve their people as their primary responsibility. This is where I begin as I characterize them. They have a purpose, a telos, as the ancient Greeks put it, and a shared belief in the worth of their ideal. They have a commitment to advancing the well-being of their citizens — to constructive action in the interest of the commonweal. They value their cultures, their histories, their memories.
These common characteristics confer on strong nations solid but flexible social fabrics and an assumed sense of shared community. They are a source of identity and at the same time expressions of identity.
Ironically, strength of the kind I describe tends to generate power. But it is power judiciously deployed. Genuinely strong nations have no need to dominate others. They are ungiven to subterfuge or subversion, seeing no purpose in it. They value mutual benefit in their relations with others simply because this is the surest way to stability and a peaceful order.
Let us not traffic in impossible ideals or in the thought of nations as pure as snow. There are none. A strong nation may have many things about it that are not to be admired — awful things, even. A strong nation may also be powerful. China is such a case. I am of the view — and I realize there are others — that China does not use its power to malign purpose. Remove the Sinophobia and anti–Chinese paranoia, and the record supports this.
In the same unscientific fashion, let us consider the merely powerful.
Nations dependent on power alone lack the coherence found among the strong. In them you find that all relations are power relations. The social fabric is in consequence frayed. There is an evident atomization among the citizens of these nations, leaving them with no social bonds or common purpose and nothing to believe in.
When a nation’s ethos tips toward the pursuit of power, the polity is hollowed out. All the familiar social ills proceed from this — inequality, corruption, greed, and the collapse of mediating institutions through which people are able to express their political will.
The rampant, perverse corporatization of every aspect of life in unduly powerful nations represents the institutionalization of these characteristics. When everything is measured according to its potential to turn profit, we have to say that Margaret Thatcher was horribly right when she asserted, “There is no society. There are only individuals.” This is a key feature of nations that are merely powerful.
They are gatherings of survivors in constant struggle against one another.
The merely powerful consume what remains of their strength in the course of exercising their power. An example of this is the censorship regime that descends upon America like a long, dark cloud.
As digital media corporations act at Washington’s behest to control what can be said in public, they do more, much more, than impose an information monoculture upon Americans. This is the use of power to intrude on the full range of our interpersonal relations.
They are telling me what I can and cannot say to you. In this way they are destroying public discourse, and, in nations where we find it— not all — a vibrant public discourse conducted in public space ranks among the important sources of strength. They are also destroying people’s abilities to discern, to think, and to judge for themselves — another source of a nation’s strength. In strong nations that curtail free speech — and there most certainly are some — culture and tradition nonetheless strengthen communities, and leadership often uses them for this purpose.
This is how the exercise of power leads to the disintegration of the nation wherein power alone counts.
The US: A Once Strong Nation
Maybe it is obvious by now that I count the United States the premier example of a nation that is powerful but lacking in strength. There is no anti–American sentiment in this. It is simply because the exercise of power at the expense of strength is more advanced in the U.S., with its excessive corporatization and its excessive dependence on technology as an instrument of power, than anywhere else on earth.
When Jefferson and the signers wrote, debated, and sent the Declaration of Independence to George III to advise of their intent, they were announcing a strong nation, bound together in purpose and faith in itself — strong but hardly powerful. It has been this nation’s long, persistent abandonment of its founding ideals, ever accelerated as its pursuit of power came to dominate, that has rendered it weak.
The paradox: As America determined to make itself a world power, beginning with the Spanish–American War in 1898, it has steadily lost its strength in the way I use the term.
Power, as exercised by the merely powerful, acts primarily in the cause of its own self-preservation. It is thus put to malign purpose, deployed to the detriment of others, and is almost invariably a destructive force. Among its objectives is the destruction of the strengths of others.
Vietnam is a clear case. As they waged war against the Vietnamese people, U.S. forces infamously set about “destroying the village to save it”—that is, to shred the fabric of Vietnamese society so as to defeat it. American forces have since done the same elsewhere — in Syria, for instance, in Libya, in Iraq. You don’t have to approve of any given feature of these societies to recognize that what has been fundamentally at issue was their coherence, those ineffable things that bound them together as one even if it was a fractious unity. This is why we can now speak of these nations as “broken.”
We should consider the Ukraine conflict from this perspective — the wanton, useless destruction, I mean. And we should think about what it is the U.S. most wants to destroy as it presses its campaign to destroy Russia.
Then we can think again about Putin’s speeches over these past months, and the sentiments in them that many other nations—“the majority!”—share. I have long found Putin’s speeches, all available on the Kremlin web site, worth reading: Whatever else one may think of him, he has an excellent grasp of history and the dynamics of international relations.
In my read, the change that has come over the Russian leader dates to last December, when the U.S. threw sand in his face in response to his effort, via those two draft treaties Moscow sent to Washington and NATO headquarters in Brussels, to fashion a new security order in Europe. That is when his anger arose.
That is when he said in effect, To hell with them. We will have to build a new world order on our own. China, by that time, had already given up on the West, and it was then the Russians and Chinese took their great leap forward together.
I am sure they share large measures of bitterness and anger as they look back over their deteriorated relations with the West. It is what they see looking forward that interests me far more. They are not talking about power as the principal feature of the order they now appear fully committed to realizing. They are talking about a world built by strong nations with shared purposes.
These are all in the speeches: the freedom of nations one to the other, the right to choose “forms of development,” interdependence, the authority of international law.
What is the raw pursuit of power next to these?
Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored. Support his work via his Patreon site. His web site is Patrick Lawrence.