From the end of the Second World War in 1945 to the fall in 1989 of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, the major global powers, led by the United States and the USSR, were locked in an ideological and geopolitical struggle.
The triumph of the United States and the cause of liberal democratic capitalism were undoubtedly aided by the relative economic strength of the leading combatants. In 1989 the US economy accounted for more than 27 percent of global GDP, the USSR for around 3.6 percent.
In respect of economic development the recent fate of the two greatest communist powers, Russia and China, have been very different. Russia stagnated, despite its oil wealth. China grew, enormously.
However, in terms of ideology neither state would now be endorsed, or even recognised as communist by Karl Marx.
Russia is authoritarian nationalist† and could plausibly be described as a gangster state with a penchant for meddling in overseas democratic elections.
The leaders of China’s ruling communist party have to manage political messaging more carefully. Their spectacular economic growth owes more to former leader Deng Xiao Ping’s observation that ‘it does not matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice’ than it does to Das Kapital. They are communist in name only.
Despite these deviations from Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, legitimacy is conferred by three magic words ‘…with Chinese characteristics’, enabling the accumulation of vast wealth by a few while lifting millions from poverty.
Xi Jinping’s China is fundamentally an authoritarian nationalist regime (like Russia), with a huge economy (unlike Russia) and global aspirations that are strategic, unlike President Putin’s policies that are basically opportunistic. It is a challenge to which the current US administration has neither an ideological nor a strategic response.
The financial crisis of 2008/2009 has been a major contributor to disillusionment with capitalism, as has wage stagnation for many in the West, and a widening sense that elites however defined are out of touch with those they govern.
The awareness that capitalism is in crisis was encapsulated by a leader on 23 October in the Financial Times headlined ‘Business Must help Fix the Failures of Capitalism’. Capitalists, like Marxists, look increasingly discredited.
Yet nationalism, a possible alternative ideology – if it can be termed as such – is a fragile beast, evidenced by the events in Catalonia, the demands for greater autonomy in Lombardy and Veneto, the chaos in the Middle East, separatism in the UK, and in the recent past the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the division of Czechoslovakia. Even China is highly sensitive about national territorial integrity, notably in respect of Taiwan, Tibet and to a far lesser extent, Hong Kong.
National sentiment may be reinforced by a growing national economy, inertia, a collective sense of history and culture, strong and respected leadership, an external threat, or any combination of these.
But there are countervailing tribal interests and loyalties that weaken the concept of national unity, such as racial prejudice, religious differences, cultural and ethnic differences, regional imbalances, rural versus city interests, perceived unfairness in the division of national wealth, incompetent or weak government.
Such tribal issues – often advanced with passion, occasionally with violence and from time to time with scant regard for constitutional norms – make the definition of the national interest almost impossible, thereby weakening governments. They are the primary drivers of populism and the enemies of the liberal democratic order.
In the UK, supporters of Brexit, those committed to the UK’s exit from the European Union, clash vituperatively with those who support continued membership. There is no room for compromise between the two sides on the principle and very little either on the mechanism of the UK’s departure.
President Trump is attempting to make America Great Again by reducing overseas entanglements he regards as too costly or harmful to US interests, based on promises he made to his populist base during the election campaign.
However, his administration is currently trying to patch an agreement between its allies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar; reduce the influence of Iran in the Middle East, while simultaneously seeking to persuade China to solve US problems with North Korea. To date, all three initiatives are failing.
This confirms great powers cannot withdraw from foreign entanglements. It also shows that if you do try to withdraw your ability to influence overseas outcomes is greatly diminished.
The residual international influence, so-called soft power, of the United States based on its values as a nation has largely been destroyed by the erratic behaviour and compulsive lying of the US President.
It is possible that a future US president may claw back some of the influence that Trump has so thoughtlessly destroyed.
Nervous NATO members will still seek reassurances of protection from potential Russian aggression. But they will also be creating other strategic relationships in pursuit of trading opportunities and economic growth.
Winston Churchill once said that ultimately the US always ‘does the right thing’. That trust has been lost.
Diminished confidence in US leadership will not be the only problem for western leaders. Climate change, continuing migration and the disruptive force of artificial intelligence will further challenge their competence and legitimacy.
Under popular pressure, amid strategic uncertainty and with their ideological convictions subject to doubt they will inevitably look east, where China to date has avoided the potential pitfalls of a nationalist policy. In doing so, Western leaders will be at one with Deng Xiao Ping in their complete indifference to the colour of a cat.
† National Authoritarianism is a form of government in which a leader regards him or herself as the embodiment of the national interest defined by suspicion of foreigners and foreign countries. Internal opponents of the leadership are either derided, misrepresented or persecuted, often without regard to legal or constitutional protections. For such leaders, they define truth, not facts.